According to Heraclitus, “the only constant in life is ‘change’.” Our world has been changing constantly. So have been our lives. Recently the pace of such changes has been faster, and the resultant chaos left many of us trapped and bewildered.
The political economies of most countries in the world have changed as oligarchies have taken firm roots in such countries. Despots, through the effective use of propaganda, became “saviors” of democracy. Governments with the help of artificial intelligence and social psychology have become immensely successful in re-engineering society and influencing psephologically to pre-planned electoral outcomes.
A pandemic aided pharma companies to rule the roost and the public health measures adopted to contain the vector have changed the way governments managed health. It has also changed the way we work, study, buy things from the market, and many of the ways we conduct our daily life, resulting in confusion and chaos. These changes continue to profoundly impact people’s lives. Many of us are now realizing that life will no longer be back to pre-COVID times, work rhythms aren’t going to be the same, and the experience of community isn’t the same as earlier.
The ongoing global economic recession has shrunk the resource base of many developed and developing countries. Big companies are slowing down their expansion plans. Unprecedented layoffs, and withdrawal of offer letters to newly recruited – even by the extremely reputed corporate giants – have shaken the confidence of the youth. Organizations are being re-structured or downsized to make their staff optimally deliver outputs in the changed scenario. Even corporate houses are wondering what will be unfolding for them in the future.
Religious leaders who are supposed to give guidance to stranded and confused individuals are clueless about the way forward. Some of them are indulged in ‘voodooistic’ practices, some are on the way to becoming godmen or god women, and all of them make money by exploiting the situation of helpless victims.
These are only some examples of changes happening around us. To survive and thrive in this chaotic world, we need courage as an essential personality trait.
What is courage? We use the word ‘courage’ quite often in our life. But what is the meaning of courage? The commonly understood meaning of courage is the “mental or moral strength to persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty[i].” It is also a willingness to confront risk and uncertainty. Courage is being bold, unafraid, and strong in the face of evil. Courage means having the strength of character required for bold actions by acting confidently even when faced with adversity or uncertainty (or both!). Taking a stand and holding onto courage throughout the test of time requires us to do some serious soul-searching.
Recently, we all heard about an Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini. Wearing a ‘hijab’ did not make any practical sense to Amini and she questioned enforcing this practice on her and her fellow sisters by a patriarchal regime and she refused to wear the ‘hijab’. The Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran took her into custody and later she died of cerebral hemorrhage due to multiple head injuries received after her arrest. Eyewitnesses certified that she was severely beaten up by the police and died as a result of police brutality.
Her courage was infectious and thousands of young Iranian women went to the street in defiance and protest. Despite an aggressive crackdown using lethal violence by the Iranian government, the movement became stronger day by day. It is only a matter of time before the hijab imposition rule will be withdrawn by the theocratic government of Iran.
Mahas Amini had something called social courage[ii]. Social Courage is the ability to stand up for ourselves and our beliefs, even in the face of opposition from others. It is very hard to find in common people; that is why we see people with social courage have a lot of fans. They are rewarded and are regarded as heroes. Unfortunately, Amini paid for it with her life. Though that is not always the case, it takes strength to stand up for us or for others when doing so is extremely risky. This level of bravery isn’t easy, but it can be developed over time.
Just like social courage, there are five more types of courage. I am sure everyone knows Physical Courage. Physical courage is the most common type of courage that comes to our mind when we think about courage. Perhaps, it is the only type of courage many of us are even fully aware of! Physical courage is the ability to face danger, pain, and fear. It’s seen in people who have received injuries while trying to save someone or those who have been through trauma that has left them with some physical scars. Physical courage can also be seen in people who boldly face their fears – like firefighters, despite the possibility of getting hurt. Physical courage can describe any situation where we’re willing to put ourselves in harmful ways to help someone else.
Another type of courage is Emotional Courage. Emotional courage is the ability to deal with our emotions in a productive and healthy way – rather than in a destructive way. It also means we have the strength to face our emotions head-on rather than running away from them or ignoring them. Emotional courage also allows people to face their fears and overcome them, no matter how terrifying they may be.
An example of emotional courage in our personal life may be that we have just experienced a sudden and devastating loss from the death of a loved one. Instead of taking time off work and isolating ourselves from others, we may prefer to stay at work and keep up with our responsibilities. We would still take care of ourselves by eating well or getting enough sleep etc. and look after other people we are responsible for or dependent on us.
There are excellent examples of demonstrating emotional courage by ordinary people in real life. Some of you might have heard about Lisa Beamer and her celebrated book named Let’s Roll[iii]. The book narrates the story of her beloved husband Todd Beamer and the other heroes of Flight 93 who saved countless lives on 9/11, by demonstrating physical courage and bravery. In an extraordinary act of bravery, her husband fought back against the evil men planning to crash their plane into the White House in the US and saved countless lives by causing the plane to crash in a field instead. Her book is a very touching story about how she and her husband lived their lives as children, how they met and their lives together for the few brief years they had together, and most importantly how she conducted herself after her husband’s death.
