Definitions of Courage
We wonder if we have it in us
Ernest Hemingway described “courage” succinctly and memorably as “grace under pressure.” Well, yes, but it is so much more than that.
The poise and self-assurance implied by Hemingway’s definition are exhibited when a person stoically accepts grievous personal loss, or the prospect of imminent death from disease. Or it is seen when a man or woman quietly shutters a formerly successful small family business during a calamitous economic downturn. It’s someone persevering in the face of ugly prejudice.
In every case, such courageous people have been victimized. From no fault of their own, their progress along life’s path has been halted, permanently or temporarily. They are forced to detour, to step back, to interrupt their life plan, to rethink their next move. And they do so, gracefully, positively, and with scant thought of quitting. Without question, these are courageous people.
A second kind of courage isn’t nobler than the first, but it might be purer. This brand of courage is personified by a mother sacrificing herself for her child, a soldier risking his life to rescue a buddy in uniform, a person giving some stranger the last seat in the lifeboat. Such people choose to be courageous at the risk of great personal loss.
In a 1957 nonfiction book, The Bridge at Andau, author James Michener reported on conflict between the Hungarian people and their Soviet-backed Communist government. Economic deprivation and curbed freedoms fueled an insurrection. The October uprising ended days later after Soviet troops poured across the border.
Michener wrote of a particular incident on the Austrian border in which a Hungarian family of four retreating from the fighting crept up to a canal that was guarded by patrolling soldiers with dogs. October temperatures were slightly above zero and canal waters were veneered with ice.
The father didn’t hesitate. He stripped, lifted his little girl on his shoulders and entered the frigid canal. Using his free arm, he broke the ice ahead of him and waded through the chest-deep water to safety in Austria. Then he waded back, handed his balled-up clothes to his son, raised him upon his shoulders, and made a second trip through the icy water. In a third crossing, he carried his wife in his arms, holding her barely above the freezing element, and made it safely across one last time before the soldiers came upon the scene.
“Not one of his family got even so much as a foot wet,” Michener marveled, looking back on the event several weeks later. “If this man lives today—it seemed doubtful when I last saw his totally blue body—he is a walking monument to the meaning of the word…love.”
Love and courage. Two ennobling inborn capacities often intertwined. Each is characterized by being “all in” and honor-bound. Just as there is no such thing as being partly in love—that’s called “like”—one cannot be periodically courageous. We are or we’re not, and we don’t know which it is till we encounter our freezing canal.