By Mark Fowler
George Will in an opinion column shared an incident during the Second World War: In 1940, a significant portion of the British Army had been pushed to the sea at Dunkirk France by the Germans. Trapped there, a British officer reported to his superiors with a three-word message: “But if not.” It was immediately recognized from the Book of Daniel at a time when the Bible was routinely taught.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, commanded by King Nebuchadnezzar to worship a foreign god or face death in a furnace, replied: “If it be so, our God, whom we serve, is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace….But if not, be it known unto thee O King, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship your golden image” (KJV Daniel 3:17).
Courage is a cardinal virtue. It is the ability to endure, to sustain in the face of fear and uncertainty. While it may be innate in some, for many, like all virtues, it requires the exercise of the will. One wills the self to be strong in the face of fear, just as one wills the self to be discerning (prudent), moderate (temperance), and fair (justice). Indeed, the act of Christian conversion requires God’s forgiving Grace, but calls us to exert the mind, the soul, and the will to obedience. Obedience is a willful act.
Worry is the antithesis of courage. Worry is the obsession over the negative or adverse. Inevitably, obsessive worry handicaps us. Where courage leads us to plan and act for untoward possibility, worry ties us down in an endless circle of defeatism. No plans can be formed, as all untrammeled conjecture leads to the acceptance of defeat or contemplation of insurmountable and unlikely circumstances. The glass is half empty. The task is impossible. The burden too heavy. Defeatism becomes self-fulfilling as we ignore or decline opportunities to overcome. Worry takes us to the dead end. Worry says, “Never. It cannot be done.” Or worse, “I cannot do it.”
Courage finds a way. In the midst of disappointment, courage sees possibility. In the midst of loss, courage finds a way to give. The glass is half full. The burden becomes lighter, the path clearer. From the end of one thing springs another path. Courage sees a way forward. Courage says, “Nevertheless, I can.”
If worry is fed by fear, courage is the antidote to fear. Fear is basic, innate, instinctive. It serves its purpose to put us on alert in the face of peril. Just as sexual urge leads us in its purest expression to marriage, fear leads us to caution. Both instincts must be subjected to the will to serve us best. We are called to be more than our basic instincts.
“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” —John Wayne
Thus, courage is not ignorance or an indifference to the risk of harm. The sociopath seeks danger for the thrill it gives him. Thrill seeking in this form is pathology. Courage knows the peril and embraces it.
A touchstone was used to assay precious metals by observing the type of mark left on the touchstone. In our era, the touchstone of courage was manifested by an army of former civilians who stormed the beaches at Normandy (and elsewhere) not for profit or glory but to crush Nazism. They had little personally to gain and much to lose, and many of them did what they did with courage and grace. These men marched into the teeth of deadly machine-gun fire and artillery at their peril. It is difficult to imagine their fear, but they saw that overthrowing Hitler required their sacrifice. Courage illuminated their path.
Likewise on 9/11, there were hundreds of acts of courage among men and women who stopped to help carry others, or to comfort them, or who ran into rather than away from burning buildings.
These are textbook definitions of courage. Courage comes in other less dramatic but just as important forms: The mother who calmly goes about her day buying groceries and caring for her family and acts as though she has not a care in the world about the present calamity. Courage can be seen in the faces of nurses, medical technicians, and others going to work and caring for COVID-19 patients. It can be seen in the actions of anyone who, while acting cautiously, goes about their day with a smile on their face and confidence in their heart.
We as humans have been down this road before. History is replete with any number of difficulties threatening death and mayhem — the plague, yellow fever, malaria, smallpox, any number of invading hordes, the atomic bomb. From birth, all of us are sentenced to death. Some of us will die suffering. Some will die in peace. Some from fire, trauma, cancer, or heart attack. Time has simply added one more peril to the list (an increasingly shorter list nevertheless).
C.S. Lewis addressed our fear at the onset of the atomic age.
“It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because (one) more chance of painful or premature death has been added to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance but a certainty. If we are to be destroyed from this (pestilence) let that (pestilence) when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis … not huddled together like frightened sheep.” —C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age,” 1948
We will all leave this earth someday. There will be tragedy and pain along the way. Let us not live in fear but rather in confidence and joy — as we were meant to live. The sun still shines. There is music to be enjoyed. There are children to bathe, pets to be fed, families and friends to love.
Let us get on with it.