What Does a Person of Courage Look Like?
“It’s not fear that makes a coward. It’s what you do when you are afraid. That’s the real difference between a person of courage and a coward.” — Jeff Struecker
But I also received a lot of questions about forgiveness and its link to courage. Most of these questions were variations of: “Does it take courage to forgive others or myself?” or “What about trauma? Is overcoming trauma something that requires courage?” or What constitutes someone who possesses courage from cowardice?
These are all great questions. I will tackle them by examining the difference between courage and bravery. I will then dive deep into what it means to be a person of courage through the lens of forgiving another person and overcoming trauma and end by discussing the attributes of a person of courage.
In the words of the great John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
Today, November 11, 2022, we also celebrate veterans from our armed forces who risked it all to protect the freedom we experience every day. So many of them have shown courage in the face of overwhelming fear. And let’s face it, one day of honoring these men and women for their service is not nearly enough. But, I will use the story of one veteran to illustrate how she became a person of courage in overcoming her wounds from war.
An example of a real life person of courage
After witnessing the events of September 11, 2001, Nancy Schiliro enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after seeing a recruiting poster. In May 2004, now LCPL Schiliro deployed to FOB (forward operating base) Al ASAD as an embarkation specialist and participated in Operation Phantom Fury, the second battle of Fallujah. In February 2005, she was injured in a mortar attack where she lost consciousness and had multiple facial and right-hand lacerations and bruises.
LCpl. Schiliro was initially treated for a minor traumatic brain injury (TBI) and returned to duty. However, in the following weeks, she continued to experience blurriness in her right eye. Upon returning home to the states, the problems with the right eye persisted, and she also developed headaches. She was checked out in a civilian medical facility and diagnosed with “pink eye.” However, she decided to go to the VA when the symptoms persisted. Upon further examination, her doctors determined that her retina was detached entirely, and a spreading infection further compounded her issues.
After going through multiple treatments at the VA, Nancy eventually lost full sight of her eye in July 2005. She went through four surgical attempts to try and save the eye; however, it was removed in November 2005.
Following the loss of her eye, Nancy faced a much harder struggle which caused her to go into isolation. She says, “I stayed by myself. I didn’t want anyone to look at me. I wanted my eye back, and I was mad at the world.” Nancy turned to prescription medications and alcohol and went into a deep depression that lasted several years.
Nancy faced a cross-road. She could either continue down this self-destructive path or become a person of courage, face her demons and take back her life. She decided to go to the White Plains VA to explore treatment for TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While at the VA, Nancy met a Readjustment Counselor and Psychologist who, through persistence, helped turn her life around 180 degrees.
The counselor knew she was abusing drugs and alcohol and would not let her off the hook. He forced her to face her fears and take action to improve her situation.
Nancy desired a life where she could use her ordeal and what she learned to help other veterans. She understood that to change her life, she had to possess faith and the willpower to intentionally choose to change.
Over time, Nancy stopped using all alcohol and drugs and developed a healthy lifestyle, although she still experiences balance issues and migraines. Today, she works full-time for the Wounded Warrior Project and was re-certified as an EMT. She got married and has a daughter. In 2011, she also realized a lifelong dream by climbing the Mount Kilimanjaro summit with two other wounded Veterans who were amputees.
When asked about her ordeal, Nancy says, “I wasted three years in severe depression. If I can give Veterans out there any advice, I’d say be courageous and get help as early as possible.”
In the words of author Brené Brown, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
As Nancy’s story illustrates, courage is about undertaking something in the service of others. The desired outcome behind becoming a person of courage makes the risk worth it — something so meaningful to us that we take a chance despite the known danger.
What is the difference between courage vs. bravery?
I believe the issue we often confuse can be summed up simply: people mistake bravery for courage.
We most often use both courage and bravery to describe heroic events. Even though the words seem interchangeable, they have very different meanings.
Bravery is showing the moral or mental strength to face fear and overcome danger.
Need an example of a brave act?
Imagine a firefighter charging into a house to fight the flames.
They have little fear or consideration for what might happen to them. They are on a mission they believe in for the greater good. So they put aside fear and self-concern. Regardless of the physical danger that they might face.
There’s a strong air of pride that shrouds the concept of bravery.
Courage is similar to bravery but different in a significant way. It comes with a high degree of choice and foresight, whereas bravery is typically more instinctive.
Bravery doesn’t involve much thinking and manifests as second nature in those possessing it.
Whereas courage is more of a virtue, the acts one performs come from the heart. Courage doesn’t necessarily appear from the absence of fear. In fact, being courageous involves typically taking action despite fear. It’s knowing fully that something will be dangerous, uncomfortable, or challenging but doing it anyway.
For example, think of a student who consciously defends another student who is being cyberbullied, realizing it may also cause them to be bullied.
Or Darnella Frazier, filming the killing of George Floyd with her smartphone, knowing the potential repercussions she might face.
Or Nancy Schiliro, who dared to face her personal demons and recover and heal from trauma so she could help others.
In all of these examples, the person mustered the conscious choice to act instead of ignoring the situation. But they acted anyway because it was the right thing to do.
