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Some thoughts on courage

I hear you will not fall in love with me
because I come without a guarantee,
because someday I may depart at whim
and leave you desolate, abandoned, grim.
If that's the case, what use to be alive?
In loving life you love what can't survive:
and if you grow too fond and lose your head,
it's all for nought--for someday you'll be dead.

-- Erica Jong, To X. (With Ephemeral Kisses)

This post started out as a reply to one of the comments in my first go-round of the relationship skills poster I'm working on.

I believe courage is among the most valuable traits any person can have. It's a trait I look for in a potential partner. One of the things I say often, and included on the poster, and one of the things I believe it would have been most helpful for me to have learned a long time ago, is "life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage."

Every time I say that, I'm always taken a bit by surprise by the amount of resistance I get to it. I hear a lot of objections to this idea, and the objections are usually couched in terms that frankly don't make a lot of sense to me. It seems like when I talk about life rewarding courage, the idea I'm trying to communicate ends up vastly different in its interpretation. I started to write a response about what I mean when I say that life rewards courage, but I thought it deserved a blog post of its own.

First, let me talk about what I mean when I use the word "courage."

Courage is not the absence of fear. If we never felt fear, there would be no need for courage; indeed, without fear, the idea of courage would be meaningless. We as a species never experience the emotion of fluntillation, for instance, so talking about making a virtue of bandestility in the face of fluntillation makes no sense. Courage isn't in what you do when you are fearless; it's in what you do when you're fearful.

Courage does not mean recklessness. It does not mean acting on impulse or without intent. Recklessness is sometimes easier than real courage; when you're reckless, you may act without considering the risks or consequences of your actions, and when you don't consider the risks of your actions you might be less afraid of them. The kind of courage I'm talking about is not blind, impulsive recklessness, but action that comes from calm deliberation.

Courage is not desperation. A person with nothing to lose has nothing to fear.

Someone in the conversation that followed the first go-round of the relationship poster used the argument that a person who hits on a hundred women a day might succeed in finding sex partners in the short term, but will likely eventually run out of people to hit on and also end up being socially ostracized.

I find this argument a little baffling. It is not lack of courage that prevents me from hitting on a hundred people a day; it's the fact that hitting on a hundred people a day wouldn't succeed in getting me the kind of relationship I value. Hitting on every woman I see would not be an act of courage, because I don't want a relationship--or sex, for that matter--with every woman I see.

Which brings up what courage is.

Courage is making decisions that take you closer to what you want, or to the person you want to be, even when you're scared. Courage is not allowing fear to be in the driver's seat. Courage is talking to the person you are interested in, even though you're aware that you may be rejected.

Courage is saying "I will reach for what I want" rather than saying "I have been hurt before, and I don't want to be hurt again, so I'm not going to risk it; I'm just going to sit here and do nothing." Courage is saying "This new thing you're doing scares me; it makes me feel unsure and insecure, but I will support you in it anyway" rather than "This thing you're doing scares me; I forbid you to do it."

I have tried both approaches. Moving with courage more often results in me having the life that I want to have than allowing my fears to control my actions does. Relationships with people who move with courage are more satisfying to me than relationships with people who don't.

Now, sure, moving with courage is not always rewarded. Again, if there were no possibility of hurt or loss, there would be no virtue in courage. Yes, you might reach out for what you want and come up short. You might be rejected. You might be hurt. Absolutely.

But what's the alternative? Never reaching for what you want? Always backing down in the face of fear? Never choosing the harder path? What does that gain, other than a life lived from cradle to grave by the path of least resistance?

If one person reaches for the relationship she wants ten times, and is rejected nine of those times, and another person never reaches for what he wants for fear of rejection, which of them has been more rewarded? The person who was hurt but now has the life she wants, or the person who has never been hurt but also never been happy?

Life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage. Yes, moving with courage means running the risk of being hurt. But hiding in the corner, afraid to take a chance, also hurts; it's just that it hurts all the time, so you become less aware of it.

And being hurt isn't the end of the world. Broken hearts mend. Indeed, I've written in the past about the value of having your heart broken; often, it's in the way we deal with pain and loss that the best inside us has the chance to blossom.

