Lately, I’ve been pondering the courageous acts of firefighters putting their lives on the line to preserve others’ homes in the forest fires near here. It’s made me realize that courage can take many forms.
The best definition I’ve seen is that courage is putting yourself in danger, even when you know there’s significant risk involved. And in fact, many of our heroes have done exactly that.
There’s different kinds of danger. Researchers have established that social risk (fear of public speaking, for instance) elicits the same kinds of mental and physical response that physical risk (getting attacked by an animal) does. It takes the same kind of courage to overcome either.
This definition doesn’t address the deeper motivations behind the actions, though. It seems that somehow jumping into a river to save a child would be more courageous than doing the same thing to make a Youtube video. The physical action could be the same, but the motivation is different. Perhaps selflessness, then, is an important part of true courage.
Another component is principles. You could quit your job because you don’t like your boss, or because you refuse to engage in unethical behaviors demanded of you. It would seem more courageous to stand up for higher principles.
Or maybe it’s just more admirable. Could standing up for ideals actually be easier, because you feel that the decision is being made for you by your prior commitments?
In the end, I’m not sure that courage is always about taking the more difficult path. It’s really about doing the right thing in difficult situations – which usually implies taking the difficult path.
But the more you have a grounding on solid principles, and commit to them, the easier courageous behavior becomes.