Courage is a trait that is universally admired; from the dawn of time, those who possessed this singular trait have been revered amongst their peers for their bravery in the face of trial and tribulation. Tales of epic courage and bravery are still spoken presently as if they happened yesterday, with the names of the most courageous etched into the history books for eternity. Streets and schools are named in their honor, Nobel Prizes and awards are given in recognition, and their names will be everlasting within our society, spoken with reverence long after they’re gone. These acts of courage that are recognized in this regard are significant, but don’t confuse significance with exclusivity. Courage and acclaim are often like oil and water, rather than peanut butter and jelly; rarely do they mix. Acts of courage happen in our world everyday, with the majority of them happening out of the limelight, with limited-to-no attention beyond the principal parties involved. Actions that contain amounts of courage we can’t even grasp, with the fortitude and gallantry that movie scripts are written about, are happening right now (!), in complete anonymity. From kids in the hospital battling cancer, to protesters standing up for their convictions when the rest of the world is telling them they’re wrong, to the soldiers overseas fighting for freedom – these are acts of courage that toil in obscurity, glossed over by the sexier headlines and news stories that dominate our news cycle.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but rather the triumph over it.” – Nelson Mandela
It’s the soldiers, and their courage, that has been on my mind lately. In the past week I’ve watched Hacksaw Ridge in theatre, and also watched Saving Private Ryan (for the second time in its entirety). Both movies are frighteningly graphic in their depictions of warfare, but both also display unbelievable acts of courage in them as well. Yes, these movies both come from Hollywood, and are at the creative whims of their respective directors. And while is based upon a true story, Saving Private Ryan is technically a work of fiction (though it has its basis in the story of these brothers). But, though “fiction”, when upon viewing Saving Private Ryan dozens of veterans of both WW2 and Vietnam are forced to leave the movie theatre within the initial 20 minutes unable to watch further, one can assume that the accuracy of the warfare depicted is consistent enough with the reality of actual warfare to trigger enough repressed thoughts, images, and sounds that many veterans just couldn’t relive again, thus leading to the mass walkouts.
“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne
While watching movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge I marvel at the courage the men show under fire. I’m amazed at their ability to summon the courage to pick their heads up and move their feet forward while under an onslaught of enemy bullets. The brotherhood of the men is powerful beyond words, as they would willingly put their lives on the line time and time again to save one of their fellow soldiers. Watching this, even if just on the screen, often overwhelms me, bringing me close to tears. Men the same age as me, or even younger, fighting this iconic battles, willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good of our country. And while I’m watching, a thought repeatedly comes to me, and no matter how much I try to strike it from my conscience it comes roaring back, begging to be answered:
Do I have that level of courage within me?
My first thought was a definitive no. I’ve never been intrigued by danger as some have, and violence to me should never be the clear justification to one’s actions. Those battles portrayed within the movies were labyrinths of death, and I can’t even fathom the sights, sounds, and smells those who were actually there experienced. Some days I have trouble forcing myself out of bed, much less forcing my feet to move toward a heavily armed bunker as bullets are whizzing by me, a river of blood is flowing beneath me, grown men are crying for their mother as they did when they were children, and my fellow comrades who I’ve grown to consider as brothers are being cut down and torn apart by the enemy’s instruments of death. So no, I didn’t think I had that level of courage in me.
But then I thought into it a little more, and I realized something: those men, those brave men – the Greatest Generation of men – were just regular people for the most part. Before WW2 we were not a heavily mobilized nation, as we had a standing army of around 180,00 men, less than the forces of Portugal at the time. When you consider that more than 16 MILLION Americans served during WW2, that’s a very small standing army, and highlights the number of civilians who served during the war. The men who served were not career soldiers for the most part, but just regular people in regular lines of work – farmers, schoolteachers, factory workers. They were their generation’s versions of my friends and I. They weren’t accustomed to the horrors of war no more than I would be now. No, they were simply doing what they had to do, as the future of our country, as well as the greater world, depended on the outcome of this momentous conflict. And if they can summon the courage to walk away from their hometowns and families into the hellholes of the battlefields, straight into some of the darkest times we’ve seen in modern history, I damn sure could as well.
Because I believe we as people are capable of more than we could ever imagine.
I believe that we possesses greater inner-strength and courage than we think possible.
And I believe that the level of courage shown in those conflicts is a level of courage that beckons in all of us, it’s just up to us to summon it from within.
Those men didn’t know they possessed the courage to storm those beaches and scale those walls until they had to, and then they had no choice but to summon the courage they did to survive. I pray and hope our world never faces the trying times they did, that our world doesn’t fall victim to the tyranny and manic aggression that led to those conflicts. But if those men at that time had that level of courage in them, we do too, and we can apply that to our lives here, no matter how different the situation or context should be. Everyone in their lifetime will have walls that need to be scaled, and it will take courage to make it to the top. Courage you may not think you possess, but history has repeatedly shown that we humans are capable of being stronger and more courageous than we imagine, especially when the situation calls for it. We all fight battles, and every battle fought takes courage to emerge victorious over the monsters that stand in our way. No battles are the same though, and no monsters are exactly alike. It may take the same amount of courage to perform heroically in battle as it does for a child to fight cancer, to finally leave an abusive relationship, or to throw caution to the wind and chase your dreams. Courage is ubiquitous, and generous in the rights to its possession. You’ve been blessed with this trait, but you will only realize its fruits if you believe in your own courage. Without this self-belief any courage you possess is for naught, as incessant self-doubt drains the reservoir of courage you have at your disposal. Everything you need, for all the battles you’re going to fight and all the walls you’re going to scale, is within you already. Believe this with your whole heart, and no battle will ever be too big for you, no wall too high, and no challenge too great.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” – Maya Angelou