Courage

Mariah asked how I would define “courage,” on a day when I began writing the following poem:

===

Words Divide:

Here from There
Up from Down
Near from Far
Us from Them
Hero from Coward
Less from Fewer
Theist from Atheist
Mentally Ill from Homosexual
Watch from Help

Someday I hope to use fewer words. No more words. No, more words.

===

It’s literally hours from birth, damn near stillborn. Now, I added the line about Hero from Coward as a direct result of Mariah’s request. There’s no more definition in a word than what some society votes on a meaning.  The vote can be informal discussion, or by some organizational standard-setting body – like the American Psychological Association writing the DSM-1 in 1952, agreeing to label homosexuality a mental illness.

So I offer nothing more than one more blind man’s assessment of the elephant of verbal division.  Stir it in the stew, add more or less, to taste.

Courage?  Acting in spite of fear. Doing, even when you can’t know the action will achieve the result? This aligns with my idiosyncratic definition of “faith,” too.

Faith: Taking a leap – choosing to ACT! – in pursuit of a desired result, based on imperfect information (should I or should I not?  There is no try, only do. Yoda for the philosophy win.) and with no guarantee that your actions will achieve what you intend.  But you leap.

I suppose the distinction between courage and faith, then, is (to get geeky and start doing set-theory/Venn diagrams on emotions) is that Courage is a subset of Faith (as defined above) in which you act toward what you think you should be striving toward, in spite of fear. Courage is an act that denies power to fear, and grants power to hope even when the odds seem insurmountably stacked I favor of the negative outcome.  Courage only exists after the fact of action, when the insurmountable odds have been surmounted, and the action is praised as courageous.  If it fails, the action may be labeled misguided, or ill-advised, or heroic.  Words divide, after the fact… they label and shame or inspire.  They are not the thing itself. Nicht Ding an sich.

I’ve often said, “Well, I am not sure I want to devote my life to X, Y, or Z fully, as then I might miss out on other things. In the end, my life has (on some levels) not been lived, as I shelved action, shelved courage in pursuit of a singular goal, in favor of avoiding risk.  I gave power to fear, and missed out on the realization that there will ALWAYS be more, even if you THINK you’re restricting your life to acting on a single thing.  That thing will always reveal more than you could hope for, imagine, or believe.  Courage is learning to act in the knowledge (faith?) that there will be more, and that action won’t be a loss, even when it is.

Or… courage is shelving foolish action, to preserve what you have? I have a short/true story about a gut-wrenching moment when I had to decide whether to dive into the surf of Koki Beach, on Maui, to try to save my two boys’ lives, when both were swept out to sea by a rip current. As my first son disappeared from view, and my second son flailed his arms, screaming for me to help, I instantaneously had the following thoughts:  “A hero would dive in. Save your fucking kids, you coward! A hero would drown. How many stories have you read where the would-be hero only ends up killing himself.  Would my wife, watching from the beach, be better served if 2 or 3 of her family die today? We praise firemen rushing into buildings, but sometimes staying the fuck out is smarter. Acting the hero will not make this any better.”

All that spun through my head in milliseconds. Within 2 minutes (all of which time I was certain my kids were dead, and I was on the verge of puking) the rip current swirled them back in to the cove. Thankfully they had gotten control of the boogie-boards strapped to their wrists. They buzzed back into the beach and we had a real family moment.

We’re all alive today, and had I – a fat, out of shape, barely swim-capable 48 year old — dived in WITHOUT flotation, I am certain we would have at least one dead family member today. Was I courageous by NOT acting? It’s slippery, no?

So there is my verbally divisive definition of “courage”.  We’re no closer are we?

Keep looking in the face of horror. As Dan Rather would tell us at the end of his newscast. “Courage.”

And to paraphrase Paul Simon,
“This answer’s probably longer than you’d hoped for, but shorter than it could be. That’s not unusual.”

All lies and jest, still a man he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.  Lie lie lie.  Courage.

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