What is Courage?

Fear can be a seedling for change. Green Belt Movement tree nursery in Tumutumu Hills, Kenya.

(Photograph by Ariel Poster)

Originally published on Common Dreams, November 19, 2018

This is the 7th of Frances' Thought Sparks Video Series as she opens her heart about what fortifies her in this scary time & shares her often-surprising takes on themes of hope, democracy, and courage.

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Tough, brave, fearless.Don’t these words capture what courage means? Maybe not.

For me, courage is simply doing what I thought I could not do. It’s acting for what I care about most, not because I’m fearless but …fear that my action isn’t enough, that I’ll be alone, or that it’s all futile, anyway, and my failure will be humiliating.

I used to think fear was a stop sign that read: “danger ahead.” And to that danger I assumed had evolved three useful, even life-saving responses. Freeze, fight, flee.

But humans, it turns out, are not trapped in pre-programmed responses. And that’s the really good news. It’s possible to rethink fear, to relearn its meaning. And, as the stakes for our planet rise along with sea levels, now’s the moment for this exciting work.

On this rethinking, my daughter Anna and I found our lives forever changed during a conversation in Kenya years ago with the Rev. Timothy Njoya, a close friend of our hero and Nobel Peace Laureate, the late Wangari Maathai and founder of the Green Belt Movement. She’d invited him over to meet us. We were pleased but not sure what to expect.

Then, a slight, agile man with a crisp blue shirt and white priest’s collar arrived. As we sat in easy chairs, Rev. Njoya began to share his life story. Soon, he rose and acted out a lesson about fear.

One night, he told us, several men sent by the dictator to kill him, and armed with swords, arrived at his door. A brutal attack ensued and as he lay on the floor with his gut ripped open—believing death was near—Rev. Njoya wasn’t wailing. Instead, he began gifting his treasures to his assailants, including his library and even his favorite Bible.

As Rev. Njoya spoke, my heart began pounding wildly. I just couldn’t grasp what I was hearing, so I blurted out: “But how is this possible? Isn’t humanity’s fear response automatic? How, in pain and fearing death, could anyone express kindness?”

To answer my question, Rev. Njoya posed as a lion that had spotted its prey. The lion, he told us, doesn’t just react. It recoils and postures itself, and then it leaps. Acting out the scene, he explained that, like the lion, we can harness and harmonize our fear. It is a source of energy we can use.

I’d always been afraid of fear. But, now I had to imagine what would happen if I thought of fear as pure energy, energy I can use how I choose. Anna and I lay awake into the night talking about what it would mean if we could live understanding of fear. Ah, what freedom, we realized.

Since that night, I continually remind myself that fear doesn’t necessarily mean “danger”: stop or fight or run. Maybe my pounding heart or cold sweat is telling me that I am on the brink of possibility, that I am, right in that moment, simply in the unknown where most growth and creativity are possible.

Later I discovered a little trick. It’s kind of corny, but I’ll share it. For most of my life, when I felt insecure, fearing I’d sound silly or be criticized for my words or actions, I would try to subdue my pounding heart by condemning it: “You wimp!” I’d say to myself. But, with the smile of Reverend Njoya in my mind’s eye, one day I decided, no more. From then on, I began saying to myself, “Way to go, that pounding in my chest is really my inner applause cheering me on.”

Yes. Understanding fear as energy we can use to increase our power for good in our broken world is life changing. It’s a lesson I keep learning and…relearning.

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Note: Don’t miss watching the companion video to this article - one of Frances Moore Lappé’s Thought Sparks Video Series in which she opens her heart about what fortifies her in this scary time. Each week for nine weeks or more, her Small Planet Institute will release an informal 2-to-5-minute video in which Frances shares her often-surprising, liberating takes on hope, democracy, and courage.

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