Author's Note: I don't include full names on my quotations, but you can find them with a quick Google search.
It is a rather audacious and presumptuous path to speak of building a virtue such as courage. To instill it deeply within, hasn't been, nor is now, something with which the masses are concerned. We search back through history to find a people who have systematically built courage generation upon generation and we cannot. No; nor can we find such systems in widespread use today.
After all, so few arrive at much more virtue than what was inherited from their progenitors.
To teach moral courage is another matter—and it has to be taught because so few, if any, have it naturally. The young can learn it from their parents, in their homes, from school and university, from religion, from other early influences, but to inculcate it in a grown-up who lacks it requires not so much teaching as some striking emotional experience—something that bursts upon him, something in the nature of a vision. That happens rarely, and that is why you will find that most men with moral courage learnt it by precept and example in their youth. —Cahill
Typically, for a great advancement in courage, it takes something phenomenal to occur. The parent whose child is killed by the local drug dealer suddenly becomes an advocate against drug use. Previous shyness is gone. Lack of follow through on good intentions evaporates and a warrior-advocate emerges.
But in general, we hover around the virtue level we arrive at upon maturity. Few add significant virtue to their lives in adulthood. And this isn't necessarily surprising. Few read later in life, let alone, study. Some grow in education in advanced years, but not many. Our dissatisfaction wanes as we age; we lose our hunger.
Occasionally a grand event spurs us on to make changes in our lives. But is this the lone path to great increases in virtue during our adult lives? Isn't the power within us to choose to build virtue and facilitate its growth, not just mildly but monumentally? Should age matter at all? What if no spectacular event occurs?
The answers to these questions are simple: Virtue can be built; age is irrelevant; no marvelous events are needed. True, it is more difficult to build virtue as we age, akin to the difficulty of adults learning foreign languages or getting in shape, but it is hardly an unreachable target.
Ultimately, one element decides more fully than any other if virtue will be gained: desire. What we ardently desire over time, we become. We live in a world where courage is rarely desired and more rarely desired ardently. No wonder few grow in courage. More frequently than desiring, ardently, to overcome fear, we see a passionate desire to instill fear in others, to use fear to control.
How do we know when our desire to grow in courage is intense enough? Our action is our measuring stick. To the degree we act, our desire is ardent. Desiring to exercise, but watching TV instead, usually means our desire to watch TV is stronger than our desire to be healthy, even if we proclaim or believe otherwise. Remember this: to truly change, there must be desire—deep, focused, roaring desire.
But isn't desire somewhat innate? Do we really have any control over what we deeply desire? Actually, controlling and educating our desires isn't just achievable but critical. We can shape our desires immensely. Genetics mold us. Nurturing molds us. But there is an inner zone, untouchable if we safeguard it, in which we are sovereign; herein lies our responsibility as well as our capacity to choose what we desire and therefore what we will become.
Once ardent desire is chosen, proper tools are used to promote and shape courage. This same basic toolkit is used for the construction of all the virtues. Some of these tools we've used before or use currently. None is extraordinary any more than a hammer is extraordinary. But these tools can build, shape and finish virtues such as courage in our lives.
The process of overcoming fear and internalizing courage calls for enhancing our education. We must find and understand the knowledge and truth which can dissolve our fears. Truth found and accepted, causes us to change more quickly than studying behavior does. That is worth repeating. Truth found and accepted, causes us to change more quickly than studying behavior does.
But we must first find that truth, and we find it through study. Study can consist of quotations, essays, poetry, and other works concerning courage. Where possible, time can be set apart daily for study. Reading, memorizing and searching can all be part of this routine.
Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out. —Menninger
Fasting is used by many religions, philosophies and practitioners to worship, and promote spirituality, health and self-control. Fasting can be of two varieties: Full fasting or denial fasting.
Full fasting is often used in religious worship and consists of abstaining from food and/or drink for a period of time. Common sense and wisdom should be used. Disciples of different religions can follow their doctrines and practices regarding fasting and use this practice to promote virtue.
Denial fasting can be for anyone and is less typically associated with religious worship. It simply consists of the denial of something greatly desired but unnecessary, over a given period of time. Abstaining from chocolate for a year or television for a month are examples of denial fasting.
Either type of fasting, when participated in properly, strengthens the will. This strengthening overflows into other areas of our lives, including our ability to develop virtue.
It is interesting to note almost all 12 step addiction recovery plans include prayer to a "higher power." If prayer is needed to break such addictions, the same is true for our "addiction" to fear.
Fear can be headier than whisky once man has acquired a taste for it. —Dowes
Great leaders and changers throughout history have trusted in prayer. But more importantly, countless other practitioners of prayer, unknown to the masses, can attest to its power and effectiveness.
Prayer is not an old woman's idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. —Gandhi
We can pray for greater courage. We can pray to understand our fears. We can pray for greater desire to pursue courage. Prayer will help us grow in courage.
