Tag Archives: apathy

What is courage?

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately (previous post about courage). Often we define courage as feeling the fear but acting anyway. What troubles me about this approach is that it defines courage as something that only exists in opposition to something else.

One of the things I like about virtues is the idea of cultivating them, but if courage only exists in relation to fear, then you can only cultivate it by having things you are afraid of. You can only measure it in terms of that – so the person who develops courage so far that they overcome fear doesn’t really count as courageous any more. 

I’m interested in the idea of courage as an innate quality, not a reaction. It struck me that this would require the courage to be for something, rather than coming up in opposition to fearful experiences. What things are we invested in such that the idea of them gives us courage? It takes courage to act, to make changes, to stand up for things. It’s perhaps not so much about overcoming fear as overcoming apathy and disbelief. The courage of your convictions is a rejection of the idea that you can’t make a difference, or that the struggle itself is futile. It can take courage to try and to strive – not because the action is fearful, but because it takes a certain kind of boldness to assert meaning in this way in face of an often uncaring universe.

Thanks to some helpful facebook prompts, I’ve been thinking about lions and oak trees in relation to courage. Neither of these really suggests overcoming fear to me. They do however suggest ways of standing in your own power, with a kind of poise and awareness that makes action possible. 

I’m considering the idea that fear isn’t the opposite of courage – often fear and courage exist alongside each other. Apathy and defeatedness are the opposites of courage. It is apathy and a feeling of defeat and futility that stops people from acting – fear is often a spur to acting and creates necessity. Courage is the quality that keeps a person moving when it seems like all is lost, or the problem is too big to take on. Thus whether or not you are afraid may not be the best measure of whether or not you are courageous.

Challenging Apathy

“They’re all as bad as each other, there’s no point…”

Whether we’re talking about religions, politics, corporations, the media, or anything else with power, this kind of apathetic thinking is really problematic. If we won’t call to account the ones who are actually awful on the grounds that nothing better exists, then what we do is give our support to the worst that’s out there.

Alternatives always exist. They may seem like long shots. There may only be small improvements you can push for. Sometimes you may have to choose between a mouldy pear and a rotten apple, but a few good bits have to be better than entirely gone off.

There are those who will tell you that wanting anything better is just naive daydreaming and you don’t live in the ‘real’ world. This of course is just another way of keeping things as they are. If the majority of us rejected this thinking, the real world would rapidly have no place for lazy cynicism.

It is easy to say ‘they’re all the same, there’s no point’. It saves a person from feeling like they have to bother. If nothing can be done, why make any effort? Why bother trying to find a reliable news source, or a party that has some values you could respect, or a religious group that isn’t a money making operation? If nothing can be made better, you free yourself from any possible reason to make any effort at all. This is how what’s worst in the world is allowed to thrive.

As long as we give ourselves excuses not to act, terrible things are given room to flourish. We have a human world made entirely of people. It’s just people doing stuff. Anything and everything can be changed if there’s the will. We don’t have to let apathy make us complicit.

Finding the good

There are days when my sense of all that is wrong in the world overwhelms me. From the small, everyday cruelties through to the epic injustices, there is so much to grieve over. I’ve had too much contact with sadists and sickos, people who hurt and use others, and feel entitled to do so. Any contact would be too much. The perception that the bad far outweighs the good, can be crippling. To keep going in any positive way, requires hope.

Looking for the good in things is a choice. It is about holding optimism in the face of experience, and the more crap life throws your way, the harder that gets. Refusing to be beaten allows me to stave off both cynicism and despair. Apathy and a defeatist attitude are not good tools to work with, even if lapsing into them may seem easier. Sometimes optimism is a full time fight, but the alternative is a loss of self, a loss of belief in the future, and a loss of belief in the humanity of others.

Sometimes you have to be looking hard for the good things, to spot them. The worst people I have known in my life had their moments, even. One, who went to prison, had a deep and abiding love of dogs. That doesn’t redeem him in any way, but I make a point of remembering that. Sometimes entirely selfish motives will push a person towards doing the right things anyway.

Sometimes the good in a day is small and subtle. It’s a burst of birdsong, or a smile from a stranger. It’s seeing the little plant that has managed to break through the tarmac, or the way the sunset catches the water. When you’re paying attention to these small things, they start to seem a lot bigger. Getting away from what is solely human to find the good in other things can be a great help. The trees are not thinking about the economy, only about budding and spring. The hills do not care for our laws and troubles, they just are. There are different perspectives to find, and solace to be taken from them.

Making a conscious effort to find the good in a day takes practice. However, there are aspects of misery and despair that are all about cutting ourselves off from everything, retreating deeper into the self. It may seem like a protective move, to disengage, but it also deprives us of the connections we need. Seeking the good is also about an attitude shift, because it assumes there is good to be found. Often it’s easiest to find what you’re looking for, and expecting the worst brings it into focus.

When you find something good, share it. Celebrate it. Even the smallest gestures towards making better, are precious. A kind word, a tiny gesture of compassion or friendliness, a joke shared. These are all ways of fighting back against the forces of misery and apathy.

When something or someone seems impossible, you can still change how you think about it. Every set back, every new problem, is a challenge to rise to. Every idiot and asshole making your life difficult gives you opportunity to be a better sort of person. Every difficult thing is an opportunity to prove something, and to shine. Often no one else will notice, but in singing your own triumphs you can get something useful out of the crap. And sometimes, when you voice the little wins, the things faced, the idiots well handled, someone else will share that with you in a good way.

Today I am ill, but when I looked up from my editing job, I saw an egret fly past my window, its form a magical, ghostly white against this dingy sky. It looked so pristine, like an emissary from the otherworld. And yes, it is cold, but I have a man who has brought wood in and made me a fire. I’ve lived in far harder conditions than this, having to build a reality out of crumbs. It can be done, and often there are more than crumbs to work with, especially once we start passing them around. Good things have a habit of growing and expanding, if they are given the chance.

This is all about belief. We can choose what we believe. If we choose to seek the good, to believe in the existence of silver linings in clouds, and frogs who turn into princess, and wool that turns into gold, then perhaps we can make it happen. The only thing I am certain about is that the person who keeps striving has a little hope of success, but the person who gives up, has none.


And it’s a bit of an irony, having written that this morning, and sat here the recipient of yet another slap from reality, and wondering how not to give up. But life goes on, somehow.