“Individual courage is the only
interesting thing in life.”
grace under pressure.”
“A ship in harbor is safe,
but that is not what ships are built for.”
“The secret of happiness is freedom, and
the secret of freedom is courage.”
“Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage
to save the world.”
“The opposite of courage is not cowardice. It is
conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”
“We need the courage to learn
from our past and not live in it.”
“With enough courage,
you can do without a reputation.”
“Courage is being scared to death
and saddling up anyway.”
“I’ve been through it all, baby.
I’m Mother Courage.”
“Courage is fear
that has said its prayers.”
-Karle Wilson Baker
“Courage is going from failure to failure
without losing enthusiasm.”
“We must let go of the life we’ve planned
so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
“Courage is the first of human virtues
because it makes all others possible.”
“The most courageous act is
still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
“Be bold and mighty forces
will come to your aid.”
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;
courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
It takes courage to live a human life. We all have varying degrees of courage. For some, it is buried deep in hearts and psyches; for others, it is a bright light that guides every step. But, for all of us, finding courage can be a choice we make every day—often in the quietest of ways. There is great courage in living life to the fullest, living with authenticity and a sense of alignment with one’s most deeply held values. And sometimes, simply getting up every day and putting one foot in front of the other is an act of immense courage.
This book is a collection of some of the most powerful inspirations I have encountered about what it means to live a courageous life. Here you will find one hundred and thirty of my favorite quotations from some of the world’s greatest thinkers, looking at courage through many distinctive lenses—wise, funny, spiritual, philosophical, historic, artistic, religious, eccentric.
Poets are perennially drawn to the subject of courage because it touches us at our deepest core, speaking to the very essence of what it means to be alive—what poet Jack Gilbert calls “the evident conclusion of being.” For this reason, limiting this book to include only thirty poems with courage as their central theme was one of the toughest challenges I faced.
I open this book with John O’Donohue’s “For Courage,” a poem that sets the stage for an exploration of how a new understanding of courage can illuminate our lives and change everything it touches. This wonderful poem shines a spotlight on the possibility of creating courage out of life’s darkest sources, moments when the very notion of courage seems unfathomable.
I also offer thirteen stories of individuals whose courage defines them, each in a different way. These are chosen from among the hundreds I had the privilege of encountering—testament to the defining power of courage in so many lives.
Investigating the wonderful quality of generosity for my first book, Inspiring Generosity, taught me that we are all innately generous. If we are lucky, something, sometime, calls it forth, bringing into the light what I call “a lightning bolt of generosity.” But the true lesson from that book for me was that, when we experience an unexpected burst of generosity, it quite often changes us forever, leaving us standing in a new place, in a new orientation, with little appetite for going back to our former life.
All the lessons of generosity are very much alive in this exploration of courage. As with generosity, what interests me most is not a single spontaneous act but rather a life that is lived in a new orientation. The person who runs into the burning building to save a child engages in an act of bravery that leaves us awestruck—but what were the seeds of that act, and how does that act then inform the rest of that person’s life?
So often, it seems, the person running into that building does not feel that she is doing anything extraordinary. Time after time, we hear these heroes say, “There’s nothing special about what I did. Anybody would have done it. I was just doing what was put in my path.” But the single act can often be traced back through a series of seemingly ordinary, everyday choices that gradually accumulate into something much larger. And, after bringing the child out of that burning building, the compass of the rescuer’s life often changes forever. From that act, a life in alignment with one’s truest values unfolds, marked by commitment, authenticity, and a willingness to take on tremendous risk. As Pema Chödrön teaches, “Deep down in the human spirit, there is a reservoir of courage. It is always available, always waiting to be discovered.”
I have always been drawn to courageous lives, to people who stand up to be counted, who speak truth to power, who take risks and feel joy in living boldly. Quite often, these bolder lives are not filled with flash and dazzle, but are instead of a quieter nature, marked by a humble determination to make the most of the gifts life gives us. what is courage?
Our first clue lies in the word’s derivation, from the Latin cor (the root of coeur in French and cuore in Italian), meaning “heart.” What is it to act from one’s heart? To live from one’s heart? This is not some soft, New Age metaphor for doing whatever we want, what pleases us most. I believe that the word’s root reveals that, when we act courageously, we are responding to our deepest selves, often unknown until the moment of being tested—what O’Donohue describes as “a courageous hospitality towards what is difficult, painful and unknown.”
