“He who loses wealth loses much; he who loses a friend loses more; but he that loses his courage loses all.” – Miguel De Cervantes
Cervantes is right. Of all the qualities of moral character, courage is the most important. Courage requires suppressing or not reacting to excessive or irrational fear. Irrational fears are deeply inimical to life. But as examples of courage, I don’t have in mind people who place themselves in great physical danger, the kind of cases that are usually invoked in discussions of courage. Firefighters, police, and soldiers put themselves in physical danger, often for good reasons. Daredevils and athletes in violent sports do so as well although their motives—fame, fortune, or some kind of perverse psychological need to prove themselves—are suspect.
Yet, for most of us, incurring extreme physical risk is not essential to life. Courage for most lives involves being yourself in the face of ridicule, maintaining commitments despite incurring loss, risking rejection in order love someone, or taking on a challenging task even when you’re uncertain it will work out. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of upheaval, fear of uncertainty—these are the everyday fears that must be managed if we are to live good lives.
It’s the management of these less heroic, less visible fears that makes courage so important.