“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Roosevelt announced in 1933, evoking a stiff-upper-lip kind of courage meant to assure a nation in the throes of the Depression. And we have repeated this ever since, as if by banishing fear we could overcome it.
Ask any group of children about courage, though, and they may offer a different wisdom. Courage, they may say, is an attitude of “anyway.” It’s when you fear something will bring trouble or pain or embarrassment and you do it anyway.
Courage and fear, it turns out, are not opposites. Rather, they define and shape each other. Fear sets a boundary within which most of us pass most of our days. It separates what we name as safe from what we deem as threatening – and each of us draws that line differently. Courage, on the other hand, allows us to step across that boundary when life or love or a higher value or conviction demands it. It beckons us to act anyway, knowing full well we are stepping toward risk or danger, which requires knowing what our fears are in the first place.
Under FDR’s advice, we don’t get close enough to our fears to know them. Whistling our way along, pretending not to hear fear’s footsteps, we lose a key source of guidance. After all, fear is our built-in warning system. It taps us on the shoulder and says “Watch out! Pay attention!” It can be critical to survival. “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth,” says the Buddhist monk Pema Chodron. Why would we send it packing?
The root of the word courage is coeur or “heart.” In Buddhist teachings, the soft spot in the center of our heart is one of our greatest treasures, the seat of compassion where we find our connection to all other beings. The courage of the spiritual warrior is found not in the fearful act of armoring and protecting this tender spot. It is found by opening the heart wider.
“You faced the death bombs and bullets,” writes poet Ann Sexton, “. . . . with only a hat to cover your heart.” Now that’s courage. Dropping the armor that shields us from relationship and stepping deeper into the world anyway. Not guarded from vulnerability nor running from it but engaging in what is fearsome because our heart tells us to. David Whyte says, “Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.”
Notice, though, not all courage is inspired by love. There is courage present on the frontlines of the most unjust wars and causes. Courage can enable all kinds of terrible acts. Perhaps this explains the many Bible passages calling for “good courage” and expressed as imperatives: Fear not. Take good courage. Nowhere in these teachings, that I know of, does the word vulnerability appear, but we are told in the Gospels that “perfect love drives out fear.” We learn from Biblical and other wisdom teachings that courage is at its best when disciplined to pair with love, to harness the ego, and to align us with the interests of community and relationship and the earth itself.
What does courage look like in a time of pandemic? And in the chaotic disruption of unjust systems and unsustainable living? What do we mean by the “courage of our convictions” when living with so many unknowns? What does the “courage of our uncertainties” look like?
We are still wise to “take good courage.” To muster love in the face of fear. To be strong not by guarding ourselves or withdrawing into isolation, but by moving boldly toward one another, “with only a hat to cover our heart.”
Courage has been tucked into every one of us if we but learn to tap it and develop it – and then en-courage one another to do the same. Vulnerable and exposed, we are all invited to step over the lines of fear we have drawn around us, individually and in our communities of common values or identities. To move toward that brave place where we might truly and tenderly meet one another, hats off, hearts open, courageous open hands extended.