Why is it then that the courageous act feels so utterly natural? Nothing is forced. It is a feeling of opening up to who we are most authentically, against all odds, and withstanding all risks. Who we are in that moment feels in perfect alignment with who we recognize our true self to be, and what defines us.
Many confuse courage with fearlessness, but the courageous are actually very intimate with fear and have moved through it to the other shore. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
There is a strong element of faith in courage—faith in the truth of who we are and where that will lead us, faith in what we are doing and its importance and value in the lives of others.
Courage shows up in our lives in thousands of unexpected ways. Forgiving can be an act of courage. Reconciliation can take courage. Deciding not to fight can sometimes be as courageous as charging into battle. Activism and ferociously committing one’s life to benefit others can tap into great courage. Standing up to bullies and terrorists requires courage, as does undergoing surgery and cancer treatments, and giving birth. Falling in love and creating art are both courageous in their own ways. Learning a new skill, starting a business, and athletic achievement can require determined courage. There is tremendous courage in comforting the dying, asking for help, and taking great risks for great causes. Living with compassion and an open heart can also require courage of a different stripe. In my own life, I’m learning the courage required by aging.
The defining core of courage is love. Without love, courage is not possible. Acts of bravado, yes—but true courage is the natural outgrowth of our love of all that we hold dear, of the preciousness of each human life and a deep belief that what we love matters. Without love, there is nothing at stake, nothing to fight for.
The many faces of courage
In selecting the thirteen stories for this book, I took a long and inspiring tour through the many ways that courage can define our lives. I am humbled by all the courageous lives I witnessed in researching this book, and bow deeply to all the hundreds that space would not allow me to include. I especially regret not telling the stories of heroes in our armed services and police and fire departments who put their lives on the line every day; those in medicine and all the healing professions; teachers; leaders in business and government; and brave activists on the front lines of the struggles for equality, peace, and justice and against the travesty of incarceration in our country and our seemingly
insatiable need to be perpetually at war.
Why do all these examples of courageous lives speak to us so poignantly? I think it is because we are living through a time of profound longing for heroes, in a world marked by fear in the face of faceless power. The stories I have selected in these pages may shed light on the more surprising faces of courage, the courage found in everyday lives. No one profiled here is world famous. None has won the Nobel Prize or become a household name. Yet all teach that what can seem quite ordinary is often extraordinary courage.
I share the story of Debi Jackson (page 104), whose courage was the greatest gift she could offer her three-year-old transgender daughter as they navigated largely uncharted territory together, with love and courage as their guides.
I have been touched by countless stories of the courage of the dying—those in war zones, those living with terminal illness. When life is on the line and death is closing in, this is when we often find the courage to live full out. As author Anne Lamott reminds us, “The worst thing you can do when you are down in the dumps, …is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.” I share the story of Jennifer Glass (page 68) whose courage enabled her activism for the rights of the dying as she faced her own terminal diagnosis.
We tend to think that enduring great pain and suffering is the truest mark of courage, but sometimes it is making the choice to walk away from pain that requires the greatest courage—leaving a relationship that has become impossible to repair or revive, a career that has lost its potency, or ideas and institutions that hold us back. As researcher and organizational consultant Margaret Wheatley reminds us so eloquently, it can define our lives when we “walk out to walk in.” She offers a test question to ask ourselves periodically in this regard: “What might I need to walk out of?” Courage and determination have defined the life of Jean Clarke-Mitchell (page 167), first as a victim of an abusive marriage and now in devoting her professional life to helping women who are victims of sexual assault and violence.
When we are young, we are afforded the chance to try on courage in its many guises. We can push ourselves to our edge in sports or academics. We can stand up to bullies and speak up for the unpopular or afraid. We can imagine our futures lived boldly, and then take the first tentative steps along the path. When I was vice president of Bennington College, I was always inspired to hear the president greet the incoming freshmen, urging them to take the courses that frightened them, offering them the chance to practice courage. It is a joy to share the story of the remarkable Gaby Chavez Hernandez (page 184), whose courage defined her as a very young child and, at the age of twenty-two, has already led her into the future that she dared to dream.
In his twenties, college student Tim DeChristopher seized an unanticipated moment of courage that has set the course for a life devoted to extraordinarily bold commitment and activism (page 16). Opening to courage so powerfully made it impossible for him to live any less fully.
