On courage

Aristotle famously stated what boils down to “virtue lies in the middle”. The classic explanation of this claim is that courage is not just the opposite of cowardice, but that it is equally opposed to hubris, conceited, reckless overconfidence. As such, courage holds the middle ground between cowardice and hubris. After Aristotle, for over 2000 years now, philosophers have elaborated on the nature of true virtue and the way to attain a virtue such as courage. And indeed, there is much more to say about courage than that it is “to overcome one’s fear”. Many have provided analyses, recipes, good advice and intricate scientific classifications.

“So,” you may ask, “having studied a lot of what these philosophers have to say, I now know the philosophical benefits and implications of living courageously. Let’s get to it.” Suppose you do, suppose you know what it takes and suppose you are perfectly motivated to practice courage. How do you know when you succeed? How do you recognize a courageous act as you’re performing it? How do you notice whether you are actually acting and living courageously?

Brene Brown appears to be on to an answer to these questions in this wonderful TED talk. As a research professor at the University of Houston she studies human connections in practice, around the central notions of vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Starting from observations about the way people live and interpret their lives she asks:

How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?

In this inspiring talk, she argues that feeling vulnerable is our best measure of courage. When we feel exposed and vulnerable but decide to go ahead anyway: exactly then are we acting courageously. In doing so we all face one and the same critic: shame. Shame tells us either “You will never do well enough!” or: “Who do you think you are?” Instead of allowing you to make mistakes before you succeed, shame lets you be the mistake, the failure.

You want to know the good news? You can learn to see these false arguments, expose shame’s circular reasoning, and step out of it. Yes, says Brown, you will feel very vulnerable. Yes, you will fail before you succeed. But you will also discover that, while you feel weak, small and exposed, others will perceive you as a powerful, authentic, inspiring person. Knowing this, you will be in a position to distinguish between cowardice and hubris, not just rationally, academically, on paper, but in the heat of the moment when you haven’t got time for quiet philosophical reflection, when you have to trust your gut feeling.

One more insight that I gained from watching this TED talk, is that empathy is nothing but a form of courage. If you open up to someone, if you truly empathize with him/her, you silently say: “I know where you are, I’ve been there myself.” In Brown’s words: “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” By deeply empathizing with the other, you silence your own shame because you acknowledge and share your vulnerability. That is exactly what it takes to be courageous. By being deeply empathic you embrace and fully accept your own and the other’s vulnerability: you act courageously and help the other find his/her courage.

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