There is an epidemic going on right now that has been festering in various forms, for decades. Its symptoms include a lack of accountability, indecision, apathy, failure to honor who we really are, playing the victim, and perhaps worst of all, sitting quiet and idle when the world needs us to stand up and contribute to a greater good. This epidemic is due to a deficiency of courage.
Courage is a mindset. It is not an inherited super-power nor an exclusive gift of a few heroes among us. Courage is a chosen behavior. It is the conversion point between our deepest beliefs and our actions. It is what makes some people step forward and change the world around them for the better; when sitting passively safe, uncriticized and comfortable was also an option.
Courage is often mistaken as the absence of fear, when in fact, the opposite is true. Fear is prerequisite to courage. It is because we fear life’s challenges and that we have our own internal doubts that we can bring forth a courageous state of mind.
“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”
It is worth addressing fear’s role in our lives for a moment, since fear is often viewed as a negative emotion, some kind of limiting agent that should be suppressed at all costs. It is not. Fear, is good. Fear is a primal emotional response that has served us for tens of thousands of years. When we lived in the wild, fear used to save our lives, causing us to run away from deadly encounters and then embedding the survival memory. We are here right now as a species, because of fear. However, we are legacy machines in a modern world. Deadly encounters are no longer the norm in our daily lives, in fact we’re safer and more comfortable than ever; maybe even to a fault. It is likely that we haven’t had to raise our heart rate much above baseline once today to find clean water, or to avoid physical harm or to arrive at any destination that we choose. The remaining haunts in our current lives are merely the shadows of our ancestors’ risks. Modern fears have largely moved inside of our heads. Untamed fears of failure, isolation or rejection, when unchecked, paralyze our operations. What we need to remember is that fear is just data, it is not a directive. As humans we are blessed with a higher brain function that allows us to take perspective. We can consider, analyze and interpret into an actual language what we are observing and measure its actual risks. We can determine its meaning, decide on its intensity and duration. It is in this moment that we realize fear does not limit us, it focuses us. It drives our decisions. Fear is not the opposite of courage; it is the ignition source of courage, and as we will discuss later, an excellent motivator. The true opposite of courage, as matter of fact, is apathy.
Which brings us back to the epidemic. We were not meant to live this way; timid, indifferent, apathetic, cynical, indecisive. Thousands of generations that evolved through struggle have contributed to the collective conscience and have made us tested and fortunate survivors. Whether you believe that we are ‘feeling beings’ that think or ‘thinking machines’ that feel, we are for sure designed to be out there; doing the hard things, experiencing life, affecting change, failing, learning, adapting, overcoming, creating and serving the tribe. Courage is a human obligation. There is no avoiding the natural law that we get what we give. We deserve nothing, we earn everything. For every human right that we wish to claim as our own, we need to balance it with a contribution back to the group. Yes, just about everything that we face in life will require courage, that inner guidance to act on our beliefs despite some level of risk or disapproval.
How does this all finally tie into life as a first responder? Before anything of substance, courage.
Let’s admit, somedays the profession of public safety is really just the ‘human experience, on level 10.’ We witness incredible events and circumstances on a spectrum somewhere between awe-inspiring and terrifying. We are tasked with bringing the best of humanity to the worst of conditions, as consistently as possible. With this in mind, as first responders we are not only better served to bring our positive human qualities to the scene with us; we are obligated to engage and affect change through courage.
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
- C.S. Lewis
Courage is the meta virtue. It is the voluntary force that empowers all other positive human qualities, especially those that we want as first responders like integrity, respect, leadership, compassion and kindness.
Regardless of our age, gender, race, ability, disability; courage is not just the bravery that enables heroes to run into a burning building or charge into rising floodwaters – courage is a requirement to live a fulfilled life. Courage in both first response and life will take on many forms that maybe we haven’t before considered; confidence, empathy, discipline and vulnerability.
With confidence, we can face a world of stressful uncertainty. With confidence we are more likely to try new things and reach outside of our comfort zones. It takes courage to question the system, existing traditions and established practice. It takes courage to see the opportunities in the obstacles and to have more curiosities than convictions.
Yes, go back to school, go get that next certification, participate in the project at work. Never stop learning. Do amazing new things.
