Where will you train your courage?

Where will you train your courage? September 15, 2012

My post on the horrors of football sparked an interesting conversation about courage and character.  Forgive me for stitching together conversations and truncating comments, pop over and read the comments in full in the thread.

Randy: Men do take risks. Women don’t get why. Liberal do-gooders try to prevent them from taking risks. There is something about facing your fear and coming out victorious that men need to do. I won’t try and explain it but if I am ever in a dangerous situation I want a guy who gets that to be in charge. Don’t give me the guy who ran from every fight. Give me the guy who made the other guy scared of him. That is who I want to follow when we are in real trouble.

Elliot: Courage doesn’t consist in destroying one’s health and cognitive ability for sport.

Randy: OK, how do you build courage in a risk-free environment?

Jake: It’s really hard to find things that are scary, challenging, courage-building, and safe. There’s a very real sense in which football is risk-for-risk’s-sake, but that’s not the same thing as saying “Sport is activity done for no purpose”. The point of football (at least for me) was that I had a very real fear of pain, of hitting other players, of failing and embarassing myself in front of my peers, and overcoming that fear was a self-contained good thing (this is distinct from being afraid of lasting brain damage. That’s not a fear I want to overcome)

Elliot: Well, courage is about enduring difficulties and pains for the sake of some desired good. Risk doesn’t necessarily enter into it. There are risk-free activities (e.g., extensive study) that still require fortitude of the person doing them (reading for hours at a time is incredibly difficult, for me anyway). Or to take a better example of courage, dying for someone else requires tremendous courage. Is there risk? Well, not exactly, since you know you’re going to die. The courage is in your ability to sustain the desire to do this based on the goodness of the act, despite the pain and loss associated with it. Courage endures. But(!) it endures for a purpose…

I love Elliot’s whole comment (which I trimmed above).  I know that Randy and Jake are responding to a real concern about whether we’re building a world with soft corners on it, and I agree that something needs to be done.  But I don’t think that’s seeking out riskier activities.  The best thing is to meditate on Elliot’s comment and to realize everything in the world is high-stakes and more than a little risky.

Getting hit by a linebacker is scary and I’m sure as heck not signing up for that experience.  But this isn’t the most salient kind of scary to train on.  Humans are bad at estimating risks; we worry about shark attacks and fail to buckle our seatbelts.  And we persistently underrate the risks of helping others and allowing ourselves to be dependent on their help in turn.  The power we have over other people is staggering (think of the story of the gossip and the chicken feathers).

The solution isn’t to cultivate fear of those situations, so we have more opportunities to exert courage.   The problem is thinking about courage as an exertion, instead of a tool to help us carry out our duty.  I’m particularly prone to ignore Elliot’s advice and think of courage as an end-in-itself.  Whether I’m steeling myself to get on a roller coaster or have a difficult talk with a friend, part of me is rejoicing in getting to exert strength.  And then I don’t end up focused on the good I need my courage to defend or even on a pure aesthetic appreciation of strength in a stoic kind of way.  I end up with pride.  I start running the little XP counter in my head and try to think if I’ve beaten a challenge big enough to level up.

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