Courage, the most elusive of virtues, comes from a life of selfless giving.

One afternoon in 1977, I was heading to teach a class at Fordham University in the Bronx. I got off the train at the Fordham Road station and looked for the hole in the fence that separated the station platform from the campus. Suddenly, I was attacked by two men who ran down from the trestle that crosses the tracks. One shoved a knife against my chest, the other held one to my throat.

Naïvely, I suggested that they were robbing a priest, as if that would be bad luck. They responded with one word: “Money!” They took my money, my watch and my keys and fled. I pursued them, hoping that I might catch up with them on the street where the police could intervene. But no luck. I was reduced to paging through an album at the police station but did not recognize my attackers. The next day a reporter from the student newspaper asked me if I had been frightened during this ordeal. I answered with a straight face that I thought I was “incapable of physical fear.”

This got some laughs in the Jesuit community, as if I were laying claim to superhuman powers. But I have never considered myself a particularly brave man. It is only that I have been trained to keep my cool in crises.

Fear No One

If I do have the trait of bravery, I attribute it to how my father struggled to raise my younger brother Dave and me. One day at my grammar school, a couple of classmates started shoving me around for fun; when they spotted my father coming down the street, they ran. My father was angry not at them but at me, for letting them push me around. So we went home and put the gloves on. A few months later I came home and announced that I had been in a fight, and he was very happy.

He was a World War I hero, football player, boxer, canoeist, hiker, swimmer, horseman and polo player as well as a full-time journalist, and he was raising his sons to do all those things. We had a speed bag (as well as a pool table) in the basement, and we would stand on a chair to beat the heck out of it: bamity, bamity, bam, bam. For our boxing skills, the three of us would put on huge gloves, Dad would get down on his knees so we would all be the same size, and David and I would both attack him at once, swinging away madly. Dad would laugh so hard he would almost topple over. But he was accomplishing his goal and sending a message: Fear no one. Do not let anybody push you around.

I also learned self-control when, in the seventh grade on a hike in the woods with pals, playing sword fights with sticks, I got stabbed in the eye, cutting the iris. For what seemed like weeks I had to lie immobile in a hospital bed, bricks on either side of my head to keep me still, as the stitches healed. In darkness, both eyes covered, I listened to radio soap operas.

At 15, at a summertime horse camp, I was given charge of a lively Tennessee walking horse named Dusky, who one day on a cross-country ride took off at top speed and ran away with me. As we sped down the narrow country dirt road, I saw a huge truck coming right at us, leaving almost no room for a galloping horse and rider. I thought I might die, but I do not recall being afraid. Fortunately, Dusky knew better than to crash into the truck. He just slid by on the side without breaking his stride. Eventually I took both reins in my left hand and yanked them hard enough that he stopped. We stayed friends, and today I have one of his shoes on my shelf in remembrance.

My model for courage was, of course, my father, who took the whole family to movies on Friday nights like the biopic of Woodrow Wilson or Gary Cooper as “Sergeant York.” On my own I loved the British Empire films like “Gunga Din,” “Lives of the Bengal Lancers” and above all “The Four Feathers.” That is the one in which a soldier named Harry Faversham resigns his commission rather than go with his regiment to fight an uprising in Sudan and is given four white feathers by his army comrades and fiancée as symbols of his cowardice. He then goes to the war in disguise to return the feathers as he saves the lives of each of them. As I got older I took opportunities that involved some risk—like working on the Alaskan railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks, until I was fired for being too young (17) and later traveling alone in Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, Vietnam and especially Iraq right after the 1990 Gulf War.

But the more I traveled and studied—and above all the more I witnessed the politics of public life, where I saw some men and women embrace risk for the good of others, while so many turned their backs on the sufferings of their neighbors—the more I yearned for a deeper understanding of this most elusive of virtues.

What Is Courage?

Fortitude, which is what Josef Pieper in The Four Cardinal Virtues calls courage, is easier to describe than to define. It presupposes vulnerability. An angel cannot be brave because an angel cannot be hurt. So fortitude is the readiness to die. This often means the readiness to fall in battle. But for Christian fortitude, the ultimate achievement is martyrdom, which may be suffered but not sought. “Suffering for its own sake,” says Pieper, is nonsense.

The essence of fortitude, concludes Pieper, “is neither attack nor self-confidence, nor wrath, but endurance and patience.” Christ described his followers as “sheep among wolves,” but he and the early Christians were not meek lambs on the way to slaughter. Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple, and when the servant of the high priest slapped him in the face, he demanded to know why the servant had done so. When the same thing happened to Paul (Acts 23:3), the apostle snapped back, “It is God that will smite thee for the whitened wall that thou art.” In short, Christians are not passive in the face of death. They know that a life of selfless giving, of love poured out, of non-crippling fear, may be painful and brief, but they embrace it.

When I took my final vows as a Jesuit in 1976, I selected Lk 6:6-11 for the reading at the Mass. Teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus sees a man whose right hand is withered; he also sees the Pharisees, his enemies, watching to see whether he will cure the man and thus violate the Sabbath law. They are looking for ammunition. He invites the man to come forward, looks around at all of them and says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” The hand is restored. And Jesus’ death warrant will soon be served.

Intellectual Voices

In Immanuel Kant’s essay “What Is Enlightenment?” the phrase “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage” refers to the immaturity of youth, the age before one assumes the obligations of an adult. Kant argues that because of laziness and cowardice, “a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives.” Karl Rahner includes courage in his reflections on hope in The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality. Like Pieper and others, he places courage in the context of other virtues. He admits, “It is difficult to say what is courage” because it is related to the totality of human existence, not to just one or another thing we might do. Courage is required, he says, when we measure the distance between ourselves and a particular goal. To bridge that distance, often we must call upon what we name the courage of hope.

