Scott, an ex-Special Forces guy I met in the late 1980s, had spent 20 years as a covert operative for hyperdangerous missions. He was one of those guys who would sneak into Soviet embassies in places like Cambodia to steal secret papers. Then the Cold War ended and he went home to someplace like Pennsylvania. There he discovered that his formerly hard-drinking parents had gotten sober, joined AA, and wanted Scott to go to Al-Anon, the 12-step program for relatives of alcoholics.
"What you have to realize," he said, "is that in all my years in the Special Forces, I'd never been afraid. I loved danger, and I was really good at it. But when I walked into that meeting, I was so terrified that I couldn't stay in the room."
Scott had literally never spent a moment looking at himself or at the source of his pain. The world of feelings was a place of darkness for him and, like all unknown territory, profoundly scary. But he faced his fear and not only went back to that Al-Anon meeting but decided to journey further into himself by learning to meditate. For Scott, that was about as brave an act as, say, parachute jumping would be for me.
Scott's story redefined my understanding of courage. I'd always thought of courage as synonymous with what hard-boiled novelists used to call "guts." I'd assumed that if you were unafraid of physical harm, you were, basically, unafraid. Scott helped me realize, though, that courage and fearlessness are not the same-in fact, if we didn't have fears, we wouldn't need courage. Courage implies moving through fear.
An act that takes tremendous courage for one person might be someone else's "no big deal," or even their day job. For me, doing an unsupported Handstand is an act of courage, yet I'm unfazed by stuff that terrifies others-speaking in front of a thousand people without notes, for instance, or facing my own anger. And, of course, each of us has a different edge, a psychological precipice beyond which lies a personal abyss. Your edge could be the 500-foot drop below a mountain footbridge. It may be the fear of career suicide that keeps you from speaking out about corporate wrongdoing, or the fear of losing your partner's love that paralyzes you when you try to convey certain truths about yourself. Your edge might be very subtle indeed-it might be, for instance, the moment your boundaries dissolve in meditation. The point is that each of us, sometime, will be asked to step past the borders of the known world and do something that scares us. Courage is that quality of heart that lets us do it.
Home of the Brave
Anyone who reads inspirational literature knows that the English word "courage" comes from the French coeur, meaning heart. One Sanskrit word for courage is saurya, which has the same root as the Sanskrit word for sun. In fact, many ancient systems associate the sun-heart of the solar system—with the pulsing, radiant muscle at the center of our circulatory system. I like the heart image, with its implication that courage comes from the center of being, from the organ that most directly resounds with the pulsation of life.
Like the heart itself, courage is a lotus with many petals, all of them associated with qualities that even the most sardonic of us celebrate: bravery, strength, steadiness, trust, self—reliance, integrity, love. And also, let's be honest, recklessness. In my teens, when I thought the way to conquer fear was to plunge headlong into whatever I was scared to do, I often found myself in dicey situations. Now, though I shake my head at some of the decisions I made, I see that the recklessness I once indulged in had that heart—full quality that marks courageous behavior. At the very least, it developed some courage muscles, some habits of acting in the face of fear that would later enable me to hold steady through some difficult life choices.
Nonetheless, there's a difference between that impulsive courage—the kind that leads people to charge into battle without a plan or to have unprotected sex with people who don't love them—and the courage of a Martin Luther King Jr. or an Aung San Suu Kyi (the Burmese champion of democracy who has lived under house arrest for years). Or, for that matter, the courage of an ordinary person who lives with hard choices without flinching.
So, what does courage tempered by wisdom look like? How is it different from the kind of courage that prompts our friends to say "You're so brave!" when what they're really thinking is "You're so out of your mind!"