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Courage: Excerpted from “What Does That Mean? Exploring Mind, Meaning and Mysteries by Dr. Eldon Taylor

“Strength is granted to us all when we are needed to serve great causes.”

— Winston Churchill

What is courage? Is it a selfless act that’s offered for the benefit of others? Is there a higher form than this?

There are acts of bravery that are clearly in the name of self-preservation. There are true accounts of those who have freed themselves from traps by cutting limbs from their bodies. That takes the proverbial guts to accomplish, but what I want to examine transcends personal gain—the selfless courage that’s offered on behalf of others. Where does this come from, and what is it?

If fear is largely about being abandoned, then perhaps the social side of that anxiety cultivates and perpetuates the idea of selfless courage. Perhaps it arises from some deeper sense or urge than socialization. Are we wired to admire and foster selflessness?

Movies portraying such courage move me in very emotional ways. In fact, I don’t know anyone who, watching a well-acted film telling a story of selfless courage, isn’t moved by the portrayal. Why is that? What does that mean?

Is it possible that selfless courage, expressed in an act that offers life or limb for others, is taught to us in the same way that we learn our other values? Do you think that extremist Muslims can watch a suicide bomber and find themselves as moved by this act of courage as an American viewing a fictional character saving the planet by sacrificing himself? Is courage a matter of cultural relevance?

Cultural Relevance

Some things seem universal, such as laughter, crying, and a parent who runs into a burning house to rescue a child. People going to the aid of others in natural disasters fall into this category as well. Is courage universal but guided by local morality? Apparently not all life everywhere is universally held to be sacred. How can that be?

In all parts of the world, children are taught something called ethnocentricity. This is the notion that they were born into the best country, have the best system of government, and so forth. Thus the notion of national loyalty is fostered. Young people are equally enculturated with a system of values that supports the social group into which they’re born and raised. Religion plays its role and further deepens the “truth” of life. So in aggregate, individuals know little about who or what they might have been and believed if they’d been born somewhere else. Morality then becomes totally culture dependent—right?

Universal Values

Are there any values that should transcend all others and be universal? Obviously, preservation of life is one such moral imperative, for without it we’d be left with just the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest. Our civilized world at least pretends to believe in the value of life or there would be no charges of crimes against humanity, nor would there be the charitable actions of governments when major tragedies hit other nations. Is this all just a matter of reciprocity? In other words, do I give you the right to life so that you’ll do the same for me? Or is there truly a moral imperative that moves the human psyche to offer this right to everyone unilaterally?

One would think that religion and government, which are the tools society uses to teach values, would insist on basic, universal moral principles. What does it suggest when our institutions promote different standards? What does it mean when the life of someone who practices a particular religious faith is valued more than that of someone who doesn’t? How can that be called holy?

Theories in penology (the study of prison management and the treatment of offenders) insist that at least one element underlying punishment is the need or right for society to exact a sort of revenge, to see justice carried out. Following from this, victims’ families weigh in on death-penalty cases, and their needs (desires) are taken into consideration. This is a form of getting even—or “evener.” Is it a healthy way for society to practice justice? Is this another form of differentiation between the relative values of comparable lives?

What if you learned that capital punishment didn’t deter crime? What if you knew that it cost much more to execute criminals than to warehouse them in solitary confinement for life? What if you discovered that lifelong isolation was more of a deterrent than being put to death? What if it was revealed that a statistical error rate existed in death-penalty cases, showing that a certain number of innocent individuals were found guilty and their lives taken by society for crimes they didn’t commit? At what point would you decide that capital punishment was inappropriate—or would you?

You may think that you share the moral imperative that all life is sacred until you reflect on your views regarding capital punishment, or perhaps you already oppose it and nothing has changed for you. How do you feel about the worst criminal you can bring to mind? Is there anything within you that would cause you to take up arms and use them with the intent to kill?

The Value of a Life

It seems that for all of us there’s some mitigation regarding the relative value of life. A boat is sinking and only six out of eight people can survive. Two are old, in their 80s, and the rest are young (30 and younger). Whom do you save? Oh, but wait a minute—one of the older people is a genius with the answer to a significant world problem in his head, just waiting to arrive at his destination and present the material to the right people. One of the younger children is dying of cancer and has only a week or less to live. Now whom do you pick?

What if you’re among the passengers, only one of whom can’t be saved. The others are all fearful and willing to push and shove to be among the survivors. You have two small children and a spouse, and the other remaining passengers are all big burly men, none of whom will be left behind. What do you do? Is this courage?

