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Where Courage Comes From

Courage is often a term we reserve for times of war and intense pain. The word conjures images of soldiers pouring onto battlefields, firefighters filing into blazing buildings, and mothers gathering their grievances over the loss of a child. Sure this is courage. But this isn’t the extent of courage.

Courage takes more than testosterone, adrenalin and maternal instinct. And it takes more than mastery of fear. True courage comes to us when we accept our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. It comes when we uncover who we are, and we embrace the truth, flaws and all.

This is where the term first originated. For the Romans, and the French who later developed the full term, courage meant to ‘tell your story with your whole heart’. To the Romans and French there was no such thing as people who were courageous in nature and people who weren’t. In their eyes anyone could be courageous so long as they understood their story well.

Today our story remains just as important to supplying us with courage. It does this by guiding us confidently through making decisions. It goes like this. Rational thinking cannot help us make decisions. The reason being is that when we try to rationalise one decision over the other we encounter infinite data. Even a simple decision like choosing between the lamb and beef brings endless doubt.

I had lamb yesterday. But the beef is cheaper. We have lamb less often. But the beef has more protein. The family likes lamb more. But I like beef. The lamb comes flavoured. But I prefer to add my own flavours.

Eventually we concede and make our decision based on emotion.

I’ll have the lamb because I saw someone order the lamb and it looked like a dish Mum used to make.

This is a simple example, but the idea applies to all decision-making. Without emotion we are caught in stalemate. Our story provides us with courage in these moments of doubt because it guides our emotions. It tells us what is right and what is wrong. What is good and what is bad. What is worth pursuing and what is worth ignoring. What worth fighting for and what is worth dying for.

How to Discover What You Stand For

When it comes to stories, there are four we can choose from:

The Underdog: A story of overcoming the monster

The Rebirth: A story of overcoming oneself

The Journey: A story of transformation through travel

The Rags to Riches: A story of trading places

Whether we realise it or not, we have all picked one story or another from the above list (now would be a good time to change your story if it no longer feels right). This story is what convinces us to fight tooth and nail for our career, our family, our sporting team, ourself. It guides our opinions on morality, human rights, politics, and economics. It instructs us when we get stuck.

This all said, the trick to mastering courage is to know our story well. Take some time to answer these questions based on the story above:

  • Who is the hero? Is it you?
  • What does the hero believe in? Why?
  • What are they fighting? Man, nature, technology, themself?
  • What serves as conflict? What must be overcome?
  • What are they fighting for? Peace, equality, empathy?

This is what you are prepared to stand for. Now picture the resolution of your story in detail.

  • Where does the final battle take place? (office, home, on the road?)
  • Who is involved? (this could be man vs man, man vs self, man vs nature, man vs technology)
  • How is victory attained? What symbolises the final blow?

This is how your story ends.

It’s easy to gloss over these questions, or to skip them altogether, but I encourage you to dig deep and know your story well. The first reason I have already touched on. This story gives us courage. It tells us when to stand defiantly and when to conserve our energy. After all, we only have a few good battles in us.

The second piece is that when we don’t know our story, we don’t know when the story is finished and it is time to start over. When this happens we get stuck. We convince ourselves that we can’t change and we repeat the same acts day in and day out, coming no closer to concluding one chapter and starting another.

Remember, we all tell ourselves a story. This is how we survive. Without coherent emotion we get stuck perpetually double questioning ourselves. And without the invention of a coherent story we have no coherent emotion.

I’m not telling you to turn your world upside down. You have a story already. This is simply a challenge to get to know your story better, to be active in writing it, and to change it often.

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Long before morning I knew that what I was seeking to discover was a thing I’d always known. That all courage was a form of constancy. That it is always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals come easily.