One of my youngest nephews was watching The Wizard of Oz on Saturday. He’s a rather articulate little fellow given that he is not yet three years old. He spoke with great enthusiasm about the movie that seems to be his favorite, at least for the moment. It occurred to me that it takes a bit of daring for a little boy to view a film that features witches and flying monkeys but he seemed unfazed by the sometimes scary storyline. He was mostly focused on the ruby slippers, the yellow brick road and the songs. He was more than willing to show all of us the proper way to behave in the land of Oz, a rather new development in his usually somewhat shy demeanor. His new found bravery around people that he doesn’t see very often represents a major leap forward in his personality. He is learning to trust and to try new things, even when they may be difficult to do.
As the wonderful wizard eventually tells the cowardly lion, courage comes in many forms. We most often associate valor with daring physical acts. Mike and I recently viewed a documentary about three men who were the first to scale the summit of Meru, a jagged mountain in India that becomes little more than a vertical wall at its peak. Using axes, carabiners, ropes and crampons the individuals conquered their personal demons to ultimately achieve an amazing feat that nobody before them had ever managed to do. Few among us would ever be willing to take the dangerous chances that these men were willing to try. One of them had even experienced such severe head trauma in a previous accident that doctors worried that he might never again walk much less climb a rugged mountain. All three men had dreamed of this accomplishment for years and they somehow found the boldness to set aside all of the fears that threatened to keep them from achieving their goal.
Not all courage is as dramatic or physically punishing as climbing a mountain. There are often quiet and almost unnoticed forms of heroism happening all around us. Whenever we do something that scares us we are demonstrating a kind of daring. There are people fighting cancer and other illnesses by submitting to painful medical procedures even when they would prefer to simply run away. A student who pushes him or herself to learn something so difficult that it almost seems impossible is someone with true grit. Giving a speech in front of a huge crowd can be daunting and yet there are those who tame the voices telling them that they cannot do it. Over and over again each and everyday individuals take deep breaths and find some inner essences that propel them through situations that are uncomfortable.
There is also the courage of righteousness. We all honor the pluck of a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Gandhi. Suffering slings and arrows for the sake of justice can be a lonely path. Telling the truth when everyone else is lying does not always bring glory, at least not in the moment. Such gallantry is often met with derision and isolation. Combating toxic group think can be one of the most difficult tasks that mankind faces. It is usually so much easier to say or do nothing than to differ from the crowd and the usual way of doing things.
As a teacher I have seen some amazing examples of courage among my students. I recall the young man with severe learning disabilities who fought fiercely to overcome his deficits only to fail again and again in spite of his efforts. If he had been graded on sheer determination he would have been the valedictorian of his class. Still he ultimately managed to push forward in his academic career and earn a diploma and a set of skills that helped him find honest work. His willingness to take risks and work hard has earned him the respect of everyone who knows him and he has become a successful man. Every single day is a struggle for him but he ignores the specter of failure and tries again and again.
There was the young lady who stepped forward when her class became embroiled in a cheating scandal. Her classmates had decided to stick together and hide the perpetrators who had stolen a test and distributed it. They built an ironclad wall around the truth and she alone began chipping away at it in the name of honor and integrity. Ultimately those who had done wrong were found and duly punished, not in small part because this brave young woman had publicly urged those who knew the truth to step forward. In the end she garnered the respect of her classmates and demonstrated to all of us the same level of boldness as Eleanor Roosevelt or Rosa Parks.
Sadly we rarely acknowledge the most humble forms of courage that we witness. We often view them as being unworthy of accolades and yet it is in the millions of simple acts of fearlessness that the best of mankind unfolds. Each of us is called from day to day to overcome the uncertainties that sometimes cause us to worry more than to act. A lack of courage in a given situation is the stuff of regret. We lose our nerve, make excuses, and ultimately become as anxious and forlorn as the cowardly lion. We sense that we somehow might have done better if only we had been able to find our inner spunk. What we seldom realize is that courage is taken one step at a time. It is having enough belief in ourselves that we are willing to follow the yellow brick road and overcome the challenges that befall us. It is most often a quiet and personal journey.
If we think of the most courageous people that we know the common denominator among all of them is determination and a willingness to make mistakes and start over again and again. If we want to develop heroism in our children we must provide them with opportunities to push themselves beyond what is comfortable for them. We must show them with our encouragement that sometimes the very bravest thing that we might do is simply to face down one of our fears and to utterly and totally fail. It is in our times of defeat that we sometimes learn the most about ourselves and about life. We stand the most tall when we have given it our best and when we understand that life is not so much about winning as the willingness to do what our hearts are urging us to do.
Courage is often audacious. It comes in that moment when everyone and everything tells us that we should run and instead we stay. We stand up to the bullies in the world. We learn how to push ourselves just a bit more. We work hard and we remain nice even as those around us are hateful and mean. We feel discouraged and still we keep moving forward. We begin to realize that in spite of our flaws and weaknesses we are capable and hardy. We will not break if we stretch our wills just a bit more. The difference between a coward and a hero is more often than not simply the willingness to jump into the fray even if there is a possibility that we will utterly and totally fail.
I smile as I think of my little two year old nephew marching and singing as he shows us how to navigate the yellow brick road. He may seem so young and naive to the ways of life but he is already well on his way to becoming a gallant man. He has somehow learned to trust and to dream and to turn his thoughts into actions. This is how courage begins.