Theologian Paul Tillich’s most influential book, The Courage to Be, develops the concept that courage is the hope that appears when a situation is beyond hope itself, or hopeless. Without courage we become bound by anxiety and our fears.
Courage is the most important virtue. Without courage, you cannot practice any of the other virtues consistently. – Maya Angelou
Rosa Parks refuses to relinquish her seat on a Memphis bus.
Sir Edmund Hillary reaches the top of Mount Everest.
People aboard Flight 93 prevent terrorists from attacking the United States Capitol.
The single mother works two jobs to make ends meet.
The young man quits his job when it violates his ethical standards and he faces the unknown.
Despite threats to her life, the young woman testifies.
She chooses to attend school in a foreign country.
Neal Armstrong steps onto the moon.
He faces head on the challenges of terminal cancer.
A young school boy stands up for a friend who is bullied.
The old woman on unstable legs takes her treasured morning walk.
(1) Defining Courage:
There are two definitions of courage that are common in the psychological literature:
1) Taking action in the face of fear. “Courage is not the lack of fear, it is the acting in spite of it.” (Mark Twain)
2) A noble action taken despite risk. Courage encompasses the willingness to meet a difficult challenge despite the physical, psychological, or moral risks involved in doing so.
Courage is charting and sailing one’s own course knowing there will be setbacks and challenges in the process. It is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, and pain. It is being ourselves in the face of adversity. Such courage is a major healing component in clinical psychology (Kugel, 2017).
On the other hand, there is always the danger of misplaced courage. At times it takes courage to change or resist what we once believed to be true. Misplaced courage can make fools out of us when we take well-intentioned but uniformed actions. It is always hard to admit we have been wrong, especially when we have acted courageously to secure inappropriate goals. It is better to be right than courageous. A moral compass and life principles accompany a positive courageous act.
(2) Aging Courageously:
As we age it is not unusual for us to struggle, letting go of who we were and accepting who we are now. Much stress in growing older involves living in the past or fear of the future. It is a challenge to be slower in body and mind. Accepting limitations gracefully takes courage. Those who cannot accept their new selves always struggle.
Aging is about letting go of old identities so we can discover new ones. Holding too tightly to the familiar and habitual and not moving into what is fresh and new stifles personal growth and limits joy. Trying to maintain complete control of our lives and take no risks, is to dwell in a self-limiting cage. We can choose to sit and watch life continue on its merry way while knowing it will not stop and wait for us. Accepting and adapting to life’s changes require courage.
There is also a place for caution. Perhaps you have learned as I have that it is important to be more careful physically. We break more easily, heal less quickly, and sometimes push ourselves too hard. Still, we can be too cautious. We are better when we let go of our fears and act courageously but not foolishly. We can strike a balance between healthy caution and acknowledging that there are always risks.
A fall can change our lives in an instant and require us to find the courage to refocus. On the other hand, a hot air balloon ride can be exhilarating as a stroll in a rose garden may be. The act of personal courage, as we each define and express it for ourselves, is freeing. It may be travel. It may be the courage to take a walk in the early morning dawn understanding it is possible to fall. As a friend of mine says, “I place aside fear, but confessionally, I always take my cell phone with me.” There are countless “aha” moments awaiting us just around the bend. Courage to act brings newness and joy to our lives.
Let us not fool ourselves. The question still remains: “Where do I draw the line between caution and risk?” Perhaps the answer lies in our personal definition of courage and the adventure of living that comes with it.
I will cut adrift—I will sit on the pavements and drink coffee—I will dream; I will take my mind out of its iron cage and let it swim—this fine October. – Virginia Woolf
Our aging selves must remember to open the iron cage door, engage our freedom, and live with the “courage to be.”
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization.
Now Available: THE MOON at the WINDOW
***All royalties from “The Moon at the Window” go to support the work of Smart Strategies for Successful Living.
About the Author: With a sprinkling of exuberance and vitality, Dr. Cobbs is an accomplished author of three books and numerous articles published in different venues throughout his life. Dr. Cobbs’ first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A spiritual approach to Aging (2008), offers a thought-provoking interpretation of the interplay between how to live life with meaningful intentions and the eventuality of coming to terms with death. His second book, Ravenwind (2019) delves into the raven’s role as it relates to Native American myths, legends, and folktales and global history. His reflections on the spirituality of living and dying depicted in his books are threaded throughout the short essays posted on the website for “Smart Strategies for Successful Living” and in his latest book, The Moon at the Window.
Smart Strategies for Successful Living provides an international format for writers to share research, thoughts, and experiences on aging well. One of our writers, Hartzell Cobbs, has compiled and edited articles from the past four years and put them in book form. “The book reveals the thoughts and emotions old age has dealt me” says Hartzell. “I have been surprised by how many aging people have similar experiences to my own.” The book has its genesis in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, and concludes with reflections in the silence of the Arizona desert.
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On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, a special thanks goes to Hartzell Cobbs for his brilliant works as a guest writer and for donating the book royalties from “The Moon at the Window” to us. We greatly treasure his talents and generous support of our website.