That’s what courage is. In the woods of Harry Holleywood, “Courage is acting out of self-respect for doing the right thing. To not act, or to do something different other than the right thing, is soul murder. Not being true to oneself and others leaves one diminished and in some ways less than human.”
Courage entails a cause, most commonly love, passion, empathy, and concern. Courage results from mindfulness and is one’s decision to push forward into the unknown despite one’s fears.
Once we separate bravery from courage, it becomes clear why we must handle them differently.
What are the attributes of a person of courage
In an interview from the Passion Struck podcast, Jeff Struecker, a pastor, author, and former Army Ranger who fought in Black Hawk Down, said, “It’s not fear that makes a coward. All of us get afraid in the circumstances like this (being at war). There’s something psychologically wrong with you if you’re not scared right now. It is what you do when you are afraid. That’s the real difference between a person of courage and a coward.”
There is, then, some other component of courage than mere disregard for danger. And cowardice is more than walking away from danger. If we examine the subject more closely, we shall find that three qualities —self-mastery, faith, and intention — are our tests of courage.
A man or woman may be brave, absolutely fearless, yet not possess courage. Indeed, a person who does not have the feeling of fear can never be genuinely courageous. That is because their bravery lacks moral quality. It is instinctive, like the jungle lion picking its next prey. It just knows. Such bravery is mere indifference to a threat.
No virtuous moral state is attained without striving for self-mastery. No fear of the unknown is overcome without having faith in the future. No act is admirable; that is not the consequence of being intentional.
The truly courageous person is the one who, upon sensing fear, possesses faithfulness to duty, the willpower to act, and the intentional desire to conquer their fear and faces their enemy.
As Ambrose Redmoon once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
And the greater your anticipation of danger, the higher the quality of your courage. And, the more you have attained absolute self-mastery, the more functional courage is because you more entirely and sensibly appreciate the dangers you are called upon to overcome.
Let’s explore more deeply how being a person of courage relates to forgiveness and trauma.
The courage to forgive
Why, then, is it so hard to forgive others?
I think it has everything to do with building up a defense within yourself to shield yourself from the pain of being harmed again. In doing so, you are protecting yourself. And at what cost? Holding onto that grudge is even more damaging than the pain someone has caused you in the first place.
How freeing it would be if you could just utter the three simple words, “I forgive you,” and experience a true release of pain.
I believe it begins and ends with courage. Having the strength to overcome resentment, fear, bitterness, and anger. It is a conscious choice to take those steps of genuinely forgiving another person.
How do you find the courage to forgive when the offense stays in your mind, body, soul, and emotional state?
Forgiveness requires letting go of the past and moving on. It takes a person of courage to care for your mental health and set yourself free.
It is vital to understand that you possess some good in the worst version of yourself and some iniquity in the best version of yourself. When you discover this, you are less prone to loathe your offenders.
It takes a person of courage to say you are sorry and an even stronger person to forgive. For this reason, developing and maintaining the capacity to forgive is essential. Your mistakes are forgivable if you dare to admit them. Forgiveness starts by choosing to love yourself and not letting anger poison your heart.
How does a person of courage overcome trauma?
Similar to forgiving someone, it takes courage to face trauma and heal from it. It takes courage to alter your life, leading you to a safer and more secure place. And it takes courage to embrace your painful emotions and agonizing memories and to seek help to overcome them.
These feelings and memories may involve a threat to you physically. You may have been exposed to a terrifying situation like combat or a traumatic situation such as a car accident or sexual abuse.
When you experience trauma, so much of your world becomes about courage. Wondering if you have ever had it. Praying it will help you overcome your pain. Possessing the courage inside you to triumph over your trauma.
Being a person of courage is the result of knowing yourself. Trauma is never something that we want to occur. But it is better to face it with courage than let it eat away at you and hide from it.
Courage is the conscious choice to overcome a hardship despite the danger and consequences it may invoke. You understand them and CHOOSE ANYWAY to face your fears and improve your life.
When you have courage, it gives you the strength to face your pain or grief. It can feel like encountering light in your darkest moment. Like finding the key to a door, you thought was locked, like finding the embrace from another when you most need it.
You can overcome your fear because you dare to do so. That is why it is vital to reach deep within yourself and find the courage to move forward, no matter how difficult it may feel in your present life.
Do you want to be remembered as a person of courage?
I want you to ask yourself a question. Twenty years from now, when you tell stories about your life and how it turned out, what kind of a man or woman do you want to be? Think about how you want to tell your story, and then let that drive what you do next. Do you want to be remembered as a person of Courage?
Being a person of courage mandates more than just meeting the challenge. It means overcoming fear, acting in the face of uncertainty, and standing up for what is right.
Courage gives us power.
Courage creates hope.
Courage protects lives.
Courage helps us flourish in small and big ways.
I have no promise that everything will turn out 100 percent positively in the way you want it to because it might not. But if you can decide today what kind of person you want to be on the other side of whatever fear you face, it will dictate how you face challenges that come your way.
You may still go into a situation where you know you may fail. But you do it because you know it’s the right thing to do. And you can look back upon your life knowing you lived as a person of courage.
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