To arrive at greater understanding of virtue (or anything really) requires an almost forgotten skill: pondering. Pondering is defined as: to reflect; weigh mentally; consider deeply; think carefully. One reason pondering is a lost art in our world today is the absence of any quietness, tranquility or silence in most lives. To ponder, at least our minds, if not the surrounding environment, must be quiet.
We live in an over-information-ed, over-media-ed, and overly loud world. This bombardment of stimuli makes quietness less likely. Recognizing this, a place of solitude must be sought, where the world's noise can be blocked out. If such a place is impractical, it is possible, with practice, to have mental quietude in an otherwise shrill environment (our world). Sometimes it's simply using the time we have differently, like occasionally turning off the media during our drive. Learn to block out the clamor.
Time is another component of pondering. Very few take the time to simply sit and think—especially about things of any import. Sometimes our time is more valuable than our money; we hoard it like a miser. But we need to discover the massive returns pondering will bring. Time spent in pondering is some of our most well spent capital.
Pondering is more than simply thinking. It is weighing back and forth, deliberating, debating and discovering. Our minds typically are not great explorers. They follow the same well worn paths as yesterday, rarely venturing out. Taking time to ponder each day provides the atmosphere, as well as the crucial element of time, for the mind to explore, to discover.
This crucial mental weighing brings life changing and important discoveries as well as the simpler and subtler ones. And it can bring these on a daily basis. An interesting dichotomy of pondering is the times we are "too busy" to ponder are the times we most need to make time to ponder. Truly our time to ponder should be guarded jealously.
One aid to pondering can be a Courage/Fear/Virtue journal. Herein is recorded periodically—daily, weekly, etc.—successes, failures, observations, enlightenments, and experiences in courage and fear. This is particularly useful in observing our growth, as growth in virtue can happen so gradually, it can be difficult to detect. The journal helps our mind to recognize when fear or courage has occurred.
A second aid is a brief (ten minutes or so) planning session of the day to come. In this session we examine the important aspects of the day and how we can act courageously in them. If we are asking our employer for an increase in salary today, for instance, we can deeply visualize how to act with courage. We must think through as many potential courage-requiring situations as possible and try to foresee our best actions. This increases the likelihood we will act courageously.
We can especially note in this planning session any recurring event in which we have consistently failed to show courage. These are longtime enemies which must finally be vanquished. As we ponder, ideas will come, strategies will develop. Sometimes, direction rains down on us with power, like thunder from the heavens. Our ten minutes becomes like the short end of a lever: short in length, irresistible in power.
Our time invested in pondering leads to understanding. A collection of strong quotes, an essay, a poem, or a verse, pondered again and again, will yield its treasures over time.
The last tool in our kit is becoming. The other tools prepare us, prepare our bodies, minds, spirits and wills for the recognition and embracing of courage. But the last tool is simply living and implementing that virtue in our lives.
It is facing fear.
To fight fear, act. To increase fear--wait, put off, postpone. —Schwartz
It is educating ourselves.
Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out. —Menninger
It is learning to be free, to be at peace.
Not all acts of courage bring... spectacular rewards. But all of them do bring peace and contentment; just as cowardice, in the end, always brings regret and remorse. —Romney
Becoming consists of making the changes large and small that need to occur. It is practicing the truths we have discovered. After all the other tools have been applied we must become someone different. "Different" isn't always an improvement. But "improvement" is always different. We must become to improve.
Work and Change
After donning our tool bag (study, fasting, prayer, pondering, becoming), it is time to go to work. Buildings and souls both require work for their construction. This work of building courage is mental, emotional, spiritual, physical.
One must not be surprised that effort is required, and not merely desire. After all, it is work which develops our moral as well as our physical muscles. —Kimball
In the physical realm, the difference in outcomes between exercising three times a week for 20 minutes versus six times a week for 60 minutes is vast. Also in the physical realm, the focus, hunger, and intensity with which we engage the work before us will affect the outcome greatly. The same laws are at work in developing courage. Power in courage stems from repetition, time, focus, hunger.
If we seek unprecedented changes in our courage level, our work ethic needs to be unprecedented. There is no room for the half-committed here. Courage, like anything else of value, requires a great price. But its cost returns incalculable rewards: greater than stock markets, greater than positions of power, greater than fame, beauty, or even youth. Through time we reap changes in our character of immeasurable worth.
The changes will certainly occur. Shovel-full by shovel-full we will remove the dirt, the rocks, the roots and arrive at what we seek: bedrock—the bedrock of courage.
We shall scale our spiritual peaks with courage. Courage is a powerful tool. With it we can dig into the bedrock and stand steady, even when the footing is treacherous. —Jack
This is the platform upon which we can now build the other virtues. This is the foundation from which we draw the strength to not be acted on by external influences. This is the deepest element of our will.