Courage is an act of love, not strength. More often than not, however, the sense of the word is related to bravery rather than action taken from the heart, which was the original meaning of the word. Today, courage has become a sought after character trait people strive to achieve. Some people spend their entire lives hoping to find the courage to do something they love or that they feel called to do, but they never attain their goal because they keep hearing a nagging voice telling them they aren’t good enough.
The issue of worthiness is a sociocultural construct that has evolved with the meaning of the word courage. They are embedded in our social consciousness and are touted as an attribute reserved only for the most heroic people–those who are brave, strong, and willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. This theme runs rampant through all of the superhero movies that are so popular among children and adults alike. The association of courage to worthiness is perhaps the most blatant in the classic tale of The Wizard of Oz, in which the cowardly lion, who never believed he was worthy of courage, found it when he overcame fear and confronted the wicked witch.
The notion that courage is an act of bravery that makes someone worthy of respect leads to wrong thinking. The portrayal of the specialness of the hero has done more damage to the social psyche than the good that was intended. A look at the history of the word shows that courage is a concept that originated from the heart making courage an act of love, not strength or any other character trait that demands respect.
The Root of Change
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word courage was adapted in the early 13th century from the Old French word corage (curage), meaning: “the heart as the seat of feeling, thought, and spirit.” Acts of courage are acts of love that come from the heart and are inspired by spirit. This meaning reflects a natural state of being that is inherent in everyone. Courage, then, is the willingness to act from the heart in spite of fear and has nothing to do with worthiness.
The shift in meaning as an act from the heart to one of strength can be seen in the medieval philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. In his writings, he equated courage with fortitude: “Fortitude without justice is an occasion of injustice; since the stronger a man is the more ready is he to oppress the weaker.” Aquinas believed courage was primarily about endurance (strength), not bravery, but he clearly set the stage for thinking in terms of dichotomous (opposite) relationships- strength versus weakness. For Aquinas, and through much of the early writings in Christianity, courage came only through the virtues of faith, hope and mercy. (From The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas).
Western versus Eastern Philosophy
Where Western philosophy shifted the meaning of courage toward attributes of strength, bravery and worthiness, Eastern traditions have maintained the original intent of the word. For instance Lao-Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, courage is derived from love (act from the heart). “One of courage, with audacity, will die. One of courage, but gentle, spares death. From these two kinds of courage arise harm and benefit.” This phrase is about the willingness to act from the heart in spite of fear. Fear is not a state of being that can be conquered as a matter of brute force. Rather, it is a condition of the mind that is willingly relinquished.
This is precisely how people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were able to change the world so dramatically. They had courage and they taught courage. Their actions in their daily lives and in the lessons they taught came from a place of love and compassion. In his sermon, “Antidotes for Fear” in “Strength to Love,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:
Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even through their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lost the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.
Growing Your Courage
Courage is inherent in all living beings. It is an attribute that comes from the heart. The only thing that can interfere with courage is fear, which is a by-product of the mind. Fear comes from wrong thinking. It is the nagging voice that shifts your attention away from faith and toward anticipation. Whenever we anticipate the outcome of any event, we are willingly giving all the power to our ego minds.
Courage is the natural consequence of shifting a perception from one of fear to a place of love. To shift a perception means to change the thought processes associated with it. All the suffering that goes on inside our minds is not reality. The words we use are a part of the stories we tell ourselves and the thoughts associated with them can either produce fear and suffering or relinquish them allowing us to live with courage in peace, love and happiness.
One of the best ways to eliminate fear from your thinking is to use language processes to change the content of your thoughts. This exercise from Byron Katie’s ‘The Work’ is simple and effective.
The 4 Question Process (from ‘The Work’ of Byron Katie)