Seeing the images of what have come to be known as the 'Fukushima 50' - the Japanese firemen charged with trying to control the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the earthquake and recent tsunami, I am reminded of the New York City firemen of 9/11 heading into danger when all others are trying to flee.
There are apparently only 12 radiation suits available at Fukushima and these are worn by those directing operations at the heart of the plant. Whilst the Fukushima 50 have breathing apparatus and radiation monitors which are triggered if exposure exceeds acceptable levels they are protected by no more than a clean boiler suit and a change of clothes every day.
These young men have now openly stated that they expect to die in the forthcoming months or years of radiation poisoning or cancer, but that they are willing to make this sacrifice to protect millions of their countrymen. They are displaying great courage in an extremely difficult situation and we all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.
I am also struck by the courage of the people involved in the current swell of uprisings in the Middle East. Knowing that reprisals are likely and that they are in personal danger, young, middle-aged and old men and women have taken to the streets to protest against repression and the able-bodied men are prepared to fight and die for a better life for others. An untrained raggle taggle army, they are opposing the military might of their own governments with rifles and determination.
What is courage?
Whilst the dictionary defines courage as the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger or pain without fear, others disagree that there can be courage in the absence of fear.
The definitions encompass physical courage which is courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, death, or the threat of death, and moral, social or civil courage which is the ability to do the right thing in the face of opposition, discouragement, shame, scandal or uncertainty.
The people involved in the uprisings are displaying both physical courage and also civil courage where they stand up against a regime they regard as unjust or evil, in the knowledge that their actions might lead to their death, injury or harm to themselves or other family members.
But these are obvious kinds of courage. For the chronically sick or frail elderly sometimes it takes all the courage you have got to get out of bed in the morning. For someone with facial disfigurement, it may take all the courage they can muster just to run the gauntlet of public reaction and go to the shops.
The everyday inner courage to try again after a knock back or to love again after a broken heart is not to be underestimated. As is the courage to go on living with a light heart in the face of the repeated losses associated with the human condition. Anyone who has lived for any length of time will be no stranger to needing to muster their resources of courage.
Traditional views of courage
The quality of courage has been highly regarded by various different religions and philosophical traditions throughout time.
The Traditional Chinese view is that courage stems from love which causes the ability to be brave. In Hinduism, the words courage and patience are regarded as the two most important characteristics of dharma or the earthly work we are born to do. Islam too regards courage and self-control as key factors in overcoming evil and honours the the courage shown by the Prophets in the face of hostility to their beliefs.
The Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, outlined the four main or attributes for a person as being temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage. The Catholic Church embraced these as the four cardinal virtues and later added the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love or charity.
The Roman, Aurelius Prudentius, also wrote a poem Psychomachia in 410 AD about the battle of virtues and vices which became very popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. He named courage as one of the virtues and each virtue was regarded as counter to a vice or deadly sin.
Qualities associated with courage
Courage encompasses the allied qualities of bravery, perseverance and honesty.
Physical bravery is the most obvious form of courage and involves acting in spite of possible harm to one’s body or life. Most nations recognise valour and courage in wartime with awards such as The Victoria Cross which awarded in Commonwealth countries.
Moral bravery involves standing up for what is right in difficult situations in spite of social disapproval and possible backlash. John F. Kennedy's book, Profiles in Courage, described the actions by 8 US senators who risked their careers or lives to pursue a wider vision of the common good.
Another category is psychological bravery, which is the courage to overcome addiction, incapacitating anxieties and to break away from destructive relationships.
People rarely truly fail. For most, they don't exhaust every single possible avenue, they just give up. Perseverance is the strength to keep going along a path in spite of obstacles, discouragement and failures.
In order to persevere, the individual must possibly repeatedly suppress the desire to abandon the task and do something easier, and have a larger understanding that the end they are working towards justifies persevering.
Perseverance also requires the ability to overcome low self-esteem, the assessment by yourself or others that you do not have the requisite skills, abilities or training for the task, discouragement or lack of support from others and the very human desire not to look foolish or fail.
In short, perseverance requires an unusual amount of self-discipline.
In relation to courage, honesty means more than just telling the truth or not lying. It means having integrity and the ability to be true to oneself in all circumstances.
There are obvious situations in life where to be true to oneself requires a great deal of strength in the midst of fear. 'Coming out' as homosexual to one's family, friends and work colleagues or deciding to have a sex change operation to reflect one's true gender identity are examples.
In both cases it is not possible to predict how the information will be received and whether you will face personal rejection from those you love most for your decision. That takes a great deal of honesty and courage.
The understanding of the importance of honesty and integrity tends to grow with age, but there are certain individuals who seem to excel in these human strengths.
Quotations about courage
"Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other."
"Courage is trusting in your own strength."
"Necessity does the work of courage."
Nicholas Murray Butler
"Courage is grace under pressure."
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear."
"Insistence on doing the right thing even in the face of certain defeat without promise of reward or salvation."
J. R. R. Tolkein
"Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave."
"Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared."
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker
"Courage is knowing what not to fear."
"Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one."
"Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point."
"The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy."
John F. Kennedy
"Courage is the power to let go of the familiar."
"To live with fear and not be afraid is the final test of maturity."