Somewhere over the course of my research on courage, I read a story about two military leaders in battle.
Both were faced with a decision to advance or retreat against the enemy. One leader knew he and his men would not win, but he didn’t want to return home, dead or alive, labeled as a coward. So, he advanced, and he died. The other leader didn’t have stellar eyesight and didn’t feel good about taking his men into battle with impaired vision. He decided to stay back — knowing he would be taunted as a coward upon his return home.
Without thinking too hard, it’s fairly easy to conclude from this short story that the first leader’s decision was characterized by action, or movement, while the second leader’s choice was marked by inaction, or non-intervention.
But, the question that comes next is, which leader chose courage?
Courage is a choice to face a risk for a worthy purpose.
There are three essential parts to this definition.
Choice – An individual must make a choice — a free choice. The person must decide for themselves, and that means their decision cannot be born out of fear of punishment or result from someone telling them what to do.
Risk – There must be a substantial risk or challenge to the actor. (Stubbing a toe or getting a paper cut doesn’t count as a substantial risk.)
Purpose – The motivation behind an action must be worthy or noble. Strong purposes are internally motivated and align with an actor’s values. Doing something for a thrill or external recognition doesn’t count as worthy or noble.
If one of these key components is off or missing, there isn’t a courageous act.
Now, let’s apply the definition to each leader’s decision.
It’s clear that the second leader, whose decision was characterized more by inaction than action, chose courage.
Mary Anne Radmacher famously said “Courage doesn’t always roar.”
And, it doesn’t always move.
Quite often, courage is associated with literal motion because it’s related to actions like stepping outside a comfort zone, moving to a new city or starting at a new school. The virtue can easily conjure imagery of someone advancing, however terrified or rash, toward the boundary between the known and the unknown. But, it’s erroneous to believe that courage requires an action to include literal (forward) movement. Limiting courage to motion dilutes the power of the virtue.
Throughout adolescence and young adulthood, youth will have to make difficult decisions about friends, relationships, social activities and more. Many of those decisions will require courage, but that doesn’t mean all of them will require action. Being physically and mentally still in the midst of surrounding chaos and saying ‘no’ despite ‘yes’ being the most popular response are decisions that can take on characteristics of inaction. But, they can be among the most courageous things youth can do.
So, let’s get this straight. It’s easy to group courage and action together, especially when we’re talking about forward motion. But, there is no requirement that courage equate to movement. In fact, sometimes the most courageous action will, in fact, be inaction.