To live a life built on a foundation of fear, in the end, breaks far more than just a heart. It destroys any chance of having anything worth keeping. Moving with courage means risking pain; but failure of courage means risking everything.

Courage is not fearlessness, or recklessness, or desperation. It is choosing who you want to be, deciding what kind of life you want to have, and then moving toward that even when it's scary. It is not rewarded every single time; we do not always get what we want, and sometimes, we get hurt. Courage is in living the life we want in spite of that. If there is any other way to be happy, I have not found it.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 18th, 2012 06:59 pm (UTC)

Well said!
Oct. 18th, 2012 07:01 pm (UTC)
Yes. All of this. Incredible. Great post. Thank you.
Oct. 18th, 2012 07:04 pm (UTC)

You can live life hidden under the bed, wrapped in bubble wrap, sealed in a tupperware, and you'll be safe. (And probably asphixiated) but it won't be much of a life.

Thank you!
Oct. 18th, 2012 07:23 pm (UTC)
Oct. 18th, 2012 08:02 pm (UTC)
I'm working my way through her books and I thought it was just me (but it isn't) is amazing.
Oct. 18th, 2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
I very much needed this reminder today. Thank you.
Oct. 18th, 2012 10:04 pm (UTC)
"I find this argument a little baffling. It is not lack of courage that prevents me from hitting on a hundred people a day; it's the fact that hitting on a hundred people a day wouldn't succeed in getting me the kind of relationship I value. "

I think you may have missed the point. I probably wrote it badly (was on a bus after 3 hours sleep; midnight play party on a cruise around Manhattan :-))

In my view "courage" is demonstrated when you "take risk". Without risk (without "being scared") there is no courage required. Risk implies possibility of failure. Other than words used, I think we're on the same page at this point.

So simple logical progression: courage => risk => possibility of failure => chance of not being rewarded.

And that's why I have a problem with "life rewards courage" type statements. It doesn't. And even where it seems to ("hitting on hundred people a day") it may ultimately not be a reward at all (short time vs long term). And this goes extra for "greatest courage".

Courage does not imply success. Courage may help you overcome perceived limitations and may increase chances of success, but equally courage may cause you to overstep real limitations and increase chances of failure.

I think there might be "observer bias" at work here; people who "win big" (find the love of their life; have wonderful relationships; whatever your definition of 'win big' is - it's not relevant) may have a large portion of risk takers and thus it's easy to conclude that being courageous and taking risk will be rewarded. But this view misses out on those who were courageous and failed.

Dunno if that helps explain my position. Probably not :-)
Oct. 19th, 2012 04:31 am (UTC)
"...courage may cause you to overstep real limitations and increase chances of failure."

Completely agree. Living/moving/doing x with courage does not change the odds of success. Franklin, are you including in the definition of courage making well-thought out and intelligent choices? Because that seems to me a back-door/circular definition; if one thinks living with courage means one makes thoughtful, reasoned decisions, then of course one would think living with courage leads to more success.

It seems to me it's entirely possible to be courageous in your actions and still have those actions be foolish or ill-considered, which I would assume leads to less success.

I hope I am not coming across as rude, either.

Edited at 2012-10-19 04:31 am (UTC)
Oct. 19th, 2012 04:58 am (UTC)
I do think confirmation bias is at work here, but in the opposite way mentioned in the first comment on this thread.

To the second comment here - You do make reasoned and well-thought out choices and actions in life. You look at your dreams and evaluate paths towards success. And when you cannot decide where you want to go with it - when you are faced with multiple options - you go with the one that is scarier, bigger, more daring, and gives a lift to the soul to dream so big.

If you have 2 choices before.. or 3 or 4 - do the one that is harder, has the most things to overcome, the skills to learn, the adversity and difficulty of challenge to hone yourself against.

So, back to the first comment: When you have done these things.. the confirmation bias comes into play by your new set of skills, your new experiences, new observation, greater ability to reason on choices of what will work and what won't - that you SEE and FIND the path to your success. Successive iterations if need be!

Also, you may come to understand that the definition of your success does NOT look anything like what you thought it needed to when you started out. You have still achieved that success, but maybe it wasn't you who gave birth to the baby, or your name heading the show, or that you have a domestic partnership with the person who remains the love of your life but lives apart.

