The Alchemy of Courage

I have been studying courage for over a year, both academically and introspectively from my own experience.  As much I have tried to wriggle out of facing this fact, it does seem to be unavoidable that courage is always accompanied by fear.  We might call it anxiety or stress but underneath it is fear.

The seminal work on courage is by Paul Tillich ‘The Courage to Be’ written in 1952 where he wrote “Courage resists despair by taking anxiety into itself”.  He is saying that, to be courageous we have to accept our anxiety and take it with us.  We can’t avoid, skirt around or destroy anxiety.  The existentialist philosophers embraced the idea that anxiety is an unavoidable part of human life and Olson said “The only life worth living is one in which this fact is squarely faced”.  The only way that we can live fully, wholeheartedly and courageously is by accepting anxiety and not letting it hold us back.

Mandela, a symbol of courage the world over, knew this “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

The trouble with stress, anxiety and fear is it feels horrible.  So we do what we can to avoid the feeling, and avoid whatever it is that we believe causes us to feel bad.  We avoid the anxiety that is evoked by risk, by uncertainty, by conflict, by putting ourselves in the spotlight.  But what if we viewed anxiety differently?  What if we believed that even though it feels bad, we won’t come to any harm, that it will pass, that it is a sign of being alive and even, that it is an energy that comes to our aid when we need it?  By viewing anxiety in this way we transform it from a force that limits our lives into an energy that we can use to achieve our goals.  If we believe it and keep our focus we can, in a form of psychological alchemy, turn fear into courage.

I was delighted to see this Ted Talks video by Kelly McGonigal whose research on stress (aka anxiety aka fear) has shown that when we change our belief about stress, we change the harmful effects of stress.  In her own words what she has found is the biology of courage.

Letting Winston Churchill have the final word, “All we have to fear is fear itself.


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