Courage, valor and bravery

What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!  — the Cowardly Lion

It seems an apt morning to ponder the next in the list of virtues: courage, defined by ADF’s official list as “the ability to act appropriately in the face of danger.” It’s a definition I agree with.

Courage ultimate stems from cor, the Latin word for heart. This sets it apart from a similar term, bravery, which is linked to the cry of bravo! and ultimately to the Greek word for barbarian. Braves are native warriors — barbarians, to the Europeans who often used the term of American Indian tribes — or even bullies, an old meaning attached to the term. As the cry of bravo suggests, bravery is tied in with display; one of the definitions of “brave” is “to make a fine appearance.”

Bravery, then, is associated with appearances and even foreignness — the vision of the exotic “primitive” warrior battling the more sure and steady force, whether you’re talking of the stereotypical Indian brave or the Roman perception of the blue-painted naked Celt. Bravery is all about the display of daring; the heart isn’t a factor.

Valiant, on the other hand, comes from a Latin term meaning “to be of worth”: valor. And indeed, by facing down danger and acting appropriately, you are proving your worth to your tribe, your society, the Gods. Valor allows a person to pull her weight in the world, to use her autonomy in service to a larger whole. It reminds me of dharma: an Indian term encompassing not only duty, but one’s place in tribe, culture and the universe as a whole.

Courage is a bit more intimate, at least to me. It consists of action driven by the heart: that internal bellwether of integrity and unadulterated truth. It’s taking risks to do what you, in your deepest heart/core/self, feel to be right. And what is right or true? That which fosters the universal order: rta in Sanskrit, an Fírinne (Cosmic Truth, courtesy of Aedh Rua), or the Norse orlog. That inner recognition of heart-truth appears to be the key to courage.

I used to think that courage always involves fear, but I don’t think it does. An adult who snatches a child out of the path of a car may not have time to feel or recognize fear, but only a nonverbal, instantaneous recognition of this must be done. Yes, courage can consist of doing what is right in spite of fear: a whistleblower may fear losing his livelihood, but contact the appropriate agencies to report the truth anyway.

Courage by its nature dances with risk and pain. It’s not foolish or useless risk: that falls under the aegis of bravery at best, or foolhardiness and masochism at worst. The risk needn’t be physical harm, either, but it does involve some repercussion on the part of the actor. A victim of abuse who tells his family what happened (so as to keep it from happening to another child) faces the real possibility of losing his family ties, for example.

Doing the right thing in spite of the consequences is, to me, a simple definition of courage. It’s an undisputed virtue in my book, since it privileges the good of the larger universe over the convenience or gain of the individual. it’s not limited to warriors, or people in their prime.

Ultimately, following the truth in one’s heart makes a king from a slave, Mr. Lion.


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