Defining Courage

When we see courage, we know it—or do we? Does our culture teach this response? Is there an innate definition or root for courage per se? Does self-sacrifice count? If so, doesn’t that mean that acts of altruism are also courageous? Indeed, wouldn’t that mean that Mother Teresa’s life was an act not just of charity and love, but of supreme courage?

If fear is all about pain or abandonment, is courage the opposite? Is it the absence of fear? We can easily see through this shallow question, for many so-called acts of valor have taken place in the midst of the hero’s or heroine’s deeply felt fear.

As we inquire into the nature of courage, it becomes evident that it isn’t just some bold act, such as rushing into a burning building. In reality, it includes many softer versions, if you will. Sometimes an act of terrorism may be disguised as courage—or is this quality not a universal moral imperative? Does it have any natural root in the makeup of being human? What does that mean? Are there any values that aren’t culture dependent, culturally trained, or quid pro quo in nature? What does that say about being human?

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Exploring Mind, Meaning and Mysteries


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3 Responses to “Courage: Excerpted from “What Does That Mean? Exploring Mind, Meaning and Mysteries by Dr. Eldon Taylor”

  1. walter daniels says:

    The problem of “isolation” as an answer to the death penalty, is twofold. At what point do strip the person of all humanity, and Human Rights, by isolating them? If you treat them as no longer being deserving of basic Human Rights, is it really better than taking their life directly?
    The other part is very simple. If they cannot be killed, for any crime, what stops them from committing any crime they want in prison. Once locked in “isolation for life,” how do you punish them? You have already used your ultimate deterrent, and it didn’t work. How do you protect all those who guard, or otherwise must deal with the isolated prisoner? No solution is perfect, but some are less perfect than others.

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  2. Sasha says:

    For the most part I enjoyed reading this piece. But one thing you said early on in the piece struck me.

    When you wrote about ethnocentricity, teching children that they are born into “the best” country with “the best” system, you seemed very American, and it seemed to be a phrase one could only write as a universal truth if one came from a particular sort of American experience. I’ve lived in the States and my daughter is half-American. I’ve got lots of American family, both biological and through my daughter’s paternal side. But I’m Canadian.

    Anyone who has lived for a long time in another country is likely to have a more complex understanding than the one you presented.

    Consider that many of us are raised in families that have been border crossing for generations.

    The recognition that difference exists, and that it is not important or necessary to rank differences “better” or “worse” is normal for many of us.

    Lots of us speak more than one language, too, and it makes no sense to describe one language as “better” than another.

    Anyone raised in the British Commonwealth, or in a nation that is part of the Francophonie (Canada is both), the old Soviet Union, or some other Imperial system– any one raised in a nation that is or was a colony– particularly if they are a generation or two older than I am, but this holds true to some extent for my generation as well, will tell you about colonialism:

    We could tell you about being explictly taught that some other country far away is “the best” with “the best” system.

    We all grew up reading poems where the weather we were supposed to think of as “normal” did not match our lived experiences.

    In Canada, we still describe ourselves primarily in terms of a European political and cultural history, discounting how endebted we are to our First Nations peoples.

    I grew up in downtown Toronto, which is an amazingly multi-cultural place. I’d say most of us come from religiously, ethnically, or culturally mixed families and communities. I’ve lived abroad in Europe and closer to home in the USA.

    Living in Detroit and connecting with familiy in Louisiana and Georgia, I meet lots of people who think that “people prefer to be around other people like them” or “people think their way of doing things is the best” or “people think their country is ‘the best’”as if we were all competing with each other are universally true statements.

    In my experience that is a particularly American (and perhaps French) outlook on life.

    Most of the people I know live a little dislocated from the centre, with more than one enthicity making up who they are, which makes ethnocentrism a little tricky.

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  3. Leila says:

    Thanks for this thought provoking article. People are definitely complex creatures and for me that’s part of what makes them really interesting. I think the interpretation of someone’s action as courageous is often in the eye of the beholder. Whether that action is courageous or not would depend on the motivations of the actor. A parent who has many times saved their child from falling has primed themselves to act in a dangerous situation. The person who cuts a limb from their own body in order to save their life maybe the person who has honed their survival instincts to a great degree. Mother Theresa may have been ultimately courageous or she may have trained herself to love and obey the voice of God to such an extent that the fulfillment of his word felt to her bliss. In some ways it sounds as though I am saying that people aren’t in any essential way courageous and yet – following your own calling regardless of what others may call it is the ultimate courage. Is this morality? Yes, I believe it is and as close to a religious experience as many of us get.

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