As transmuting a negative emotion requires research on its polar opposite, I recently found some interesting information on the opposite of fear – the quality we know as courage. We also know courage by many other names: adventure, audacity, backbone, bravery, daring, determination, endurance, enterprise, firmness, fortitude, guts, heroism, intrepidity, mettle, nerve, power, prowess, resolution, spirit, spunk, tenacity, valor, boldness, venturesomeness, and – this one is my favorite – élan.
Courage is so important to our personal and social well-being that it has been discussed in religion, literature, and film.
In Catholicism, the four cardinal virtues – fortitude, prudence, justice and temperance – are related to courage (fortitude is a synonym for it).
In the East, courage is part of Dharma, along with other qualities like patience, forgiveness, not stealing, austerity, knowledge, truthfulness, cleanliness, control of anger, and control of the senses.
The famous poet Virgil wrote in the Aeneid, “Audentes Fortuna Juvat”, which is Latin for “Fortune favors the bold”.
The author and journalist Ernest Hemingway said that courage was “grace under pressure”.
As we move from mental illness to a mental health approach, psychologists have taken interest in the concept of courage as well. According to the book Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, courage is one of six principal strengths, along with wisdom, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Here, courage is broken down into four distinct categories:
- * Bravery: The ability to do what needs to be done despite fear.
- * Perseverance: Continuing to pursue a goal despite obstacles.
- * Honesty: Integrity and authenticity across circumstances.
- * Zest: Vitality and enthusiasm in spite of trying circumstances.
As you can see, courage is not the absence of fear, obstacles or opposition, but rather it is the ability to be yourself, do what you must, go on and live in spite of fear, obstacles or circumstances. It is being anddoing in spite of external situations that may discourage you from whatever it is you are compelled to be or do.
Sometimes we think that courage is innate, that some people are born brave and it is these who are the heroes of classic stories, the chosen few who carry the masses. They fear nothing. This is not the case, and it is illustrated by one of my favorite movies. In the futuristic film Dune (1984), the main character, Paul, faced with a daunting task, puts it this way:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when my fear is gone I will turn and face fear’s path, and only I will remain.”
This quote – of fear as a mental concept, an idea corrosive to the mind, one that starts you down a destructive path, the idea of allowing fear to pass through you and after it’s passed, you being the last man standing – has been a visual aid that has helped me through many an obstacle. Use it as a tool, and remember that virtues and values are cultivated. You can grow in courage, and the more you focus on this polarity and not its opposite, the more you will experience it in your life. Some men are born brave. But most heroes are forged along the journey.