We would be lost without Shakespeare, whose old Falstaff, misguiding mentor for Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Part II,” measures the quality of battlefield courage with liquor the knight has consumed. He praises “sherris,” which “warms the blood and illumines the face.” When the king dies, Prince Hal cuts off Falstaff—“I know thee not, old man”—and transforms himself into Henry V, who at the Battle of Agincourt delivers the most stirring call to courage in literature: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/ For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother..../ And gentlemen in England now a-bed/ Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/ And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/ That fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day.”

This is not the definition of courage; it is Henry’s rhetoric to inspire his troops. And it was the definition most likely shared not only by Shakespeare’s audience but by the generations inspired by films like “The Four Feathers.” It held until a pacifism movement developed to oppose World War I, and Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (and its film version) depicted the war’s madness and tragedy. During the Vietnam War, Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and his followers helped to redefine courage as they risked their careers, reputations and freedom to demonstrate the immorality of that particular war. Father Berrigan’s acts were dramatic and effective, as when he burned draft cards with napalm, the same weapon used to burn down villages in Vietnam. Like the ancient Christian martyrs and the early-17th-century North American Jesuits, they taught the virtues they represented by offering public witness.

Courage also is featured in modern newspapers and magazines. Men’s Health magazine (November 2015) featured three men who demonstrate that “[t]here is more than one kind of courage.” The feature included a firefighter who rescued a 7-month-old girl from a fire and rushed her to the hospital, his fifth such rescue in seven months; an Iraq war veteran suffering from battle fatigue who pulled himself together through therapy, then founded a fitness franchise focused on the physical and mental health of fellow veterans; and a 28-year-old, muscular man who transitioned from being a woman, survived a suicide attempt and founded Beef-Heads Fitness, a YouTube channel to help trans people build muscle.

Heroes in Battle

Perhaps the best way to define courage is to live it. In a German prison camp 71 years ago, a Nazi guard pointed his pistol in the face of U.S. Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds and demanded that he reveal which of his fellow prisoners were Jews. “We are all Jews here,” Edmonds replied. He ordered the more than 1,000 prisoners under his command to stand together before their barracks. The Geneva Convention does not require revealing one’s religion, and the guard knew that if he killed them all he could be tried for war crimes. Edmonds thus saved an estimated 200 Jewish lives. He was recently honored by President Obama.

There are other examples of real heroes. Senator John McCain recently wrote a column in The New York Times (3/25) paying tribute to Delmer Berg, a Communist and the last known living member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 3,000 soldiers, mostly Americans, who fought in the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and 1938. Mr. McCain has admired veterans of that war since he was 12, when he read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. In the novel, the hero, Robert Jordan, chooses, as Senator McCain writes, “to die to save the poor Spanish souls he fought beside and for.” Then there is Hector A. Cafferata, who died last March at 86; he won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Korean War by single-handedly defending his position and killing an estimated 100 Communist Chinese troops. Citations often refer to the number of enemy killed, but the heroic element here is that he accomplished this mission alone.

Finally, I recently discovered the story of Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian mother of five from Michigan, who traveled to Selma, Ala., in 1965 to support the civil rights marchers there by shuttling them to and from the protest scene. A carload of four members of the Ku Klux Klan pursued her and shot her dead.

A few months ago, I turned again to John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage (1956). Kennedy demonstrated his own bravery as a P.T. boat commander during World War II, but his models were a dozen or so 19th- and 20th-century political leaders who dared to speak and vote according to their consciences, at the risk of alienating their constituencies. They would rather lose an election than compromise their principles. One example was the conservative Republican Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who was pilloried by the leadership and the voters of his own party for supporting Al Smith, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic, for president in 1928. When Norris died in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt paid tribute, saying, “History asks, ‘Did the man have integrity?’” The man did.

During the past decade the headlines have bled. More Americans have died by gunfire than were killed in combat during World War II. Most killings were by family members or neighbors, but the mass slaughters in schools, movie theaters, malls, churches and nightclubs by angry men with guns have terrorized the population. Yet the majority of senators and U.S. representatives have refused to control the distribution of even the most murderous of weapons. Integrity? I think not.

To be a brave man or women, whether deliberately or not, is to touch the face of God. In a list of “Six Attributes of Courage” by the California clinical psychologist Melanie Greenberg, the last two concern standing up for what is right and facing suffering with dignity or faith. I emphasize these because those who do not fight wars, crime or fires can still risk defending an innocent person, deal with their own pain or approaching death or console a dying friend.

Each of us has faced crises in our lives and remember who stood up for us and who did not, and we have missed opportunities at meetings or in conversations to defend a victim of prejudice or misunderstanding because we were afraid. But Pope Francis once called to courage a crowd from the Focolare Movement gathering in Rome to celebrate Earth Day: “We must not be afraid to go into a desert in order to transform it into a forest.” Even if it’s “messy,” “that’s the way life is.” Meanwhile, let us meet our muggers with grace—and forgiveness.

Lisa Weber
3 months ago
It is nice to be reminded that integrity is a quality to be admired. We have seen so little of it on the political scene lately.
James MacGregor
3 months ago
I saw somewhere a characterization of courage that I like. "Courage is being afraid and 'saddling up' anyway".
John Walton
2 months 3 weeks ago
Sometimes it takes even greater courage to go to Travers Island and support your alma mater's team, and encourage the Directors of the NYAC to welcome blacks into membership.

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