The Art and Science of Courage

“Courage is found in the quiet moment between stimulus and response, and only when we keep ourselves in a grounded, intentional place of confidence and choice by metabolizing fear.”

Photo: Rayis.b/TWENTY20

Throughout millennia, courage has been universally admired. From Aristotle, who heralded it as “the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible,” to Biblical narratives, ancient myths, and fairy tales; film, fiction, and poetry; and historical accounts and personal stories, our human culture is steeped in inspirational tales of bravery and heroism. And yet philosophers, theologians, social scientists, and, more recently, neuroscientists are still struggling to define what courage is and where it comes from. Nature or nurture? The body, mind, spirit, or soul? Some combination thereof? One thing they all seem to agree on is that “fear and courage are brothers,” as Proverbs suggests.

The Intimate Relationship Between Courage And Fear

Mark Twain wrote that “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Nelson Mandela seconded this: “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear,” adding, “I am the captain of my soul.” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested there is a dimension of tenacity to courage: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” Put together, this points to what science also suggests — that courage is acting with intention and perseverance in the face of fear or a perceived threat.

Let’s talk about fear, because it often gets a bum rap, and threats, because there are many kinds.

Fear easily gets confused with weakness or fragility. But fear actually has an adaptive function: it protects us from danger and helps us to survive. Fear is a basic emotion that is hardwired into us and other species. As with all emotions, fear is an internal source of information: it communicates impending danger, which allows us to react very quickly to threatening situations by releasing a torrent of hormones.

We naturally respond to threats in one of three ways: fight, by disarming the threat or displaying power over it; flight, by getting away from the threat; or freeze, by suspending action, becoming paralyzed, or going numb in the face of the threat when fight or flight is not possible. All of these responses are driven by the nervous system, an involuntary and reflexive, “behind-the-scenes” mechanism that helps to keep us alive.

Courage is acting with intention and perseverance in the face of fear or a perceived threat.

When we think of threatening situations that require courage, the default is often those related to bodily harm or death. While the threat of physical danger is certainly a biggie, there are others equally compelling. Take, for instance, threats to our integrity and identity — or “soul” threats. These include morally distressing situations, where our deeply held values, beliefs, and expectations are violated, or those that pose a social or relational risk, like the disapproval of others, shame, rejection, exclusion, and isolation. There are also situations that threaten our intellect or personal epistemology (also known as “epistemic cognition”) — that is, how we reason and know what we know.

Digging Deeper Into the Biology of Bravery

The lion’s share of research on bravery and courage focuses on the amygdala, the almond-shape structure centered deep in the brain that activates the fight/flight/freeze response. Without the amygdala we would not feel fear — which, of course, would be dangerous. But research also suggests that we can regulate our amygdala’s response by consciously activating the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) — a more forward positioned structure that involves higher-level functioning, such as decision-making, attention allocation, impulse control, and ethics and morality. This intentional activation could provide meaningful help for conditions like anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it also points to something important about the nature courage that the Existentialists suggested: that we always have a choice in how to respond to a given situation.

Choosing to Act with Courage

Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Here is where the art of courage comes into play.

The courageous act comes from conscious awareness of both the significance and fragility of that threatening situation and then giving a resounding, whole being “Yes!” to engaging it.

The sensation of fear causes two things to happen to us at an embodied level. One, we have a physiological reaction — our heart rate increases, our breathing quickens and becomes shallow, our muscles tighten, our pupils dilate, among other things. Two, the subjective feeling or “felt sense” of uncertainty and apprehension blankets us. Typically, we experience both of these sensations in close proximity, if not in tandem; either way, we are catapulted into that liminal space that Frankl spoke of where we must respond.

While there can be threatening situations when we act without thinking — imagine a parent who instinctively leaps when their child is choking — these do not necessarily require courage (as worthy as they are). The courageous act comes from conscious awareness of both the significance and fragility of that threatening situation, and then giving a resounding, whole being “Yes!” to engaging it.

The “4 As of Courage” (my phrase) and Saying “Hineni”

There is much advice in the marketplace of ideas on how to be courageous (see here, here, and here as a sample). From my own research and practice as a therapist, clinical ethicist, and chaplain, the courageous act comes down to four steps, whether this process takes moments, hours, days, or longer:

  1. Acknowledgment of a threat and your vulnerability in the context of that threat.
  2. Appraisal that there is something important at stake — an imperative — in that threatening situation, whether it is physical, moral, spiritual, relational, or intellectual.
  3. Acceptance that there is a risk that any actions you take to address that imperative threat may fail.
  4. Affirm “hineni,” then engage the threatening situation with an open mind, a willing body, and an engaged spirit.

What is hineni? Glad you asked.

Hineni (pronounced he-NEE-nee) is a Hebrew word that means essentially, “I am here, and I am ready.” Along with Jewish readers and other students of religion, Leonard Cohen fans may recognize the word from his heralded song “You Want it Darker,” released on his 82nd birthday.

Whenever a character in the Hebrew Bible experienced a moment of meaningful challenge, they announced, Hineni. Here I am. More than being physically present in a specific location, hineni is an existential expression of saying “yes” to that challenge.

Hineni is our response when life calls to us, especially when that call is in the form of uncertainty or vulnerability from a palpable imperative threat. Hineni is also considered to be a prayer or meditation of preparation and humility to heed that call and face our fear. A friend and Rabbi once told me that to say “hineni” signals the moment when we situate our own life story within the larger story of life and do the thing that is hard, even with no assurances or guarantees of the outcome. And to do so not with passive awareness, but active commitment — body, mind, and spirit.

Saying “Hineni” Requires an Embodied Response

Merging the art and science of courage.

Our amygdala is still activated when we are standing in that liminal space, readying ourselves to respond to a palpable threat. This means that our higher-order cognitive functioning is no longer fully in command, so what we are consciously aware of (for instance, the threat itself and its imperative) may be distorted — as will be our response to it, if left unchecked.

If the courageous act requires conscious awareness (as in the 4As above), then we must, as Twain suggested, master fear, or what could also be thought of as metabolizing fear. Metabolizing fear (or any emotion) is a process by which we slow down our internal responses — cognitive, emotional, and physiological — so that we can more effectively process incoming information, keeping what is necessary, letting go of what isn’t, and then, accordingly, choosing how to act.

Breathing is one of the most effective ways to metabolize fear. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that many of the world’s wisdom traditions, whether spiritual or secular, have identified breath as essential and given it pride of place in their beliefs and principles, rituals and practices, and identity and community.

I like to think of the 4As process as one big breath. First an inhale: you tighten up just a bit, as you acknowledge and appraise the threat, sending life-giving energy where it needs to go as you weigh the situation. Then, an exhale: you relax into both the acceptance of the risk and your affirmation of hineni and willingness to engage. (Note, it might take a few — or many — big breaths until you actually feel that courage taking hold.)

The art and science of courage is not about denying fear, repressing fear, or bounding into fear with recklessness or unmitigated might. And it doesn’t happen by simply telling ourselves that we “should” be courageous in a given situation or that we just are, so, of course, we will be. Courage is found in the quiet moment between stimulus and response, and only when we keep ourselves in a grounded, intentional place of confidence and choice by metabolizing fear.

While fate is out of our control, the future is our responsibility; ultimately, our life is up to us. All we have to take with us, on earth and to the grave, are the choices we make. The question is, when faced with an imperative threat, will you choose to act with courage — to say hineni, “I am here, I am ready,” when you are called?

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t.

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