Aristotle describes courage as ‘the first virtue’ because it underpins many others. For example, in order to develop honesty, we may need to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. Inevitably, this requires a healthy dose of courage.
So, how can we develop courage?
Let’s start by understanding what courage really is. The Oxford Dictionary defines courage as, “The ability to do something that frightens one”. Mark Twain said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the resistance to fear and mastery of fear. To be courageous, we have to be scared.
Last summer, during our family holiday, we spent two days at Legoland in Denmark. At the end of our first day, my nine-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, I’d really like to go on the big roller coaster”. “Okay”, I said, “Let’s do that tomorrow”. “The problem is”, she said, “I’m scared”. I asked her whether she wanted that to stop her. She thought about it for a moment and said, “No, I want to do it”. “Just for interest”, I said, “what do you think courage is?”. She took a moment and then said, “Going towards something I’m scared of”. “Okay”, I said, “it’s up to you. You could still be scared, but you could decide to have a go anyway. If you want to go on, let me know because I’d love to go on too”.
So, the following morning we were the two sad people who were right at the front of the queue as the theme park opened. As the shutters went up, we ducked underneath and ran the entire length of the park to the roller coaster. Of course, she shot off shouting, “Come on Daddy, keep up”. We were the first at the ride and got the choice of seats. Naturally, she chose to sit at the front. We strapped in and off we went. The ride was great and she screamed in all the right places. As we pulled back in at the end of our ride, I looked across. “How was that?”, I asked. “Brilliant”, she replied, “If we run round, we can get to the front of the queue before anyone else gets here and have another go”.
She now knows how to develop courage. She knows that you can do something, even though you’re scared. She knows that it is challenging, but also incredibly rewarding.
Interestingly, I can remember how I developed a fear of spiders. I was about eight years old on a school trip to a butterfly farm. There were lots of creatures, not just butterflies, in the centre. There were glass tanks full of insects, frogs, snakes and creepy crawlies. At one point, a lady from the butterfly farm asked my class if we’d like to hold a tarantula. I remember standing looking at this rather large, hairy, orange and black striped spider, and thinking, “Maybe I will”. As I pondered this, ready to put my hand up, I saw the rest of the class and the teachers backing away. There were some muffled screams and gasps. A fleeting thought ran through my mind, “Maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe it would be safer to back away too”. I wasn’t instantly petrified of the creature. However, in that moment, I had taken the first step towards developing a fear of spiders. From that point onwards, I consistently chose to take steps away from spiders and create distance between myself and them. In doing so, I was cultivating my phobia.
Ten years later, I was a strapping six foot tall, athletic, rugby player. My parents were living overseas, so I lived with my grandmother whilst I finished my college studies. I remember going upstairs to take a bath after playing rugby. I looked into the bath and saw a huge black spider. “GRAN!”, I yelled, “Help, there’s a spider in the bath”. Gran shuffled her way up the stairs, took out a cloth, picked up the spider and shook it out of the window onto the roof tiles. What was I doing? I was eighteen years old. I’d just been running headlong into opposition rugby players and I was scared of a harmless house spider. It was at that moment I decided to deconstruct my phobia… one choice at a time.
During the next few years I decided to approach spiders, not retreat from them. I didn’t immediately pick one up and let it run across my hand. To begin with, I just stood my ground. I remember having a discussion with one particular spider, laying down the ground rules for our relationship. It began, “Now then Mr Spider, you and me have got to start getting along better”. Rather than running out of the room or yelling for my Gran, I would lean on the edge of the bath and think of ways to help get it out unharmed. I would try to tempt the spider into a cup and slide a sheet of paper underneath. That way I didn’t have to pick it up with my bare hands and didn’t risk breaking one of its legs. One small step at a time, I reduced my phobia.
Now this example is not a monumental story of courage, I know. I didn’t run into a gun battle to rescue a fallen comrade, but the principles are sound. To develop courage, we need to approach our fears. It is a challenge. To grow and develop, we need to take on that challenge. In fact, this same simple principle can be applied to many other aspects of our character.