Of all the virtues a person might cultivate, courage is one of the ones I find most important. Honour is the primary virtue cherished by Druids, but honour without courage doesn’t amount to much. If you can only be honourable when it is safe and easy, you won’t get very far.
Fear is a very destructive and damaging force in my life, and I know I am not alone in this. There are days when the fear is so bad that I simply want to shut down and refuse to engage with the world. To do so, would be to bring about personal disaster, there are no two ways about it. To be halted by fear, is to fail. So much of what I do depends on getting out there and doing it… if I let the fear overwhelm me, I am finished. It means that often, any kind of movement at all is far better than quitting would be.
For some, courage and bravery seem like an absence of fear. From the outside they tend to look that way. Conventional wisdom has it that courage is not freedom from fear, but the ability to overcome the fear that you have. Undoubtedly this is a useful thing, but it means living with the fear.
What is courage, as a state of being? Firstly it requires a capacity for hope. You have to believe it is possible for things to be better and that taking action will help. Without that fundamental belief, there is no courage. An absence of despair, or at least not very much of it, are necessary pre-requisites for courage. Even if you are heading out to face certain death, you have to believe that doing so means something, or you’ll just pull the duvet over your head and wait for certain doom to come to you, instead. It doesn’t need to be more than a fine thread of hope, a tiny belief that some small thing could be made better. However, that dash of optimism makes all the difference. Without it, courage seems futile.
Courage requires a degree of belief in your own power. If you don’t believe that you, personally, can make a difference by acting or doing your best, you will not find the courage to stand up and try. So for there to be courage, there must be a world view that embraces the potential of the lone crusader, or that sees how many little actions contribute to changing the tide. Gloomy acceptance does not foster courage.
Then you need to have a vision of something better, so that you know which direction to move in. It might be vague, it might simply be the idea that if you act honourably you will move towards those better ways of being, but there needs to be something. Courage without honour has no idea what to be doing, and can easily turn into something else.
Courage is not merely the business of overcoming fear. Determination can do that. Fear itself can make us overcome the paralysis of fear for fear of what might be worse should we fail to act. Courage is an inner condition that says ‘I can try and there is a point’. When you have that, you can see all the things it is reasonable, and less reasonable to be afraid of, but you have the means to challenge them. You have a perspective that makes it possible to stand up and act. That kind of courage is not bombastic or sabre rattling, but it has a great deal of power.
I do not think that courage as a virtue is simply a measure of overcoming fear. It is a state of being that is not dependent on how much fear you are feeling. It is a habit of mind and a cultivation of belief that enables action regardless of fear. One can therefore have courage without feeling afraid, or with it; the measure is not the terror overcome, but a particular inner quality that enables action.