When Todd Beamer died, Lisa was in the advanced stage of pregnancy, and in a couple of months, she gave birth to her daughter Morgan Kay. The book is mainly about the emotional courage displayed by her by living life in its fullness and bringing up her children all alone. Her daughter Morgan Kay now studies at Wheaton university and is also a well-known soccer player. Whenever she appeared on TV shows, Lisa Beamer repeatedly talked about how her courage has helped her to forgive her husband’s killers.
Only people with deep-rooted courage can forgive others. Forgiveness is our firm decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. It is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed us, regardless of whether they actually deserve our forgiveness[iv]”.
Forgiveness is more important for the mental health of victims than that of the perpetrator. It propels the victims forward in life. Forgiveness brings them peace, helps them to go on with life, and frees them from destructive anger. It empowers victims to recognize the pain suffered without letting that pain define them, enabling them to heal and move on with life.
Whenever I think about forgiveness, the face that comes to my mind frequently is Gladys Staines. In 1999, Gladys’ husband and her two sons (Philip and Timothy) were burnt to death by fanatics while they were sleeping in a station wagon, in Manoharpur, Odisha, India. Graham Staines came to India from Australia in 1965 to meet his pen pal and stayed back. He learned the local language and started social work among the leprosy patients in Baripada in Odisha. Immediately after her husband’s killing, Gladys Staines publicly stated that she had already forgiven those who committed the gruesome act. She stayed back with her daughter Esther to complete her husband’s dream project – a clinic for leprosy patients. In 2004, after spending 23 years of social work in India, she went back to Australia.
Recently Gladys and her daughter Esther appeared in some TV interviews. The joy that was visible on her face during those TV interviews, even after such acrimonious experiences in life, is mainly because she could unconditionally forgive those who hurt her deeply. Thus, it is important to practice ‘courage-driven forgiveness’ rather than thinking of ‘fear and hate-driven revenge’ to survive and thrive in a chaotic world!
Another type of courage is Intellectual Courage. Intellectual courage is an essential quality for all types of leaders because it enables them to lead with confidence and conviction, regardless of whether their ideas are accepted by others. It is an ability to see beyond the status quo and ask questions that might seem absurd or dangerous without fear of what others would think of them.
Intellectual courage is often displayed by people who are willing to speak up when they’re not sure whether everyone agrees with them. They challenge the ideas of even those among the powerful and mighty. They share their opinions even if they are not popular among their fellow men and women. They ask difficult questions and even questions that may seem ridiculous at first glance (but might reveal some truth later). Intellectual courage is all about making decisions based on what makes sense intellectually rather than what’s easiest or most comfortable.
Another type of courage is Moral Courage. Moral courage is the ability to do what is morally and ethically right, even when it might be unpopular or risky. It’s about having the guts to stand up for our beliefs and values in the face of adversity, even when no one else does. It’s about doing what feels right in our hearts instead of settling for an easier option because it feels safer or more familiar. Unfortunately, it is rare to find people who always stand up for their morals, especially when it goes against the grain of society or the business world.
Examples of moral courage can include speaking out against injustices even when no one else does, taking action to help people, when we know it will cost us personally, and standing up for our beliefs in the face of criticism from family, and friends, etc.
Another important form of courage is Spiritual Courage. Spiritual courage is the willingness to look at our souls and make difficult choices. It’s a willingness to risk what we think we know to learn more about ourselves. It is an essential type of courage if we want to overcome personal fears and limiting beliefs. Spiritual courage is not just something we need in our personal lives—it’s also something we need in all places. This type of courage is standing up for what we believe or saying no when everyone else says yes, and being willing to pay the price for doing so.
There are many examples of people who demonstrated intellectual, moral, and spiritual courage at the same time. Well-known past examples of such courageous people include the ones like Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela. There are many contemporary examples of human rights defenders who belong to this genre in various countries. They are not necessarily well known but have demonstrated intellectual, moral, and spiritual courage in their own social contexts. They are people who, individually or with others, acted to promote or protect human rights in a peaceful manner. A recent example from India is Stanislaus Lourduswamy or Stan Swamy. He fought against “the brutal killings, rapes, torture, custodial crimes and cases of false implication against thousands of innocent Adivasis. Unfortunately, he was implicated by the State for fighting for the cause of the marginalized[v]”.
In these changing times, what type of courage we should have to survive and thrive? We should have a little bit of all the above types of courage. When we are confused and faced with difficult situations in life, we must take stock of what type or types of courage might help more to overcome whatever challenge we are facing before acting! Courage isn’t something that can be learned overnight—it takes time, practice, and dedication. Courage also comes from our convictions and clarity of thought. What is needed is to take a positive decision and work towards becoming courageous. If we are willing to work towards it, we’ll become more courageous with each passing day. It is a trait worth gaining and even essential to survive uncertainty and thrive in a changing society.
(Kandathil Sebastian is a social scientist and author based in Delhi)
[i] Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English
[ii] Sonia McDonald, “Bravery versus courage, six types of courage to know”
[iii] Lisa Beamers and Ken Abraham, “Let’s Roll!: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage”
[iv] Nelson Mandela, “About Forgiveness”
[v] Gladson Dungdung, “Stan Swamy: A fighter, a seeker of peace and a great human being”