Courage is one of the most important virtues a human being can develop. Most of the great things in life require risk, and risk is intolerable for the person who has not learned to live the courageous life.
One of the places we best learn courage is by studying the lives of men and women who have bravely stood up to fear. In the last post I explored the life of Nelson Mandela, and his is just one of a hundred stories that we could enter into on the journey of discovering great courage.
The problem that comes with these stories of great faith is they way they unknowingly trigger another one of the many forms of latent fear that plagues each of us. It is the fear that great courage is reserved for the stories of only a select few men and women. We are tempted to respond to every fresh move of God with the same old question of insecurity: “Who am I?”
We feel too normal, too insecure, too commonplace, too incompetent, too sinful, too scared, and too ordinary to ever be used by God in a mighty way. We assume that if there is important work to be done it is reserved for extraordinary leaders, seminary trained scholars, or men and women whose level of courage greatly exceeds ours.
But to give in to that insecurity is to miss the entire point of what their stories are pointing to. The courage displayed by these great heroes of faith is not to be thought of something that only a select few people are born with. It is not meant to admired, but emulated.
That is precisely where the amazing Maya Angelou makes an important contribution to the topic of courage. She says it like this:
“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
This is a really important insight. She says courage is not something we just enter the world with – instead, it’s something we enter the world with the potential for. That’s a big difference. Courage is like most virtues – you don’t accidentally become a person of nobility, generosity, or kindness. Those are reflections of your character, and your character is a reflection of conscious choices that you make over and over again.
Have you ever heard someone say, or hear yourself say, “That person is so strong! I wish I could have that kind of strength.” When we say things like that, it serves as a clue to the way we really think about these kinds of things. We have somehow come to the conclusion that this or that person possesses some magical inherent quality that we don’t. We wish we possessed it as well. We want to know what is in the water they drink, what books they read, and who their heroes are. We want to know so we can figure out how to be a little bit more like them. The truth is, the person we are covetous of isn’t some kind of genetically blessed superhero. They are working with the exact same raw material as you and I. They are simply making different choices with their lives, internal as well as external ones. And those countless choices add up to the sum total of substantial personhood that becomes more and more obvious to outside observes as time goes by.
The same is true of courage. Courage is not a genetic trait you inherit. Courage is a reflection of your character, and courageous fortitude comes only through a set of conscious choices that are made over and over again.