What Is Courage?


By Troy Headrick

I want to tell you about a time in my life, now long passed, that I’ve been thinking a lot about in recent weeks.  The story I’m going to share says a lot about the nature of courage and about what it means to act courageously.

During the spring of 1993, after a very weird series of events, I found myself unemployed and on the government dole.  I was a newly-minted academician who had played by the rules:  I’d gone to school, paid my own way all the way through, gotten a really good education, graduated with honors, and been a pretty high achiever.  I thought all this would matter as I began to look for work.  I can’t tell you how hard I pounded the pavement in search of gainful employment.  I kept casting my baited hook out there but got almost no nibbles.  My frustration, as you can easily imagine, began to grow and grow.  Conversely, my feelings of self-worth began to shrink away.  When I wasn’t depressed, I was angry, and when I wasn’t red faced with anger at myself and the world, I felt down and out.

When people feel like a failure, as I certainly did during 1993, their natural tendency is to act a bit like an animal that has long been reaching for that delectable morsel of food but has been repeatedly thwarted in its attempt to get and consume that tidbit.  (Say, for instance, that some cruel human repeatedly pulls the food away just before the hungry creature reaches it.)  Eventually, such a beast, if it has even a modicum of intellectual ability, will soon quit attempting to get the morsel.  This is a very RATIONAL response by the animal.  If the creature comes to believe that there is little reason to continue to try to acquire the food, it will stop making attempts.  Again, this giving up becomes a very REASONABLE action to take (or to not take, as the case may be).

Such an animal would then perhaps turn its attention for food elsewhere and become less daring.  It might look for something less tasty but more attainable.  It might lower its standards and start going after its second choice.  (By definition, second choices are never as highly coveted as are first choices.)  Thus, when repeatedly frustrated, animals and people are apt to stop behaving daringly and to start pursuing things that are less attractive but more within reach.

In 1993, when I was failing in every attempt I made at finding work, the rational response to so much rejection would have been to either give up or to aim lower, to abandon my dreams, and to pursue jobs that might be “beneath me” (or incredibly dull) but more easily attainable.

Instead, what I did was behave irrationally.  I went out on a limb and pursued the wildest job I could find by joining the Peace Corps—read more about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer here—and giving myself to the federal government, allowing it to send me to whatever far-flung spot it wanted, knowing, all the while, that I would be paid very little while residing among people I had no cultural connection with.  (Hell, I wouldn’t even be able to speak, with any sort of facility, whatever local language they spoke in that country I would be shipped off to.)  In such a situation, the chances that I would crash and burn in this wild scheme were incredibly high.  In other words, what I was doing was scary and irrational and therefore highly suspect.

It strikes me that courage is actually doing something that requires you to go against what your brain is telling you to do.  Courage is not acting intelligently; it’s acting like a fool.  It’s going against the odds but letting your heart win out.  In the battle between “head thinking” and “heart thinking,” it’s letting heart thinking get the upper hand.  Thus, courage is very romantic and acting courageously is silly and likely to get you hurt (or worse).

There is a counterbalance, though.  When doing something daring, the payoff—assuming that one isn’t destroyed in the process of risking life and limb—is certain to be very high.  (So, in the case of me becoming a Volunteer, I had a wondrously magical adventure for the two years I lived and worked in my “hardship post.”)

Here’s the important message:  We are all raised to be rational and to act wisely, to weigh our options and to choose the one that makes the most sense.  Acting courageously is not choosing the wisest option; it’s likely choosing the least wise course.

As we go forward in life, there are times when we need to act like fools.  The truly wise person is the one who knows when and how to act unwisely.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

27 thoughts on “What Is Courage?

  1. Then again, was joining the Peace Corps *really* irrational? Did it not rather depart from appears rational from our usual, foolish perspective? Maybe the wise and courageous choice appears foolish among the flickering shadows here in the cave, precisely because it is actually courageous?

    Not disputing, just having fun! Great post!

    1. I’m glad you’re back. We need to talk again. How are things? Like you, I’m always up for a bit of intellectual jousting. Yes, who’s the fool and who’s the wise man? Two sides of the same coin…

  2. Hmm… I very much agree. Stuff conventional and “normality” and above all stuff the hideous corporate world and all its pathetic, useless bullshit. I think I would have loved the Peace Corps myself.

  3. I like the post. I’m not sure courageous is the least wise choice though I admit it can sometimes be foolish and the immediate consequences difficult. I think it is often least-wise in appearance in the immediate but over time and with reflection it can prove to be the best choice, after all.

    1. Wow! Thanks for the thought-provoking comment. I hadn’t thought about how time might blur the lines between courage and foolishness. Sometimes we need to get a little distance to see things as they truly are.

  4. Wow! I especially like that last part that the truly wise person is the one who knows when and how to act unwisely.

    Very thought-provoking.

    1. Thanks for the comment and kind words. Another reader mentioned that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the wise man and he fool. Actually, those two might be two sides of the same coin. I plan to check out your blog. You seem like a thoughtful young man.

  5. Like how you compared the example of morsel of food, and to be honest i guess it’s one of the behaviour therapy that monitor such responses. Well written!!

  6. “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

    That’s one of my favorite lines from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. (Arguably the greatest movie of all time.)

    Wonderful post. 🕊

    1. Nice quote. I recall reading Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when I was a little snotty-nosed brat. The book made quite an impression and I remember Gene Wilder very vividly in the movie. He was a such a whimsical actor and I also loved the role he played in Young Frankenstein. Thanks so much for the compliment.

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