The highest medal in the U.S. is the Medal of Honor, an acknowledgement for courage and gallantry in battle. This value, courage, is respected and revered as one of the greatest qualities a person can have. But courage is not reserved to those who bravely put themselves in the line of fire. Courage is not the sole province of those who give their lives in the defense of others. There are acts of courage, great and small, that every person has the ability to achieve. They are found in the daily choices we are faced with, and our resoluteness when dealing with our fears.
Courage cannot exist where there is no fear. The quality of courage comes from overcoming fear, having the moral and mental fortitude to feel fear and, through self-control and resolve, push through the fear to accomplish the task. Cowardice, not fear, is the opposite of courage. It is giving in to the fear. Cowardice is choosing to do what is easy over what is right.
What may be most misunderstood about courage is that it is a quality built up over time, not something that magically comes to us in times of need. Like muscles, it must be exercised daily to prevent atrophy. To think that, in the words of Tim O’Brien, “if the stakes ever became high enough—if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough—I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years,” is a commonly held delusion. This thought only provides comfort, “it dispense[s] with all those bothersome little acts of daily courage.”
Certainly, our courage is tested every day. The most basic form of courage is the courage to face reality and be honest with yourself. Life does not go as planned. Sometimes we work jobs that do not satisfy us, stay in empty relationships and make ourselves subservient to the whims of fate. This is because we are afraid of the alternative. How will I support myself? What if I end up alone? What if something bad happens?
At times like this, we all too often let our fears decide our lives for us. We lack the courage to direct our own course. Complacency becomes the hiding place of cowardice until we cannot even acknowledge that we are unhappy. Even if you think that you cannot change your position, you must first acknowledge that you are not where you want to be. You must face your fear of the negative emotions that are buried underneath the surface. You must then acknowledge your fear of change. The thing that keeps you in a dead end job is your fear of the alternatives. Fear is emotional, and based entirely in perception. There is nothing scary inherent in darkness, only our relationship to it makes us afraid.
That is not to say there are no justified fears. Fear is a survival instinct. We fear lightning because it can kill us. We fear starting our own business because it may fail. We fear talking in front of groups because we may embarrass ourselves and loose social standing. We fear speaking the truth because it may not be received well.
However, even when you look at all the worst case scenarios, the alternative of living in fear is worse. When you allow fear to rule your life, you give up your free will and right to self-determination. You give up your freedom. Even if your fears are correct, even if you try and fail, you still have the freedom to try. That is your choice, and its value is far greater than any material failure that could occur. Once you find your courage to try, you will find that your fears seemed much larger than they really were.
At the end of the day, the only person who you can truly prove your worth to is yourself. If you know that you chose a hard path because it led where you want to go, you have already accomplished the most important task. Having the courage to be honest to yourself can never lead to failure, because in doing so, you have already won.
Steve Pavlina, The Courage to Live Consciously: http://www.stevepavlina.com/articles/courage-to-live-consciously.htm
Congressional Medal of Honor Society: http://www.cmohs.org/
The New York Times, Courage and Cowardice: http://www.nytimes.com/1861/08/14/news/courage-and-cowardice.html
Rielle Miller, Moral Courage: Definition and Development: http://www.ethics.org/files/u5/Moral_Courage_Definition_and_Development.pdf