(Cynically, you could be so bought into the answers you are later presented with because of your effort or because you went all in on something that you may grasp at anything to want to call it your success or achievement, but I do no think that is what is going on here.)

As I dealt with successively more complex and deeper reasoning in my schooling as an engineer - I grew new skills in reasoning, managing my frustrations and disappointments, reaching and trying despite the appearance of obstacles, and recognizing patterns and path through adverse conditions. I can now tackle tasks that were previously insurmountable to me. The same is true for other areas of my life.

I may be afraid, but hell if I am going to let that stop me! :)
Oct. 19th, 2012 05:22 am (UTC)
Whenever the conversation starts to get emotionally charged, I get suspicious. Because in my mind, the hotter the rhetoric, the less convincing the facts. So I respect your personal anecdotes and opinion, but I'm more interested in the definition question.

Can one be said to act courageously and yet foolishly? Is there such a thing as foolish or blind courage? By Franklin's definition, no. And I think that that leads one to a biased definition of courage, because we all like to believe that our "calm deliberation" (to use Franklin's words) will lead to more successful outcomes. If you separate out the "calm deliberation" part, is it still courage? Because "recklessness" is also a loaded term; it is a term that assumes the choice is bad but the actor is making it anyways. So I think there is a philosophical argument to be made here, but it's definitional, sadly.
Oct. 19th, 2012 05:46 am (UTC)
And I mean "sadly", because it appears I am drilling down towards a definition of courage that reads "doing what you want or think is right, regardless of other circumstances such as fear, high probability of failure, etc". And that leads us to ask "what is right", and BAM, philosophical roadblock (or an extreme amount of roads to choose from, choose your metaphor).
Oct. 19th, 2012 09:21 am (UTC)
It's not really clear to me what definition is being used either, but my guess is:

Courage is placing higher value on achieving a positive than on avoiding a negative.

I might go on to theorize that it has something to do with an ability to look back on negative experiences as less negative than they felt at the time. It might also be associated with stimulus-seeking, ie. better a painful stimulus than no stimulus.

But I don't really know because I'm not a courageous person.
Oct. 21st, 2012 04:22 am (UTC)
I think the bolded statement might be the most concise way of phrasing what I am getting from what Franklin is saying.
Oct. 19th, 2012 09:10 am (UTC)
I sort of agree with this.

Try to put it clearly...

Whilst you can't succeed without trying; trying does not guarantee success.

For some people it is more comfortable to never try to get something they have a very low chance of getting than to suffer through repeated failure with a low chance of ever succeeding.

For instance I would like to have a much better paid job than the one I currently have. However it's not very likely that I'll get one (I'm not relevantly qualified/experienced) so just applying for all the interesting well paid jobs will not get me an interesting well paid job - it'll just get me lots of rejections with "we said you needed 10 years experience" on them. But my current job is actually broadly OK, I'd rather keep the broadly OK job and do fun things in my spare time then spend loads of time/effort on trying to get jobs I have very little chance of ever getting.
Oct. 19th, 2012 01:43 pm (UTC)
"Whilst you can't succeed without trying; trying does not guarantee success."

Further, trying doesn't necessarily need courage.

Some people try for things all the time expecting to fail at most of them and succeed at a sufficient number ("100 women a night"); some people evaluate and take safe steps and succeed.

Courage _can_ help you find unexpected success 'cos you might try things you otherwise wouldn't, but that's a different statement :-)
Oct. 19th, 2012 11:39 am (UTC)
Ah, I think I see the reason a bunch of folks think they're disagreeing with tacit (when he actually never said courage magically gives you what you want, just that no attempts = no success, which no one disagrees with either).

I think the point he's making is that courage is a necessary component for success. However, he never said it is the only necessary component.

Courage is what gets you in the ring; to actually succeed, you still need to have done a lot of work on yourself, gained the appropriate knowledge for the situation, plus a touch of luck (because you can have all of the rest and sometimes it still doesn't work out).

Folks are pointing out the need for the other things as well. Which is all well and good to add to a conversation on how to succeed, but is not actually an objection to tacit's assertion here.
Oct. 19th, 2012 01:34 pm (UTC)
"courage is a necessary component for success"

I disagree.

You don't need courage to get "in the ring" in all cases. You can be successful by careful analysis, by avoiding risk, by taking the safe path.

