Courage is a virtue we associate with soldiers and martyrs, people who have faced up to grave challenges and refused to flinch. Sometimes, I hear stories about the martyr saints and my mind boggles at how brave they were. It’s almost too much to even read about, the torture wheels, young girls facing up to cruel men, and priests put through horrors in dank dungeons. I want to shout out to the early Roman martyrs to just give in, just burn the incense in front of the emperor’s image. It isn’t that big a deal, I rationalize. It’s not like it means anything because it was all fake and a lie and everyone knew it. It was a loyalty test and nothing more.
At least, that’s what I mistakenly think. I could become a great patron saint for rationalization and compromise, but I would never be a great martyr. I don’t have the courage or vision to see what they saw. They understood that their internal freedom was everything and they could never be compromised. It really was a big deal to burn that incense. Up in smoke would have gone their personal integrity, the one precious gift that no one can take from us unless we fritter it away.
Perhaps those martyrs were bolstered by divine grace, giving them the ability to face up to horrific consequences. May we all be gifted with the same courage. Better yet, may we never find ourselves in similar situations and have to find out.
The reason we need courage
In the meantime, the virtue of courage is far more important to our everyday lives and happiness than we suspect. It isn’t only for the battlefield or facing down lions in the arena. Courage isn’t only necessary when confronted by death. Courage is for the living. Every day, we make our choices, live with the results, and build up a whole history of mistakes and regrets along with our joys and victories. It’s a mixed bag, life is, and with all those regrets lingering from the past and the fear of future regrets caused by our actions, it takes courage to be happy.
I’ve always been a sensitive person. I replay old conversations in my mind and wish I’d handled them differently. I struggle to move past the embarrassment and guilt of the thoughtless things I’ve said and done. I lie awake at night ruminating about these mistakes, full well knowing there’s nothing I can do to change them. A memory will pop up in my mind from 30 years ago when I acted stupidly as a teenager. My face burns and reddens. For some reason I can’t shrug it off, the fact that, once, I was a teenager and made mistakes just like all teenagers do. I have trouble accepting my past for what it is and wish pieces of it could be erased from history. I lack the courage, in other words, to accept myself.
Where we need to begin
Romano Guardini, in his book Learning the Virtues, say, “Courage means, first of all, accepting oneself as one is.” By this he means accepting not only the parts we like but also the parts we don’t like. “Our existence,” he writes, “is a tissue of good and bad, joyful and sorrowful, of things that assist and support us and also those that hinder and burden us.”
It would be easier to forget all the bad and only hold on to the good. The point, though, is that the easy way isn’t the best way. Accepting ourselves, fully acknowledging who we are, is like going into an arena and battling starving lions. That’s precisely why we could all use more courage.
What courage means for acceptance
The benefit of courage isn’t only that it enables us to internally acknowledge the truth of who we are. Courage actually makes our lives richer, not only accepting ourselves but helping us to thrive. For instance, as a sensitive person, I might negatively dwell on unimportant interactions that other people quickly forget, but I also find that I am highly sensitive to beauty, small gestures of kindness, the joys of friendship, and the peaceful transcendence of prayer. I cannot eliminate my frustrating sensitivity to decades-old embarrassments without also eliminating my sensitivity to all those other good things. Courage helps us hold onto the best parts of ourselves.
Acceptance, of course, doesn’t mean unconditional approval. Admitting that I’m too sensitive, have a habit of telling little-white-lies, am terrible at texting people back in a timely manner, am not generous enough with my time, am a mediocre public speaker, and so many worse things I won’t put into print, doesn’t mean I can pretend these things are perfectly fine. Where would the courage be in that admission? Rather, I accept and then admit that these things about me are bad. I want to improve, change, and moderate.
Courage gives me the starting place. Every day I pray for more of it. The path of self-knowledge and self-improvement is a long and arduous uphill climb. The more courage we have, the higher we can go.