The word ‘courage’ derives from the Latin word cor, which means ‘the heart’. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by revealing all one’s heart”; in other words, to speak openly and to act honestly with integrity. It means to tell your story how it is – even at the risk of being rejected, ridiculed or misunderstood. In light of this etymology, I believe the ultimate constituents of courage are vulnerability, valor and bravery.
Being vulnerable can often be frightening, as we are hard-wired to protect ourselves both physically and psychologically. Our brain is programmed to scan the surrounding environment numerous times per second for any possible threats, and to instinctively resort to fight-or-flight mode when faced with potential danger. It is a beautiful system which ensured the survival of our species for the past hundred thousand years. However, since survival is the Queen of all functions (and being vulnerable means to expose oneself to potential threats), we pay the price for this system in the form of sometimes missing out on deeper human connection. We also lose opportunities to feel accepted and embraced for who we are. In order to be courageous, in the truest etymological sense, we must consciously go against our age-old human nature.
However, the good news about true courage (as defined by openness to new experiences and interactions with people) is that it is not something you either have or don’t have. Courage of the heart can be taught, learned, cultivated and practiced. This type of courage is a way of being – an entire life philosophy, if you will. It takes courage to be vulnerable, to ask for help, and to admit when you feel lost or hurt. By doing so you are tapping into a uniquely human trait that separates us from other species (and is buried under layers survival instinct). As humans, we can choose our actions, change the way we think, and create psychologically safe spaces where others feel sheltered and loved. We also free ourselves of the pressure of expectations and keeping up appearances, enabling us to just be who we are; nothing more, and nothing less.
We don’t need more heroes and superstars. We need real, authentic people who are rough around the edges and have some dirt on their feet. People who are brave enough to let their guard down – showing us that we are all merely human. Vulnerable, hopeful travelers who remind us that we as a species have come a long way to be at this time and place, right now. By taking the courageous step of holding authenticity, vulnerability and honesty in the highest regard, we can demonstrate how to interact with others without carrying an emotional shield (sometimes indeed getting slightly bruised in the process). Would you be that courageous person in your family and among your friends, as you come together this holiday season?
Changing our lives, and eventually creating an entire culture of courage, starts with small acts which then produce micro-changes within the social system you live in (as the wonderful philosopher and systems thinker Esa Saarinen calls them). Anyone can be the catalyst to initiate a micro-level change that will then spread further than they can imagine. What if the present you give this season is the gift of your presence? Your authentic self, vulnerable and utterly courageous.
Originally published in my column ‘The Art of Braintenance’ on the Creativity Post.