Defining Courage

Coaching / Cognitive Positive Psychology / Counselling / Positive Psychology / Strengths

Courage Is a word often used to describe an act despite the presence of fear. It is often used interchangeably with bravery, and often misunderstood. For us to understand Courage, we must first arrive upon a clear definition, and understanding of the etymology, a breakdown of how, when, and why courage is evoked…

“Courage is a selfless madness which descends on us in a dichotomous haze where we see the ugliness of the outcome and yet choose to walk towards the beauty of the sacrifice”. Coker (2017)

What is courage, when, where, why and how do we experience it?

The above series of linked questions have occupied an increasing space in my mind since the concept, and central theme of ‘courage’ dropped out of my dissertation project on the road to completing my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology. My dissertation explored the subject of hope and fear, and set me on a journey into many of my own hopes and fears as I dared to gaze inwards. The following poetic episode is a meaningful glimpse into the conclusion of my work in this area, and the beginning of an entirely new chapter.

This paper explores and discusses the concept of courage as a central theme which emerged from an earlier study forming part of a dissertation project. To give context, some of the dissertation work is shared within this paper, specifically the exploration of hope and fear which gave birth to the interest in courage. This exploration should be viewed as a precursor to detailed research within this area, together with an eventual literature review. Initially, the bulk of this paper explores the concept of courage from the writer’s viewpoint, whilst delving into some of the detail to emerge from the dissertation.

Excerpt from Dissertation

For my lighthouse:

“Fear is an ocean wide and vast. Its roaring waves dwell in all temporal planes reaching the shores of the future, present and past. Fear can divert us from the course of our dreams of the future. Its currents can paralyze us in the present and halt our forward momentum. Its draw can pull us back into the past. Hope is a lighthouse in this ocean, and its light penetrates the fogs of fear. Hope shows us the way and gives us the will to move forwards. Its whisper can be heard above the roar for those who listen!” (Coker, 2016)

My conclusion that hope is a lighthouse which gives us direction and binds us to our deeply meaningful goal. The function of hope is to attenuate the fear of non-attainment, and to show us that the end is within our grasp. For some, the lighthouse may be represented by a person, their own self-efficacy, or by the gravity and magnetism of the goal itself. What if we have no hope, or a hope that is eclipsed by fear? Why do some still continue to put one foot in front of the other without the positive force? My polar model explained this in the way that hope pulls us towards it, whereas fear pushes us away. Where the two are in balance, they can be powerful. If fear generates too much magnetic force, it can fix us in place and halt our forward momentum. Even more force, and it can start to pull us backwards and we can fall into despair, which for me is the absence of hope. Interestingly, through my study of hope and fear, the theme of courage dropped out, and seemed to appear constantly where hope and fear were experienced.

In an attempt to define courage, I would suggest that it be categorized as a virtue, or an intrinsic trait which has positive moral components, and an altruistic nature. Courage, for me is the ability to choose to move forwards, hold steady, or move away in the presence of a dominant sense of fear, lack of control, and where the balance of probability is a negative outcome which affects us. The concept of walking towards a personal loss, or away from a personal gain in favor of doing the right thing, and acting altruistically would suggest that courage is certainly a virtue!

The choice element of courage is a fascinating idea, and one which suggests that where we have no choice, and the fear is imposed on us, we may turn to hope, and not courage to attenuate the fear and break away from its “draw”. In this instance perhaps we deal with the threat because we have to deal with it, and we cannot run away from it. Imagine being told that we, or someone we love is going to die… My hope and fear research suggested that we immediately turn to hope – whether in the form of prayer, delusion, or the quest for knowledge in order to gain a sense of control. Where courage surfaced, was in the instant that fear started to win, or hope started to fade, and the individual chose to face their greatest fear in the form of acceptance, and walk towards the outcome, embrace it, or make peace with it.  So if hope pulls us towards a goal, and fear pushes us away from one, courage has the ability to overcome the push of fear where we choose to walk towards it. The polar model of hope and fear suggested that where we “hoped that it wouldn’t” happen, we would “fear that it would”. Imagine a scenario where we turned around and walked towards this fear by choice – when we could choose to walk away, or delude ourselves by focusing on the hope aspect. This would essentially go up against our most basic and selfish survival instincts. It is courage that gives us the ability to fight against this. Essentially, this is madness and entirely altruistic. Altruism of course, in its purist form always benefits the greater good, or the needs of the many, and this suggests that courage is an advancement mechanism, in the same way that fear is a survival mechanism. Maslow, (1943) suggests that for transcendence to occur, we have to be free of danger, and the basic needs. Courage may well be a nemesis to this theory, and those who operate altruistically have maybe discovered an ace-card, or way of cheating this concept

Fig:1 Courage Operator Pyramid (Coker, 2016)

The Pyramid suggests that there is always a choice and action associated with invoking courage, and that there is fear, or hope present, and a perceived risk or reward.

Download the proceedings paper submitted for Buckinghamshire New University May 2016 Positive Psychology Symposium:
May 2017 Symposium

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