Courage is the opposite of fear. By fear I do not mean prudent fear of proper authority, such as of getting a ticket for speeding, or the fear of God. Instead, courage overcomes the fear that would prevent us from doing what is just and right.
There are innumerable things that we fear. Many of them even have their own special words, such as xenoglossophobia (fear of foreign languages), triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), and sesquipedalophobia (fear of long words). But I think all the fears that are really a challenge in our everyday lives boil down into two kinds: fear of losing things, and fear of other people.
Fear of losing things--our health, wealth, or happiness—is something we all have felt. Of course, prudence dictates that we eat vegetables and invest wisely. But how many of us fail to actually live because of crippling fear over aging or a bad stock market?
Another prevalent fear is the fear of others. Peer pressure is a powerful force for good or ill. The novel Lord of the Flies is one of the most brilliant portrayals of how human inclinations for evil get magnified when they are reinforced by a group. Examples in history abound.
On the other hand, there are many inspiring examples of courageous men and women who chose to follow their conscience, faith, or ideals, whatever the cost. I think of Esther, the queen to the Persian king Ahasuerus, who risked her life to save her fellow Jews. There is king Leonidas, who chose to save Greece by sacrificing himself and his men to delay the Persian army. In more recent times, I think of Eric Liddell, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer--and the list goes on. These men and women lived out the verse composed by King David: "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?" (Psalm 118:6)
The Stoic philosophers found fear an especially harmful and crippling passion. They devised many techniques to rid oneself of fear. Foremost was contemplating the fact that nothing bad can happen to the person who keeps his inner self free from vice. True, bad things can happen--but are they really bad if they sharpen one's morals and work for good in the end?
Seneca writes, "We advise...not to be unhappy before a crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers...will never come...We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow" (Epistle 13). More often than not, fear is the anticipation of something bad. In contrast, hope lets courage win ground over fear. Courage overcomes present fear, and hope overcomes future fear. Courage and hope work side by side.
While fear is a passion, courage is a choice of the will. That means that we must not just feel courageous, but act courageously. This requires a decision on our part. Because courage is a rational choice, it should go hand in hand with temperance. Reasonable and temperate courage does not consist in whipping ourselves into a false feeling of invincibility, nor positive self-talk, nor saying or doing whatever we want. Courage proceeds from a healthy humility regarding our human limitations; the courageous man will do the hard thing but will do it calmly and humbly.
Because courage is an act of the will, courage does not necessitate an absence of fear, but correct action in the face of fear. For example, you may be terrified to speak up when a friend has made a poor choice. Courage does not consist of calming your nerves; it consists in saying the right thing anyway. In fact, it is hard to imagine courage even existing without fear. If there is no fear (real or imagined) to overcome, there is no need to exercise courage. Thus courage often acts in spite of fear, not in the absence of fear.
In the 40th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet comforts the people of Israel by describing the future time of peace ushered in by the Messiah when "the lion will lie down with the lamb." He is giving the people hope and courage.
Fear not, for I am with you;
Be not dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
Yes, I will help you,
I will uphold you with My righteous hand.
It is a fitting and timely thought to meditate on.