I picked up a little box of cards at a party recently that had little conversation topics written on them. I thought they would make interesting writing prompts.
How does a person become courageous?
I think courage has a lot to do with experience. Or maybe confidence.
My experience with courage.
My non-boating/camping friends tell me I am crazy for going whitewater canoeing. That some of the adventures I’ve had were borderline crazy. When they say these things I am at a loss to explain that while I am scared at the prospect of flipping in a rocky rapid, I am not mustering up courage. I am fighting down that fear. I am not becoming courageous. I am becoming less fearful by pushing fear down into excitement and challenge. Those friends who put themselves in my place, who try to imagine what it would be like to dart down a Class III rapid, should be terrified. If they were going where I was going they would be in danger. Real danger. They would have no idea what to do to protect themselves. I have had practice. I studied with master paddlers and practiced on many levels of river so I know my limitations and strengths in situations on rivers.
This is where I get the idea of courage being circumstantial. If you have practiced a certain task it becomes a skill, you can practice CPR on a dummy, or paddle with someone more experienced than you are, but practice also has taught you something about yourself. You have found confidence in your skills and you have found out something about consequences.
Going back to the courage question; in this context practice and experience can dull your fears and change your expectations so that you can do more daring and potentially dangerous things. You can look more courageous to people who don’t share your experience. It doesn’t feel like courage.
My working definition up to this point is that courage is being willing to take the risk of doing something known to be dangerous.
Spontaneous. There is something spontaneous about courage that I am leaving out in my musings.
I am trying to distinguish between the fireman who has been trained and wears equipment to go into a burning house and the average person who does the same without training and equipment and often without thought. Maybe we need two different words for those experiences. The fireman has far more skills and knowledge about what he is doing and he does it anyway. The average person has an incomplete idea of what she is getting into and she does it anyway. The similarity is in the ‘doing it anyway’ part of the situation. The binding between the two is courage. But you can’t measure courage volumetrically.
Maybe courage is something that happens, rather than something one becomes. Maybe that is the part of this question that stumps me. The fireman has fear but he also has figured out how to work within that fear. He also knows the consequences of going into a burning building without the gear and expertise he brings to the situation. He’s seen the ruins of people who failed to escape. To him the above mentioned average person is completely nuts for entering, not courageous, but stupid.
The driving force for my fireman friend was that he wanted to save someone, some day. I think he wanted to feel heroic. There are some average people who want to be heroic but the “average person” is often pronounced dead at the scene, which is what holds most of us back. We would prefer to skip that part, but there are manay instances where the average person goes in anyway.
Is it courage that propels that average person into the flames?
When I paddle a Class III rapid, I am using my skills. I am solving the puzzle the river is throwing at me. I am thinking fast and not at all. I am not brave or courageous, busy is more like it. On rare occasions I have spontaneously jumped into a potentially dangerous situation without thinking beyond, “Oh, god, I hope I don’t land on a rock,” and having a little flashback to the time when I was a kid floating on my air mattress in a shallow stream and hit a submerged rock with my stomach. But all my hesitation had been while I was in the air heading for the water. Too late.
Maybe part of the definition of courage is what people say about the person after the courageous act. And perhaps what they say about themselves should be included.
I’ve never heard someone say, “I was brave,” or, “I have courage.” I can’t really say those things about myself because I don’t really know what those feelings are. Are they even feelings? People have told me I was brave when I jumped into a river to rescue someone but brave wasn’t part of the immediate experience. Fear, certainly. But mostly on the river I am not actually thinking about what I am doing. I jumped into the river. The water was cold and shocking. I saw rocks and current, things that could threaten me, but mostly I was trying to figure out how to save the situation. Is anyone trapped underwater? Whew, two bobbing heads heading downstream. Can I get over there? Is there someone closer who can be more effective? Where is my throw rope? That boat is really stuck! I really hope someone knows how to do a z-drag.
It isn’t the adrenalin rush or the death wish I seek, it’s the… I don’t know exactly, I just find dangerous situations and how to avoid them, equally and deeply interesting.
I was talking with someone about my first experience of seeing dolphins playing in the bow wave of the ship I was on. I was hugely happy and excited about seeing them. The person I was talking to said in a ho hum voice, “Oh, yes. I saw that dozens of times when I was at sea.”
I was momentarily deflated by her comment, but when I went back to my original feeling, it was all still there and I felt a little sad that my friend wasn’t as thrilled by my dolphins as I was. Her thrill had been dulled by repetition and I think that is one of the roots of why people take on greater and greater risks as their skill level rises. They want the beginner’s excitement and they have to work a lot harder for it the better they get at sport. The fireman has to think about the danger but there is a ho hum aspect to it. A been there done that, element that has little to do with courage.
So I am circling back to the idea that courage is not something you become as if you suddenly become a redhead or six inches taller when necessity demands it. Courage is a word that gets applied to me by others who didn’t happen to think as quickly as I did, that particular time. Or they didn’t think the same things I did. Or, they gave up on the situation before I did. They gave up on their ability to solve whatever problem lay before them before it occurred to me that I should avoid getting my one set of dry clothes wet on a cold windy day.
Besides there are some people who are enormously more courageous than I am and what they do is manage to get out of bed in the morning.
Audacity vs delusion