On Courage

Courage is knowing your fear, knowing what consequences can--and very likely will--happen if you stand up and act in the face of risk or danger or injustice, and deciding to stand up anyway. (iStock Photo)

Courage is a prerequisite for a successful career and life as a law enforcement officer and, by extension, to succeed as the husband or wife, child or kin of the LEO.

Fortunately, for most, the process of getting hired and graduating from recruit to trainee, to probationary cop and, finally, to fully certified peace officer is designed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and put the best, brightest and bravest on the street. Of course, there will always be poseurs who slip past the censors, getting by on luck or pretense, but they really fool no one over the long haul. For the majority of cops, courage is a core value on which a career is built.

“Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage without fear.” --Eddie Rickenbacker, a WWI flying ace

We should probably define courage. By courage, we’re not talking about the absence of fear. There really are people who truly lack a fearful response and, when facing risk, either do not or cannot see or appreciate the inherent danger before them, or they simply don’t care. They’re rarely appreciated in law enforcement because of the risks they bring upon themselves, their colleagues and the agency in terms of physical and legal liability.

Courage is knowing your fear, knowing what consequences can--and very likely will--happen if you stand up and act in the face of risk or danger or injustice, and deciding to stand up anyway. Courage is meeting the demand to do what’s right when all your instincts push you toward what’s safe. Courage allows you to move forward when everyone else freezes or flees. Courage allows you to speak truth to power when all the others are daunted. Courage allows you to defend righteousness when everyone around you makes excuses or embraces ambiguity. And courage allows you to act with the confidence of conviction, secure in your gifts, skills, training and friends, where most would balk. Courage lets you be a cop or someone who loves a cop. 

But has your courage stood the test of time? Are you living boldly? Do you still feel the confidence of youth inside you, or have you chosen instead to take a spot on the bench, hoping for the best, cheering the warriors still on the field while safe the sidelines? Understand, we’re not talking so much about physical courage--although that can wane, too--here but courage of conviction.

Time has an odd effect on us. For some, experience emboldens. Confidence builds with the thrills of success and the lesson that failure is survivable and ever better strategies can emerge from it. For others, experience teaches the opposite--that risk is bad, sticking your neck out brings it dangerously close to the chopping block or that it’s always safer to shut up than stand up. Still others just get tired and decide courage takes too much time, too much energy, and opt to lay low and coast in on whatever momentum they’ve already engaged, victims of apathy or cynicism. These all hold true professionally, personally, and relationally, and with many forms of courage.

“It is curious that physical courage be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” --Mark Twain 

We commonly bestow honor on those whose physical courage demands notice, who place their lives at great risk to protect others, who take up arms against tyranny or who stand watch against danger so others less bold can sleep at night. These people should be honored for their willingness to sacrifice when their acts follow their stated ideals--as when first responders or warriors do--and especially when common folk, who have no mandate to act on others behalf, do anyway.

What we’re not so good at is honoring or rewarding moral courage, those acts of righteousness and goodwill that, although they offer little threat of physical harm, can destroy someone professionally or personally. It takes a special courage to look a boss, a colleague or maybe even a friend in the eye and say, “What you are doing is wrong and I cannot abide it. You must make this right!” Moral courage demands a lot of us--maybe a lot more than physical courage--and holds sometimes greater risks. A great many cops who would step into the literal line of gunfire to protect a fellow officer balk when it comes time to call out that same officer for legally or constitutionally questionable behavior, or their best friend for morally impure actions, or their spouse for destructive decisions.

Bravery so easily summoned in the face of death too often crumbles when the risk is an ostracized life.

“Fear sometimes stops you from doing stupid things. But it can also stop you from doing creative or exciting or experimental things. It can cloud your judgment of others, and lead to all kinds of evil. The control and understanding of our personal fears is one of the most important undertakings in our life.” --Helen Mirren
One of the best things about being a kid--and by kid we mean well into young adulthood--was how eagerly and fearlessly we could sample the new, exotic and exciting. And, sure, sometimes it didn’t work out as well as planned. Bumper skitching on icy streets looks fun but requires excellent balance, a pretty high pain threshold, and a good supply of Bactine and bandages. That especially twisty double-black-diamond run with the extra steep grade is a lot of fun starting out. Lugging ski gear back to Illinois with a broken arm? Not so much. 

Growing older and developing healthy fear is a good thing; healthy fear allows us to keep getting older as reflexes slow and recuperation times grow longer with age. But unchecked, unhealthy or unreasonable fears have sort of the opposite effect. As we fall more and more into safe ruts we stop taking risks, stop trying new things and, in a sense, stop living with the boldness that keeps our minds and bodies sharp and young. For many of us, fear of anything new, risky, uncomfortable or outside our carefully constructed safe places leads to stagnation. Soon we merely exist rather than live, content standing on the sidelines.

"Almost everything: all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure. These things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose." --Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford University commencement address

Many years from now, as you look back on your life with the perspective of old age, how do you want to remember your contribution? How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone? As someone who did your job, met all the expectations, but kept your head down in the face of any controversy or wrong? As the parent or friend who bit back risky words or buried your own feelings and needs, rather than stir the pot, even if your silence meant you or someone else suffered? As the spouse who, in rocky times when your marriage is built on shifting sand, fails to move out of fear only to watch the one you love pull away for good.

Ask yourself, “What do I really have to lose?” 

Do you want to be remembered for someone who got in the game and joined the fight, or as a spectator standing by on the sideline?

“Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.” --Sidney J. Harris

Follow Mike and Althea on Facebook or on their website www.MoreThanACop.com.


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