When I was a senior in high school, I had to take a literature exam. On the exam, the essay question was "What is courage?" Most of us settled in to write these lengthy dissertations in order to impress the teacher with our compositional prowess. But the guy diagonally in front of me flipped to the essay page, wrote something very quickly, stood up, set the paper on the teacher's podium, and walked out of the classroom.

I found out later what he had written from some of my classmates.

Simple. Two words. 'This is.'.

Needless to say, the kid got an 'A'.

Courage is one of the most commonly employed and least understood terms in common usage in the English language

It is often thought that courage stems from a lack of fear. The military man who storms the enemy stronghold or leaps to the defense of his comrades is said to be courageous. His actions are believed to come from his fearlessness or his lack of self regard. We marvel at the person who puts some goal other than self preservation as their priority.

You often hear of people who, when confronted with threatening circumstances, act to overcome their adversary. When interviewed later, they sometimes respond to the question "Were you afraid?" in the negative. They might say "I didn't think of being afraid", or "I didn't have time to be afraid."

I submit that the person who, when threatened by injury to self or to their dear ones, threatened by harm to their country, or other dire emergency who has no fear is either a fool or a liar.

Courage is the ability to act in spite of fear, to exercise by an act of the will the ability to overcome that fear and do that which must be done.

Fear stems from the ability to imagine the future. One may fear almost anything because they can envision the negative consequences that could occur. People may fear earthquake, fire, flood, tornado, or hurricane. They know that their entire world can be destroyed in a few minutes, and indeed even lose their lives or the lives of their loved ones.

People fear the loss of a relationship, whether to parent, child, or other person. They see their life going on without that other person in it, and the prospect is not a happy one. Songs about heartbreak abound and there is always a market for them because it is part of the human condition. The broken heart when we lose our first love relationship is familiar to most people. As author and psychologist Dr. James Dobson has said "It may have only been puppy love, but it still hurt the puppy."

When a fireman suits up and prepares to go into that burning building he is aware of what could happen and feels a thrill of fear, perhaps mixed with excitement. He (or she) may have the job because they exist for that excitement, that contest of skill and training against the deadly environment of a fire.

The policeman, when he dons the uniform and buckles on his gun belt, knows that before his shift is over he may be confronted by deadly force, yet he does the job every day.

The soldier does his duty, though the modern battlefield has a hundred horrible ways in which to die. They do it for duty, pride, love of country, or one of many other reasons.

Every one of the people mentioned above knows the feel of fear. People in much more prosaic positions also know that feeling. Everyone fears something. They may fear the IRS, being afraid of getting that letter in the mailbox inviting them to their tax audit. An elderly person may fear the fact that their health is failing, their body simply refusing to continue. A mother or father may fear the loss of a job, be suddenly cast into the role of not being able to meet the needs of their family.

Fear comes in many guises and no one is immune from its grip. We arise every day and continue to try our best though we know in the end time will be the victor. Sometimes we do what we must because, ultimately, there is no viable alternative except abject surrender. We try again and yet again though we see little progress, never get a chance at grabbing life's golden ring. That effort, that refusal to give up, that determined struggle in the face of every obstacle may be the ultimate courage. No one sings the praises of the man or the woman who raises their family, who stays with their partner through thick and thin, who does that which is right up until the inevitable end. These quiet and mighty people, the ones who never make the headlines or the evening news, are the true heroes among us. Their display of quiet courage should both humble and inspire every one of us.


Terms which denote gender as male are not meant to be sexist but are rather terms commonly used. The author is quite aware that fire personnel, police, and military are made up of both sexes. No discrimination was intended or promoted in the writing of this essay.

Cour"age (k?r"?j;48), n. [OE. corage heart, mind, will, courage, OF. corage, F. courage, fr. a LL. derivative of L. cor heart. See Heart.]

1.

The heart; spirit; temper; disposition.

[Obs.]

So priketh hem nature in here corages. Chaucer.

My lord, cheer up your spirits; our foes are nigh, and this soft courage makes your followers faint. Shak.

2.

Heart; inclination; desire; will.

[Obs.]

Chaucer.

I'd such a courage to do him good. Shak.

3.

That quality of mind which enables one to encounter danger and difficulties with firmness, or without fear, or fainting of heart; valor; boldness; resolution.

The king-becoming graces . . . Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude, I have no relish of them. Shak.

Courage that grows from constitution often forsakes a man when he has occasion for it. Addison.

Syn. -- Heroism; bravery; intrepidity; valor; gallantry; daring; firmness; hardihood; boldness; dauntlessness; resolution. See Heroism. -- Courage, Bravery, Fortitude, Intrepidity, Gallantry, Valor. Courage is that firmness of spirit and swell of soul which meets danger without fear. Bravery is daring and impetuous courage, like that of one who has the reward continually in view, and displays his courage in daring acts. Fortitude has often been styled "passive courage," and consist in the habit of encountering danger and enduring pain with a steadfast and unbroken spirit. Valor is courage exhibited in war, and can not be applied to single combats; it is never used figuratively. Intrepidity is firm, unshaken courage. Gallantry is adventurous courage, which courts danger with a high and cheerful spirit. A man may show courage, fortitude, or intrepidity in the common pursuits of life, as well as in war. Valor, bravery, and gallantry are displayed in the contest of arms. Valor belongs only to battle; bravery may be shown in single combat; gallantry may be manifested either in attack or defense; but in the latter ease, the defense is usually turned into an attack.

 

© Webster 1913.


Cour"age, v. t.

To inspire with courage.

[Obs.]

Paul writeth unto Timothy . . . to courage him. Tyndale.

 

[Editor's Note: Moved the verb form here from couage which appears to originate in an OCR error of the original headword.]

© Webster 1913.

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