Thursday 27 August 2015

52 Ordinary Words: Courage

© Sophia Roberts

One of the people I used to (and still do) associate with courage is Siegfried Sassoon, if only because I likened myself to him when told that I had courage. Shame on me, but in mitigation it was long time ago and I was very young. My point was that I did what I had to do – as did he – because a job had to be done; it was either sink or swim - and because I considered that we both experienced a reckless fearlessness when confronted with danger.

I was confusing courage with bravery. Bravery is the ability to confront pain, danger or attempts of intimidation without any feeling of fear. It doesn’t involve much thinking and for those who have it, often manifests itself as integral to their human nature.

Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to undertake an overwhelming difficulty or to bear with pain despite the eminent and unavoidable presence of fear. More than a quality, it is a state of mind driven by a cause that makes the struggle worthwhile. The essence of courage is not the feeling of being certainly capable of overcoming what’s one is faced with, but rather it is the wilful choice to fight regardless of the consequences.

And whilst Lady Macbeth was encouraging her husband to commit murder, what she said, when persuading him to kill Duncan, “But screw your courage to the sticking place/and we'll not fail,” illustrates this point perfectly. Whilst the experts differ (the OED suggests that Lady Macbeth's original words refer to the twisting of a tuning peg until it becomes set in its hole, and the editor of The Riverside Shakespeare suggests that a "sticking place" is "the mark to which a soldier screwed up the cord of a crossbow”), Lady Macbeth's meaning is obvious: "Tighten up your courage until it is fixed in the place necessary for the murder of the king." She does not say, “Don’t be afraid.”

David Whyte in his book, Consolations, alerts us to the etymology of the word and I note that the words 'heart', 'innermost feelings' and 'inner', cross many linguistic and cultural boundaries.

He goes on to say that courage is “the measure of our heartfelt participation” with where we find ourselves, “to make conscious those things we already feel deeply”; and to live with the consequences. I must say his take brought me up short: does courageous mean being true to who we are, even when we don’t find ourselves in life and death situations? Equally, I initially had some difficulties with his thoughts on parenthood and courage. However, upon reflection, I recall that when I had my first child (aged 24) that in the midst of my overwhelming feelings of sheer helplessness, I could hear my inner voice saying, “All I can do it is to be the best mother I can; just take one day at a time.” Accordingly, I appreciate what he means when he observes that “courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.”

I struggled with Whyte’s take on the absurdist (existential) philosophy of Albert Camus. The latter maintained that life has inherent worth, even if it has no inherent meaning. It most certainly does take courage to live when you can see no point to it, or if you are crushingly miserable. In this scenario, as Whyte says, we can only demonstrate faith in possibilities.

Further, an existentialist would maintain, a depressed person always has choices. A depressed person can succumb or they can revolt. They can choose to face the reality of the depression, and continue to live anyway, in spite of it. Camus does not deny it is a struggle – his exemplar of the absurd person is the mythical Greek king Sisyphus, condemned for eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll down again. But he does hold that life’s worth and happiness exists in the authentic awareness of that revolt. What Camus says – to the absurd person, the depressive person, the suicidal person – is that life does not need meaning to have worth. “That revolt gives life its value.” he writes, and concludes that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

To live courageously is to change the things we can.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference

~ Reinhold Niebuhr

And in facing the absurd, Camus finds not nihilism but authentic happiness, happiness without hope, happiness simply in the present moment. “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as… in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”


  1. I love the image of water-lilies. I can't help wondering if deeply depressed people really do have a choice. If they did, they would surely choose the most comfortable option.
    Living courageously is definitely creating the incentive to change the things we can.

    1. I know what you mean, but a friend of mine who is clinically depressed tells me that it takes a lot of courage for her to carry on living. It's only her Christian faith that keeps her going - she believes that suicide would be a sin against God.