Courage is the stuff of legends. Courage is what our heroes and heroines have in abundance. They go where mortals fear to tread. Courage seems consigned to the movie screens and those men and women who serve in uniforms. In history and contemporary culture, courage is dominated by the physical demonstration of the character trait.
From deeds in religious scriptures to the knight in shining armour in fairy tales to war heroes and the action person in the movies. All of them sacrificing their wellbeing, throwing asunder their personal needs to serve those less able to defend themselves from evil and tyranny.
From stories like The Hobbit entertaining us with the bravery of Bilbo Baggins to Han Solo in Star Wars flying his Millenium Falcon carrying out a daring mission and Harry Potter facing up to his nemesis Lord Voldemort. We as children and adults alike are engrossed and inspired by such stories.
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear" — Nelson Mandela
Courage, however, is not merely manifested in physical feats of bravery. Courage has many facets, it is a kaleidoscope of colours, shades, and intensity of emotions. I am sure we all recall as teenagers having to pluck up the courage to ask that special person out on a date. How we felt the butterflies in our stomach, yet we felt strongly enough about that girl or boy to ask them out. If we see a car crash we would stop and help those in danger. When a natural disaster strikes people put their own lives at risk to save those trapped under damaged buildings, flooded vehicles or simply rescuing a child left in a car during a hot summers day.
Courage is so much more. Courage is the immigrants who decide to leave their homeland in search of a better life. Courage is the refugee who flees a war-torn country to shelter in a more safer environment. Courage is the parents' time immemorial doing their best to raise their children with whatever resources they have at their disposal. Courage is the visionary who risks financial ruin to start a business. Courage is limitless and is multi-faceted.
"And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” — Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, June 2005
One form of courage that we see throughout history and even today is quite invisible in my view. It is the one that does not require great physical strength, it does not ask of us to jump into a burning building, but it requires something far more powerful from deep within us. It is the one form of courage that only we ourselves can hold us accountable for. I am talking about moral courage.
Traditionally we have identified moral courage with the giants of humanity who take up the gauntlet to bring about social justice. The likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Susan B. Anthony of the Suffragette Movement among numerous others. Yet, everyone on this planet of ours has and will face some kind of predicament multiple times throughout their lives when they will be challenged and their moral courage will be called for.
What do I mean by moral courage? It is the situation in life when we are faced with a wrongdoing. It is when we can speak up for an injustice, expose a lie or whistle-blow a cover up. When faced with such dilemmas we may not face immediate physical danger but it could lead to it eventually. If we speak up we may lose our jobs, be ostracised by our peers and ultimately could face death. If we don't speak up then we go away with a hollowness in our hearts that eats away at us, knowing fully well that we did not have the guts to stand up to an act or words that were clearly wrong.
"From caring comes courage." — Lao Tzu
Take bullying whether it be at school, workplace or in a less formal situation, do we stand up to the perpetrator or do we acquiesce to only feel terrible in our private company?
As a young teen at school, I've watched as bullies pushed, shoved and made fun of the kid that was meeker. I did nothing for fear of getting attacked by racist thugs on my way home. Yet, I felt terrible for days afterwards. School somehow seems to have carried on into the workplace. The same childish behaviour that happened in school seems to repeat at work. With it comes the wrongdoing in terms of a word said that hurts, an exclusion of an individual just because they do not fit the stereotype of the company's dominant culture. How many of us stand up to this behaviour?
"A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer." — Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)
Even more damaging and dangerous is when there are cover-ups by leaders in society. The news media is rife with children being abused by the ones who hold high office in religion. Business is strewn with stories of deliberate oversight, take the 2008 financial crisis, banks knew they were selling junk mortgages to people who could not afford the repayment. Nick Leeson brought down Barings Bank, the UK's oldest merchant bank, having gambled away £827 million ($1.3 Billion) in 1995. Politics is filled with scandals, Bill Clinton and Nixon come to mind among multitudinous others.
Yet, there are brave souls who do speak up. Take Joseph M. Darby, the US military policeman who was stationed at Abu Ghraib. He reported the abuses there to US investigators in 2004. He received a Profile in Courage award in 2005. Currently, he lives with his family in protective military custody because of threats against them. Take Anna Politkovskaya a journalist and human rights activist, who was a vocal critic of Russian atrocities in Chechnya, and later of the Putin administration. She was shot dead in 2006. A few hired gunmen have been convicted, but the mastermind behind her murder is still at large.
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore." — Lord Chesterfield
We are currently seeing a dilemma in the United States of America, where the highest office in the land is held up for scrutiny. The lies, cover-ups and wrong doings in the White House are however being exposed by a few brave individuals. Leaks are exposing misdemeanours that could bring down the incumbent president. The individuals who are releasing snippets of collusion with the Russians, payments for influence and other potentially treasonous acts may themselves be breaking the law and could possibly face prison sentences. Yet they are braving the potential threat of incarceration to expose what is morally and ethically wrong and could harm the American people more than anything else. This is even more imperative when the whole world watches to the US as a beacon of law and justice. Because cowardice in the face of injustice and not standing up to what is wrong can tear us apart as individuals, teams, the fabric of society and entire nations.
One of my favourite stories of courage is that of a German Pastor during World War II. Martin Niemoller was an ardent anticommunist and a Nazi supporter. Yet when Hitler asserted the superiority of the state over religion, Niemoller stood up and began to oppose Hitler's declaration. Niemoller was imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp located 17 miles outside Munich in Germany. A place I have visited and even to this day causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. He was released once the Americans liberated the camp in 1945. Niemoller's famous quote rings true today as it did over 70 years ago.
FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE SOCIALISTS, AND I DID NOT SPEAK OUT - BECAUSE I WAS NOT A SOCIALIST.
THEN THEY CAME FOR THE TRADE UNIONISTS, AND I DID NOT SPEAK OUT - BECAUSE I WAS NOT A TRADE UNIONIST.
THEN THEY CAME FOR THE JEWS, AND I DID NOT SPEAK OUT - BECAUSE I WAS NOT A JEW.
THEN THEY CAME FOR ME - AND THERE WAS NO ONE LEFT TO SPEAK FOR ME.
Martin Niemoller (1892 - 1984)