Empathy is a uniquely human trait; no other animal can claim it. With empathy we can be selfless and truly serve. It takes courage to sincerely listen and have the hard conversations. It takes courage to be kind in an increasingly uninterested world. When we are empathetic, we feel for another, we advocate for another, we rise together.
Next patient, every patient, listen to them, really listen. Be patient and compassionate. Remember that we are all in this together, and they called you.
With discipline we push aside apathy as we move ourselves and our tribe forward, changing the world around us. It takes discipline to stick to the tasks and finish the job. It takes courage to remain calm when there is panic. Be the example of professionalism. When things go bad, don’t go with them. Build the habits that make you reliable in the face of disorder.
With vulnerability we face possibly the most challenging, yet most worthwhile variation of courage. It takes courage to admit that we were wrong, to face criticism and to accept feedback. It takes courage to practice accountability, become vulnerable and own where we stand. It takes courage to admit that we’re struggling and to ask for help. It truly takes courage to get back up when we have fallen.
It is not the work that we do, but the person that we become while doing it, that is revealed through vulnerability. Never forget, we are not alone in all of this.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge.”
- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
So what? Now what?
How do we develop more courage in our lives?
- Be more aware
One of the greatest places to start for more awareness is with some basic gratitude. We are survivors, we are incalculably lucky to be here, be grateful. Next, accept the idea that all challenges improve us, in some way, and the degree of the improvement is fortunately up to us. We should be aware that courage is more than traditional gallantry, it is also confidence, empathy, discipline and vulnerability. Life is hard, but that is what makes it amazing- no grit, no pearl.
- Treat courage like a muscle
Remember that we choose all of our actions, and courage sits at that conversion point between our thoughts and what we do in life. The best way to develop courage is to step towards the things that we perceive as frightening. Even in the smallest moments, lean into the trials of life, every chance you get. Courage, like a muscle will develop over time. We are massively intelligent, deeply emotional and immensely adaptive hunting platforms that grow when we are challenged, not coddled. Life can only walk all over you if you are laying down. GET UP!
- Flip the fear
We have an exclusive intellectual ability as humans – the ability to ask questions. Other mammals have been trained to answer simple questions for a reward, but no other animal can ponder or manipulate a situation mentally like we can. Try taking the fear that limits you and analyze the other side – take a fear of failure and ask yourself, what will happen if I don’t take the risk? Several studies of elderly populations around the world, in several different cultures, revealed a very familiar trend. They all wished:
- Set standards
Standards are simply agreed upon behaviors. Give yourself a set of standards that will act as guiderails through your day. Treat people right, leave it better than you found it, give all in effort, the options here are limitless. Then share them with your team and challenge each other to uphold them and eventually raise them. Just imagine the entirety of first responders constantly moving the goal posts to become better humans.
- Find a courage mentor
Maybe it is someone that you know that has an amazing story of triumph in the face of fear. Maybe it is simply grabbing a book that details the classic stories of sacrifice and courage in the face of adversity. To start your list, check out these incredibly courageous people: Victor Frankl, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, William Carpenter, Sophie Scholl, Harriet Tubman and Malala Yousafzai.
- Identify your tribe
There’s a saying – “you can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.” The quality of the characters that we surround ourselves with will have a direct impact on our own character, period. This is one of the ways to raise your bar. Surround yourself with supportive, honest and purposeful colleagues of mixed station in life, to include at least: an equal that will challenge you to improve / someone that you can learn from / someone that you can teach.
Finally, get comfortable with the fears that you will never be 100% ready, 100% confident or have 100% approval in life – and step onto that field anyway. It will be the moments when we should have reached out, stood up or spoke out, but did not have the courage to act, that we will regret most. Remember that fear is only as problematic as we allow it. Fear is a tool, use it to build yourself up. There is no such thing as being fearless, that would simply be unnatural. But, courage, if you prefer, can be considered super-natural, because we bring it into existence despite fear. Every courageous decision has an impact on the world.
Choose accordingly, as often as you can, and go be extraordinary.
“We have all heard about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations.
They act courageously or responsibly, and their efforts are described as if they opted to act that way on the spur of the moment…
I believe many people in those situations actually have made those decisions years before.”
- Capt. Chelsey ‘Sully’ Sullenberger