October 2011 - Vol. 53
Good and bad heroes
It takes courage – some would say “guts” – to overcome obstacles that can inflict great pain and harm. Courage, however, can be exercised foolishly or wisely, for a good cause or for evil, for selfish gain or for the benefit of others. Heroes are not born but are made – through the lessons they learn and the habits they acquire in facing the challenges and difficulties of daily life. Big heroes have a lot of courage because they have learned how to conquer their fears and overcome their aversion to pain and difficulties through meeting the little adversities and difficulties of daily life. When the really big struggles and life-threatening difficulties arise, they are ready to face them. It is in such times that one’s true character and inner strength is revealed.
A professional soldier undergoes intensive training in the art of combat and survival. But none of this can prepare him for the test of character – that inner moral fiber that disposes him to act bravely instead of cowardly, wisely instead of foolishly, with tempered strength, integrity, and honor, rather than with contempt and abuse. How he treats his mates and his prisoners reveals the strength or weakness of his moral character. In the moment of crossfire or ambush, he will either panic and flee, or he will stand and fight to the death for his men. His response will bring into sharp relief the kind of character that was built into him. He is either in this for himself (to preserve his own skin) or he is in it for his mates (to defend, protect, and help them in need). The choice is often stark and clear – who comes first – myself or my fellows? Am I willing to put my own life on the front lines in order to protect my fellow men?
The courage of
In the year 203 AD Perpetua, a young well-educated 22-year-old mother with a nursing infant, made the decision to become a Christian, although she knew that this could result in death for her, since the emperor had outlawed the Christian religion. Perpetua was arrested with four other recently converted Christians. Despite the pleadings and tears of her father to renounce her faith and gain freedom, she went calmly to her death in the arena with serene faith and joy. Her companion in martyrdom was another Christian woman named Felicity who two days earlier had given birth to a child.
Faith doesn’t grow by itself. Just as the physical human body needs a skeletal structure joined with ligaments and muscles, faith also needs to be buttressed with the moral virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence, along with hope and love. The Apostle Peter states, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5). When our faith is tested, courage helps us to hold firmly to the promises of God, even in the face of doubts and fears, and to confidently look to God to give us the strength to do his will.
Courage for daily
Courage helps us to do more than we would naturally be inclined to do, to go the extra mile when needed, to push through to the finish line even when we feel tired or exhausted, to endure the suffering, deprivation, and hardship that come our way. Courage is an inner strength because it keeps our mind resolute and our heart steady when we feel fainthearted, weak, or weary. It keeps us from giving up and running away when we need to stay the course.
There are different types of courage – such as the physical courage to climb a treacherous mountain or to defuse a land mine, the intellectual courage to persist in searching for a cure to fight a terminal illness, the heroic courage to lay down one's life to save others, like the soldier who throws himself on top of a live grenade, or the person on a sinking ship who gives his life jacket to the person who doesn’t have one, and the moral courage to stand for the truth and to resist evil in the face of opposition and threats to one's life.
Moral courage is a virtue precisely because it consistently (habitually) chooses to do what is morally good in the face of difficulty and to resist what is morally wrong despite the pressure to conform or succumb.
Need for heroes
Societies are tragically vulnerable when the men and women who compose them lack character. A nation or a culture cannot endure for long unless it is undergirded by common values such as valor, public-spiritedness, respect for others and for the law; it cannot stand unless it is populated by people who will act on motives superior to their own immediate interest. Keeping the law, respecting human life and property, loving one's family, fighting to defend national goals, helping the unfortunate, paying taxes – all these depend on the individual virtues of courage, loyalty, charity, compassion, civility, and duty.There can be no sound character nor any decent society without them. And sound character can only be won through courage and perseverance in the pursuit of what is good. The ancient Greeks and Romans took great pride in upholding their noble ideals and in honoring their heroes who bravely died defending them. Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations both eventually lost these ideals and collapsed through moral decay and excess. Our modern society will continue to decline and eventually collapse in the same way unless its leaders and teachers courageously choose to pursue the truth and restore moral order and virtue to their proper foundational role.
One of the best ways to understand and teach virtue more clearly is
by contrasting it with its opposite extremes (vices and bad habits). [See
chart below.] The two extreme opposites of courage are false courage and
escapism – avoiding difficulty through sloth and the fear of getting hurt.
We usually associate courage with fear as its chief opposite. Sloth, however,
opposes courage more strongly than fear because it drives away any incentive
for wanting to be courageous in the first place.