To be a journalist in our times requires having the courage to put oneself on the line every day. In our country, what used to be the peaceful beat of our Main Streets is now often charged with hatred and violence. And the reporters who go to remote war zones do so believing that the value of their contribution outweighs the heavy risks. The Newseum, an interactive museum of journalism in Washington, DC, lists the names of 2,200 journalists who have died reporting the news. In 2014 alone, fifty journalists were killed in the line of work, some cruelly and publicly beheaded. Three books have been especially revealing windows on this world for me: war photographer Lynsey Addario’s It’s What I Do, written after the author was captured in Libya in March 2011; Zen Under Fire, by Marianne Elliott, a human rights activist and photojournalist in the Middle East
and Asia; and The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran, by Nazila Fathi, whose courageous life is the focus of the story on page 148. In the space of a few hours, a fatal car accident tore apart professor of Italian literature and writer Joseph Luzzi’s charmed life, leaving him a grieving widower and father of a newborn. For Joe, courage did not come easily. He forced himself to search for it everywhere, and ultimately was able to find it in a most unexpected and inspiring place.
The stories of Edith and Loet Velmans (page 35) poignantly demonstrate the ways in which early courageous experiences can plant the seeds that grow and flourish throughout long lives and, many years later, bloom into a final chapter of joy and gratitude for lives lived fully.
Diana Nyad (whose story appears on page 51) has been a hero to me for many decades because I, too, am a swimmer. But I’ve realized, in looking more deeply at her story, that her courage has nothing to do with her breathtaking feats in the water. The ocean is simply the setting in which her astonishing spiritual courage manifests.
For the remarkable Buddhist teacher Allan Lokos (page 89), who survived a catastrophic plane accident and a long series of surgeries and treatments that ultimately gave him back his life, courage was the essential element for recreating his shattered life. I have felt for some time that a commitment to a life of disciplined spiritual practice requires great courage. Buddhist teacher Larry Yang (page 133) lived a young life marked by discrimination, addiction, and exclusion. Meditation practice helped him navigate the choppy waters of recovery, and ultimately opened a path of Buddhist study and practice, as well as a dedication to actively serving the underserved.
Congolese prosecutor Amani Mirielle Kahatwa (who is profiled on page 117) stands up to the strong and powerful every day as she seeks out and brings to justice those who have used rape as a weapon of war. Her courage serves as both the voice of, and the inspiration for, those too fearful to speak up.
My own journey to courage
My childhood, like so many others, was marked by long periods of challenge and sadness. In comparison to the vast majority of the world’s childhood traumas, those in my privileged life now seem very small indeed—but, at the time, they were quite overwhelming. When I look back, I realize that I always held the unshakable belief that I was headed into a life in which I would have some extra armor of resistance, determination, and strength. But not everyone is so fortunate.
In adulthood’s toughest times, I could nearly always feel the strength of the earlier training ground. That strength grew to become an old friend: “Well, there you are again. Thanks for sticking around!” As I have faced other losses, sadness, and tragedies, I always had some mysterious reserve of something I could not yet name. I knew I was strong, determined, and compassionate, but never thought to use the word “courageous.” After immersing myself in so many stories of courage, I now feel a kinship. Nothing more, nothing less.
A much beloved teacher and friend, Mu Soeng, offers this seemingly simple recipe for a life well lived: Live simply, care deeply, die joyfully. Simple, that is, if you add courage as the essential ingredient in the mix.
During the writing of this book, my son was diagnosed with cancer—the single most terrifying thing I could imagine. Now, having come through the storms of surgery and treatment, we all rejoice in his return to vibrant, good health, relishing our great good fortune and able to see the courage that carried us all through this journey. I always knew Charlie was courageous. Now he has become truly intimate with courage. This book belongs to Charlie and all those who search their hearts for the courage to face life’s greatest challenges.
We are all courageous in our own ways—some of us have simply had it tested a bit more than others. Such trials are the stuff of life that we would never wish for but, at the end of the tunnel, find ourselves grateful for having passed through them. Like love, courage never goes away, only changes form from time to time, builds on itself, evolves, expands, and enhances everything it touches. In offering you this book, my hope is that you will tap into the fire of your own inner courage and feel its transformative power to light your way.