THE BLOG

'No One Is Brave In All Circumstances'

06/22/2012 08:20 am ET | Updated Aug 22, 2012

There are many ways to be brave. The easiest to recognize is a willingness to take physical risks that most people would not consider. One of the salient characteristics of all creatures is behavior that conforms to a desire for self-preservation. This tendency is virtually an evolutionary imperative, to survive and reproduce. So what is it that impels some people to risk their survival on behalf of others or even in the name of an idea? This is the form of courage most often rewarded with medals. In combat, soldiers are expected to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the mission or for the welfare of their comrades.

One of the many things about war that is reprehensible is that conflicts are instigated and directed by the old, but the sacrifices required are borne by the young. It seems particularly disingenuous to depend upon the idealism and good intentions of one generation to satisfy the aspirations and rectify the mistakes of their elders. All wars are simultaneously stages for heroism and brutality. The rationale for fighting is universally characterized as "freedom," our own or someone else's, even as we are aware that the underlying reasons are resources, territory, religion, or fear. In any event, those who bear the battle are never those who start the war or who benefit from it. Not in this century or the last.

The essence of courage is overcoming fear. We appear to be so in need of heroes these days that anyone who puts on a uniform or performs competently is accorded hero status. Gone is the concept of choosing to assume a risk on behalf of another. A pilot of a crippled airliner who is able to bring it safely to earth has done his job with exceptional skill, but he had no choice and is therefore, by my definition, not heroic. The surgeon who saves a life demonstrates competence but takes no risk. People who climb mountains or throw themselves out of airplanes exhibit a willingness to risk their lives but no one else benefits from what they do. Someone who accepts the risks of military service or firefighting and survives is lucky but may or may not have performed heroically. We are in any event a little too preoccupied with acts of physical courage rather than admiring those who stand up for a principle at great cost to themselves. The whistleblower who sacrifices his job to report malfeasance or corruption is unlikely to be rewarded with a medal.

We also tend to become confused by the adulation we lavish on those who entertain us. The accomplishments of athletes are highly rewarded, and we are prone in our celebrity worship to confuse actors with the characters they play.

In the more prosaic world of daily life, we are seldom required or given the opportunity to be physically heroic. Stories of civilian self-sacrifice tend to center around those who are persistently helpful to others: parents of handicapped children, people who do charitable works, those whose primary gift is their time, sometimes, as with Mother Theresa, their whole lives. Generosity (another word for kindness) rather than risk is the standard by which such acts are judged.

Then there is moral courage, in which people stand up for a deeply held, often unpopular, principle at significant cost to themselves. Here we have people who resign their jobs rather than compromise their ethics, those who refuse to remain silent in the face of injustice, those who act to protect the powerless. Again the element of risk and sacrifice is what distinguishes this sort of courage from simple altruism.

A closely related trait is resilience. The ability to sustain the inevitable blows that life deals each of us and respond with a determination not to be defeated is one of the highest forms of courage. Unimaginable loss is all around us. Try to visualize a meeting of The Compassionate Friends, an organization for parents whose children have died. Here one finds ordinary people trying to retain their grip on themselves and reality in a world that has taken from them a precious child through disease, accident, suicide or murder. Parents newly bereaved, shocked and distraught, struggle to come to terms with the permanence of their loss. They turn for hope to the only people who can truly understand what they feel: other parents whose children have died. They are trying to hold on to their sanity, to regain some sense of themselves as having a future without their lost child. How long will they feel this way? How long before the lacerating open wound of their grief becomes a scar that they will bear forever? Will they ever regain a sense that their lives have meaning? Can they possibly retain a belief in a benevolent God in the face of such an apparently meaningless catastrophe?

We all have our breaking points, the moment when we surrender even our self-respect to the pressures of fear or the random fate that threatens to crush us. Those who can hang on the longest earn our respect. Perhaps the most implacable enemy we confront in our lives is time, which slowly strips us of our youth and health, eventually robbing us even of our memories. This is why growing old is for most of us simultaneously an exercise in cowardice and courage and why those who are young wish, usually in vain, for those who are old to provide some example of how to age with grace. In some ways the aging process is among our last chances as human beings to be brave and to give hope to those who must follow.

No one is brave all the time and in all circumstances. Those willing to take physical risks, for example, may not display fidelity to an ideal or a willingness to sacrifice for another. And those who show courage for a moment in their youth may crumble beneath the awful weight of time. Nevertheless, courage and resilience are such important attributes, especially compared to the posturing of those who have never been tested, that it is worth looking for in others and trying to develop in ourselves.

For more by Gordon Livingston, M.D., click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.