False courage is reckless daring, foolhardy risk-taking, audacious bragging, and false confidence. Reckless people often take unnecessary risks with excessive confidence in the face of danger or peril. They “dive in head first” without thinking. Some are “dare-devils” because they engage in reckless and indiscriminate courting of danger for the thrill of it. False confidence, especially in physical strength, and a sense of fearlessness based upon a false appraisal and evaluation of reality is another form of false courage. It makes us think we are stronger than we really are.
Sloth is an enemy of courage. It literally means “not caring” or “apathy.” Sloth is a kind of sadness in the face of some good that requires effort and choice – through searching, seeking, and achieving. And sloth drives out joy for what is truly good – God and his kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy (Romans 14:17). Sloth weighs upon the mind and makes a person listless (wanting to do nothing) in the face of good, especially of what is morally and spiritually good – such as loving God and neighbor, doing God’s will, overcoming vice with virtue.
Sloth makes us look for joy in the wrong places. Pascal describes sloth as diversions and distractions we fill our lives and minds with to avoid facing the truth about who we are and are called to be in relationship with God. Sloth can spring from laziness (not wanting to put the effort in pursuing and doing what is good) or timidity (fearful of how difficult or painful it might be to do what is good). Sloth leads to indifference – a “don’t care” attitude – and to restless escapism (excessive busyness, diversions, and distractions), and a refusal to work at our heavenly task (to seek first the kingdom of God).
Peter Kreeft, a prolific Christian writer and professor of philosophy, describes sloth as the chief modern sin holding us back from pursuing God and his kingdom.
There is a deep spiritual sorrow at the heart of modern civilization because it is the first civilization in all of history that does not know who it is or why it is, that cannot answer the three great questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? and Where am I going?Fear
Another obstacle to courage is fear, especially the fear of suffering that makes us shy away from living according to our convictions, standing up for the truth, and doing what is right in the face of difficulty. Fear makes us run away from problems and difficulties. It hinders us from taking decisive action. Unreasoning timidity and being too affected by the opinions of others can be debilitating because they keep us from holding to our convictions and standing for what is right.
Courage, on the other hand, empowers us to take on what is hard and to persevere through the difficulties. It fortifies a spirit of strength and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). Courage both allows us to overcome fear and it restrains excessive boldness as well. Often fear can keep us from acting, but there are circumstances when the bravest and most difficult thing to do is wait patiently and endure. Courage steers a middle course between cowardliness on the one side and foolhardiness on the other.
Courage – fortitude
Josef Pieper, a German Christian philosopher, has written extensively on the seven cardinal virtues (faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance). He describes fortitude as one of the key virtues every person needs for living a morally good life.
Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be brave, because he is not vulnerable. To be brave actually means to be able to suffer injury. Because man is by nature vulnerable, he can be brave.Along with overcoming fear, courage inspires one to do great things. Magnanimity is also related to courage. Magnanimity is the virtue of being great of mind and heart. It encompasses a willingness to face danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness; it raises a person above revenge and makes him delight in acts of benevolence. It makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest, and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble purposes. Such a person is self-possessed and is unaffected by the opinion of others. That person takes delight in helping others, and is generous with his resources, especially in the service of the gospel and the Lord’s people.
Patience is also connected to courage. Patience enables us to bear affliction without anxiety or discouragement. Patience is courage borne out over time (James 1:2-4; Luke 21:19). Courage also requires that we be ready to die for the sake of what is right. We must be willing to die rather than sin. The martyrs, by laying down their lives for Christ and the spread of the gospel, make the supreme act of courage.
How do we grow
in the virtue of fortitude?
Servais Pinckaers, a noted Christian moral teacher, wisely taught that courage calls for wise educators – parents, teachers, and pastoral workers – who can lead by example as much as by precept and training.
The development of courage (fortitude) is progressive. It is acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions. It grows with the dogged effort to study, to finish a task, render a service, or overcome laziness or some other fault. There will also be battles to fight, trials to encounter, small and great sufferings to endure, reaching their pitch in the illness and death of loved ones.The greatest of all teachers is the Lord Jesus himself who calls us to walk in his way of love, truth, joy, and courage. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit he gives us the help, wisdom, and strength we need to overcome whatever obstacles and challenges we may have to face. Nothing can shake our faith or separate us from God's love if we root our lives in Jesus Christ and trust in his word.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)[Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word and author of Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations]
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom