by James Strauss
A discussion about courage is much easier to entertain and conduct among only women. Women, especially in the American culture, have no genetic or culturally driven desire to demonstrate courage by confrontive verbal action. Courage, to a woman, is a word used to describe quiet, steady and loyal performance. It takes plenty of courage to make it nine months through pregnancy and then accomplish delivery. A discussion about courage is much more difficult to conduct and endure if it is held among men simply because the male structure, both genetically driven and socially derived, is all about bellicose demonstrations of courage rather than performance of actions that would prove it. The American culture is filled with the mythology of courageous behavior. It’s everywhere in cinema, television, at bars and clubs across the nation. Males come together and figuratively thump their chests at one another to see which one can out-threaten the other. It’s done throughout the day, and at night in bars across the world. It’s done in schools where it’s called bullying.
Cowardice would be the opposite of courage and the meaning of the word should be measured in the same way as courage is. By actions instead of words. Donald Trump can serve as an example of a man who performs bellicose shouting representations of courage, while at the same time his life has contained few, if any, courageous actions. Is Trump really a full blown coward? The truth of that remains unknown, as only he knows what runs through his own sense of honor. Tom Hartz, the owner of Simple Restaurant, can be used as a local example of someone who uses the same style of aggressive verbal attack and representation, while his own history indicates he has seemingly done nothing to deserve the least bit of courage in any descriptor about his male identity. Is Tom a coward? Inside himself, or in the view of others around him? That calls for a conclusion I’m not going to make in this article. Examples of courage, and the lack of it, abound through all cultures, and throughout mankind’s entire history on the planet, and opinions about examples of it’s presence or absence can be found in almost every work of literature or film, real or fiction.
The discussion about courage becomes more arcane when the word is used to describe the effects of courageous actions. How does a person who does something courageous feel inside his or her own identity about the act? And is that feeling, no matter what it is, more credible and valuable to that person and society as a whole than public manifestations or representations? I once received a rather highly rated decoration for valor in combat from the U.S. Marine Corps, because I had supposedly done something of great courage. I accepted the medal because I was young, and also what else can you really do in that kind of post-combat environment. The medal was awarded for actual conduct all right, but the perspective of the person who wrote up the citation about the incident was totally off. I wasn’t running at the enemy to save my unit. I wasn’t running at them and shooting them with a Colt .45 because I was deliberately being courageous. I was running and shooting because I was terrified into a moving catatonic state of pure stupidity. That the enemy fell one after another before me, until I got my bearings and ran back to my unit, was only because they were shocked beyond comprehension that someone would do something so surprising, and incredibly dumb. Ever since getting the medal I have felt bad about it. The medal went from the living room wall of my home, to the bedroom wall and then out to the garage wall. It sits today amongst a wad with some others in a small plastic bag, tucked into an old suitcase in the basement. The citation that went with it is long since gone.
To be honored by society for acting courageously when you know you did not act with courage, is to be trapped in a conundrum. Forever after my mind has asked one of those late night unmentionable questions of itself: “Were you not exhibiting a form of cowardice by running away from that firefight rather than acting in any conceivable act of courage?” Over time answering that questions becomes easier. The excuses to assuage chest-beating honor are many and varied. I was young. I was inexperienced. I was shell-shocked. It was night and I was disoriented. All of the above, avoiding that terrorized fear part.
One does not have to go to war to have and exhibit courage. Doctors rush to all different spots on the globe to provide medical services. They come home after great discomfort, some having contracted the diseases they were out there treating. And then they go back. Now who can argue with that kind of expressed courageous action. Demonstrators stick up for causes they believe in, and get beaten and thrown into jail with criminal records attached to them. That’s courage. Firefighters go out the day after a terrible fire that caused the loss of one or more of their brethren and fight another fire. Courage. And what about the courage of those who contribute anonymously. They take money that costs them nobody knows how much in expense and power, and they give it to causes for no good reason other than good. True courage and that kind of internal courage, since nobody’s going to know, that translates into the word honor when its used to measure a person’s soul.
Sometimes courage is exhibited by doing nothing other than standing in the face of titanic forces, or even not so titanic forces. Standing up to some bully on the playground, at real or even potential threat of physical abuse. How about the courage of slowing and pulling over and away from road rage, a mostly male affliction that affects so many drivers on the nation’s highways? To pull back from such rage, while feeling the desire to retaliate, is an exhibition of interior and exterior courage, wherein the only reward is likely to be the lonely knowledge that courage replaced violent response, even when violent response was so called for.
What human beings call courage is the most important element of human expression that the word civilization is founded on. The root of the word is French, and the creation of it was intended to describe gatherings of men and women where barbarism and rudeness were discouraged. In early times where both of those things ruled most of human life, it took massive amounts of courage to oppose them Civilization and courage were all about standing up to those parts of human nature that if loosed on the species would lead only to wallowing seas of cowardice, with only a few eddies of courage surviving. To acknowledge what is courage is vital to the survival of all mankind. To recognize courage inside individual minds and souls, regardless of outside opinions, is the challenging responsibility of each and every one of us.