Recently I’ve found myself considering how to define courageous in the modern climate and wondering whether or not I have any courage. Two ways to define courageous in this exploration have really stuck with me. One comes from Lewis and one comes from a guy I hardly ever read named Tillich. We’ll start with Tillich, who wrote a book called The Courage to Be.
Today wraps up the week of talking about making brave art and making art bravely and today that means talking about our sense of wonder.
In The Courage to Be, Tillich shows how all fear (phobia) comes from a specific application of death. Fear of public speaking is really fear of the mob and potential stonings or lynchings (which is why people called the greatest orator of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King Jr., an uppety black man: the direct, courageous response to the threat of lynching is preaching justice in the public square). The fear of spiders is a fear of their bite and their capacity to maim and kill slowly through a poison. The fear of heights is really the fear of falling off those heights to a rather squishy end.
So fear is connected to a very specific type of death and loss. Fear of the end of something in a a specific way.
But anxiety is different. Anxiety is the fear of fear itself. Anxiety is the fear of nothing per se, no specific end. It’s just this fear response connected to the capacity for everything to stop existing. For everything to cease to be. I have a genius friend, for instance, who sometimes in the middle of the day is struck by how nothing as such holds the earth up in space, that we don’t really know why (short of naming it “gravity”) that we don’t just fly off into the vacuum. Anxiety is nonentity. Anxiety is the fear of prima materia, ex nihilo, and the raw fact that when you face everything that exists, there is absolutely no excuse for everything. Every rock and stone and stock and tree exists in spite of the abyss, almost like a slap in the face of everything that roots against it existing.
Tillich then goes and points out how Socrates and his school of Greecian thinkers couldn’t really nail down a definition of courage. The best they could come up with is either that it’s all virtue or that courage is simply existance and the choice about it. Courage is everything in a way, but the choice to embrace everything and to move further up and further into virtue without any real impetus to do so.
As I linked to the Dr. Peterson lectures recently, I’d point out that he and Jung and Campbell also dug into this idea psychologically and mythologically: the idea that we must dig deep into the thing we least want to do.
My dad was really good at teaching me this. I’m realizing as I get older just how much common sense hides in the minds of Southern Illinois carpenters (and I have a novel coming out to that effect in the next year our so – my first and you can unlock a chapter of that here). But dad one time found out that I was scared of heights. And I am. Still to this day. To dad, that’s a slap in the face: he spends all day long on multi-story scaffolding, risking his life, and his own son is scared of heights. So he was building this house out in Alma and none of the floors were in. The scaffolding reached from the highest peak of the pitched second-story roof all the way down to the basement like the derelict house in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. And there was this little two-by-four connecting the only second-story floor to that three story scaffolding. He said, “You’re scared of heights? Well let’s cure that.” And he shoved me out onto the board with nothing but concrete three stories below.
Now he wasn’t an idiot. He didn’t shove me like he wanted to throw me off balance. And he kept me within reach so that his dad arms could have easily caught me (I’m only now thinking through this part of the equation), but he did force me to face my fear.
In today’s society, we have spare few rights of passage left for us. But that was one of mine and ever since I’ve had this urge inside of me to confront the demon, to face the dragon, to do the thing that most scares me. To not be safe, to not go gentle, to strike out swinging.
Back to Dr. Peterson. In his third or fourth lecture from that series, he points out the principle that “what you most want to find will be found in the place where you least want to look.” It’s an old phrase from the Latin esoteric alchemists and in literary alchemy:
IN STERQUILINIIS INVENITUR
It’ll be found in filth.
The knights of the round table in their quest for the most precious material in existence, the highest manifestation of God in the middle ages – THE HOLY GRAIL – they knew it was in this woods in one of the grail quest stories. And so the knights no the only way to get there is in sterquiliniis invenitur, that what they most want to find will be found in the place they least want to look, that it’ll be found in filth.
My dad shoved me out on a ledge.
And I still FORCE myself to look over the tops of high buildings, especially the footbridge that freaks me out on the fourth and fifth floors of the Museum of Modern Art here in the city. I don’t do it recklessly: I don’t believe in thrill seeking or adrenaline junkies or especially amusement parks. I”m talking about actually facing the thing that scares me most, not some manufactured controlled environment in which I’m getting the feeling of courage without the virtue and strength that blossoms in the wake of true courage.
Tillich said the way to get rid of fear was to face that fear. If you fear crawlspaces, get down in there. If you fear high speeds, go drive on the autobahn for awhile or try out stock car racing or something. If you fear public speaking, enroll in improv classes because improv comedy and standup are some of the hardest public speaking venues available because you know immediately if you failed. The way to define courageous is to meet head on the thing that cows you.
But that doesn’t deal with anxiety.
Anxiety is the one that leads us to self destruct and suicide and to tear down the systems and civilization around us. It’s te Hamlet question: to be or not to be, to commit suicide or not to commit suicide, to self destruct or not to self destruct.
The way you beat that is to be yourself – your truest self – in the teeth of nonentity, the void, criticism and the voice of the mob. You choose not only to exist, but to exist at your highest capacity in the face of knowing that nothing should exist at all. For that’s the heart of goodness (to exist in the teeth of evil), the heart of beauty (to exist in the face of nonentity and formlessness), and that’s the heart of truth (to speak of reality when everyone else is spouting unreality and falsehood).
This, I think, is why Lewis said that courage isn’t a virtue.
Courage is EVERY virtue at the testing point.
That moment when the kid is trying your patience? Courage alone will make you patient.
That moment when the neighbors despair? Courage alone will remind you of the joy of existence and t he beauty of the infinite.
That habit your family has of sowing discord and strife? Courage alone will empower you to enter into what my mentor Peter Buckland called “their swirling vortex of weirdness” and to make peace, a rock within their tempest, an island in their maelstrom.
That tendency in your boss to be rude? Courage alone will respond to that with kindness.
That corruption in your organization? Courage meets that head on with goodness. Active goodness: justice and the capacity to say “no” to what destroys and “yes” to what builds up.
Courage meets the unfaithful, the flighty, the contract breakers, the betrayers, the leavers, the I’ll-hold-out-for-something better contingent and those who fear themselves through a lack of vows and commitments – meets all of that with faithfulness. Courage meets harshness with gentleness. Courage meets mindless indulgence and addiction with self-control. It meets withering with fortitude and foolishness with prudence. Despair with hope, when men flee it holds faith, and when they hate it loves.
Courage dies in the attempt when others would quit:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Teddy Roosevelt