Where Does Courage Come From?

Seventy years ago this past June, Allied soldiers invaded Normandy France as part of Operation Overlord to take Europe back from the Nazis.


Photo: Gilbert Alexander Milne/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-122765

In the dark hours of night, soldiers crowded onto small landing craft and made their way across the English Channel, avoiding mines along the way.  As they approached France, soldiers could see and hear gunfire and bombs and they had to summon courage knowing that they were going towards gunfire and bombs, not way from them.  Soon, their landing craft would hit the beaches of Normandy, the front door of their craft would open, exposing them to even more enemy fire, and they would wade into the water, amid bullets and bombs, climbing through barbed wire and other obstructions, so that they could fight their enemy all the while knowing that the last time Canadians tried doing something similar was at Dieppe, where more than half of the soldiers died.

Where does someone find courage to do this?  Is it inherent in young people who just seem to tolerate risks?  Or is it more thoughtful than that?

In the month of November, examining the actions of soldiers and others who took action in war despite ultimate risks of grave injury and death provides some insights into where courage comes from.  It becomes obvious that courage is not characteristic of individuals who have not thought through the certain consequences or risks of their actions, that is foolishness.  Courage is quite the opposite.

Many soldiers who decided to join the war effort were very aware of the risks involved.  But they were equally aware of the risks of not joining the war.  They understood that not fighting could lead to a loss of their freedom, a loss of their family’s freedom, a loss of the values of their country, and possibly even death for themselves, their loved ones, and groups of their society.

It is never easy to take action when something has a certain or possible negative consequence for ourselves or others, yet it is often necessary to take action to avoid even worse certain or possible negative consequences for ourselves or others.

This has great implications for what we do in schools.  We encourage students to be positive bystanders, or “upstanders.”  This means that when students witness a conflict, they intervene in a positive way.    This does not mean intervene in physically, it means intervene in a way that normalizes safe, inclusive and respectful behaviour.  This takes courage.

In a situation where a student is being made fun of, an upstander might say, “I don’t think you should say things that make others feel bad, please stop.”  If other bystanders say something similar, the person making the comment realizes this type of behaviour is not acceptable.  But just as it is not easy fora soldier to go towards bullets and bombs, it is not easy for an upstander to actually speak up.  They might fear that the person making the negative comment won’t be friends with them any longer, or will turn their negative comments on them.  It is hard to expect people – children and even adults – to take risks of loss of friendship or drawing attention and possible ridicule to themselves, unless they have thought about such situations in advance.

If the bystander has thought through all of the risks of action and inaction, they may find the courage to speak up.   They may find the risk of losing a friend or being the target of negative comments is outweighed by the consequence of being in a school where students get made fun of and having to live with the idea that they are seen by others as someone who supports mean behaviour or lacks the courage to stop it.

Courage, therefore, is not just something people have in the moment where they are tested, it is the process of preparing for that test, of prioritizing our values and being convinced of what we will stand for.

Courage is not something some people are born with and others not, it is hardened inside of those who take the time to prioritize what matters to them.

At this time of Remembrance, when we honour individuals who took ultimate risks in standing up for their values, let us also consider what our values are and be inspired to stand up for them.

One thought on “Where Does Courage Come From?

  1. Thanks for sharing this very timely post. I like your description of a courageous act as a process – something that we prioritize through our previous thoughts and actions. I also think of courage as recognizing a fearful situation and choosing to overcome it… for whatever reason. We may know what we value, but may be afraid to stand up for ourselves and/or others. Courage is hardened by our values but it is also strengthened by the recognition of fears and the ability to overcome these fears. As Nelson Mandela suggests, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

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