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Has our understanding of courage been highjacked?


When on a trip to London yesterday, my husband and son took a tour up the Orbit tower, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I’m not a great one for heights so my daughter and I ducked into a nearby cafe to await their return. After settling at our table with the drinks, my daughter began indulging in some soul searching. Apparently, they’d had an assembly the week before about ‘courage’. She lamented how she should really have possessed the courage to climb the tower and clearly felt it a personal failure to have ‘wimped out’.

This got me thinking. I immediately told Shona that courage didn’t mean quite the same thing to me as it did to the teacher leading the assembly. She agreed, suggesting  that abseiling off a building might constitute courage to one person and stupidity to another. It has certainly  become fashionable in recent years to encourage youngsters to take part in high adrenaline activities, viewing them as ‘character building’. Indeed, my daughter will be going on her year six residential trip in May, which is an adventure holiday including a ‘leap of faith’ on the final day.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. The kids will love it, just as I enjoyed riding roller coasters and diving from high boards when I was a teenager. But where I become uneasy, is in the redefining of thrill seeking, adrenaline pumping acts as synonymous with courage. Fearlessness is only one aspect of the OED definition of being courageous. It is also about having fortitude, being brave and gallant, even heroic. To me, a courageous act is to stand up for what you believe in even if all those around you disagree. To stick up for someone who is being bullied at the risk of a backlash against yourself is courageous. To make the trip to a war zone in order to provide medical care or assistance to those caught up in the violence  is courageous.

When I hear about those individuals who seek greater and greater artificial thrills by walking tightropes between tall buildings or climbing rock faces without support ropes, I always wonder how those who live with real difficulties view this strange occupation; those who trek for hundreds of miles and embark upon dangerous sea voyages to escape torture and persecution with their young families must marvel at why people would actually seek the stress that those dreadful  situations bring.

The answer, I suspect, is that ordinary life bores some people . They’ve sought out every available activity to stimulate the endorphins and have become addicted to the buzz. This isn’t what courage means to me and I wish we would stop telling our children that it’s what they should aspire to. Courage is the ability to recognise the true value in what we have before us right now. It might take more courage to stand still and face our responsibilities than to rush off in search of the next big thing.

So, I had no intention of forcing my daughter to go to the top of that tower – to face and overcome her fear. Because we all have a different interpretation of being brave. For some people, travelling any distance away from their home requires a courage that others may not fully  appreciate. Who am I to judge what another individual’s capacity for stoicism might be. I’d rather my daughter stood up for her friends when it mattered most and was a person who put their head above the parapet at work to point out an injustice. Because that is what true courage means to me and it is possible to achieve it on either  a small or a large scale.

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