In my work life I'm a success; I'm considered one of the top people in my company for the area I'm responsible for. I achieved that success by planning, by having contingencies, by not fucking up. Fear of making a mistake is what causes me to be so good because I do plan for the worst cases and as a result my stuff works where other people's stuff doesn't. People come to me for help 'cos they know they'll get a solution (or, at least, an answer).

I have a wonderful partner; I moved from London to New York to be with her. You might say that took courage, but it didn't; I planned, had contingencies, fall-back positions. If it didn't work out then I would move back. Apart from a small amount of money (the company paid for my travel and shipping, even!), I had little risk; there were minimal downsides and many upsides.

Success without courage is possible.

On the flip side, courage does not imply success.

Therefore courage is neither necessary nor sufficient.
Oct. 21st, 2012 01:38 am (UTC)
(For you, and people like you).
Oct. 18th, 2012 11:01 pm (UTC)
Hmmm... the way you are defining courage is not the way many people seem to interpret 'courage' which I think is where most of the resistance is coming from. I like it, though!
Oct. 18th, 2012 11:21 pm (UTC)
I knew there were reasons I friended you here. As ever. WOW.
Oct. 19th, 2012 04:30 am (UTC)
This is so relevant to my life at this moment. Thank you.
Oct. 19th, 2012 02:27 pm (UTC)
After my divorce, I realized that a lot of my decision making was based on fear of what might happen, and it was paralyzing my ability to create change in my life. I'd let a bad situation get worse until it came apart at the seams because I was afraid of asking for what I wanted, for fear of the very outcome I ended up with. At that point I decided that fear would no longer be my motivating emotion for decision-making. This didn't mean I had to be stupid, but I had to decide whether the thing I was afraid of was really rationally worth being afraid of it and making a decision to avoid it; emotion was not enough.

After that, I discovered that the things I was most afraid of were often shadows. By looking at where my fears congregated and moving in that direction, I improved my life -- I took dance lessons; I went out; I dated; I went back to school; I took honors classes; I got into a relationship with a man I would never previously have considered, even though he was ideal for me; I applied to grad school; I moved cross country; I got my Masters; I got into a PhD program; I got married again.

I dared to do what I wanted despite my fears. I attempted to have courage. I could have failed at any one of these things (and did fail at others), but honestly just the doing of them was the important thing, and that I did succeed at.

That's what moving in the direction of the greatest courage means to me -- being able to risk myself and in doing so, have success or failure become irrelevant because I faced my fears and survived, diminishing their hold on me and finding out I'm stronger than I thought.
Oct. 19th, 2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that now having defined what you mean by "courage," you may also need to define what you mean by "reward." (Possibly also "life.") :-)
Oct. 20th, 2012 01:45 am (UTC)
I couldn't agree with you more.

Asking someone out, when you know you might be rejecting, is hard. You have a lot to lose, it could hurt your relationship with them. It takes courage, it's uncomfortable, it's terrifying.

But not asking them out, and staying "friends" instead, just so you can be sure you don't lose them? That's not better. You can end up torturing yourself, wondering what they would have said. You can end up hating yourself for never daring to ask them. And you wouldn't just be living your life without courage, you would be living it without honesty. You would be hiding something very relevant from someone you care about.

If you don't ask them out, the only reason you might end up together is if they ask you out instead. In other words, the only substitute for courage is being lucky enough that the other person has more courage than you do.
Even then, it takes some courage to say yes and give it a try, since you might lose your friendship over it. Some people might prefer maintaining the status quo.

I can't imagine that refusing to take a chance and wondering all of your life what could have been is more rewarding than being rejected, but knowing for sure and being able to move on is.
Oct. 23rd, 2012 12:30 am (UTC)
franklin's words resonate strongly to me. to me, courage is living up to my ideals and not down to my fears.

and that in itself *is* a reward. regardless of whether doing so looks and feels like i thought it would; regardless of whether an external "reward" also happens. it's all about me, and whether i'm living up to be the girl i want to be, or at least always moving in that direction.
Oct. 30th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
I don't regret any risks I've taken. And for the things that burned me, well, now I know better. So either way, I get some form of gain from it. Does it mean I'm ok with being burned? No. But I'd be less ok with never having tried.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )