Courage: a New Paradigm


A few modern dictionaries have at least one definition all wrong. defines the word “courage” as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.” I respectfully disagree.

Courage is not about facing danger without fear, but about facing danger in spite of it. To be fair, other dictionaries define courage with greater insight, but a more sensible definition of the word is in order, especially as used by mass media.


My current concept of courage evolved over time as I considered the emotions of individuals such as the firemen who entered the burning towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. News reporters portrayed them as people conducting heroic acts without fear, but in my mind, something was very wrong with that paradigm. Veteran firefighters are not naive; they know an extreme situation when they see one. I believe they knew the dangers, but entered the buildings in spite of fearing they may never see their families again.

DSC_0019-crop-webFast forward to 2007 when my ex adopted Delilah, a bulldog-beagle mix. Lulu, as we call her, was about 14 months old at the time, and had already been through the trauma of being placed in an dark overnight deposit box (like the ones used for donating clothes), giving birth to a litter of puppies while institutionalized in a shelter, and in our best estimation, physical abuse as a puppy at the hands of one or more young women. Watching Lulu transcend one challenge after another with trepidation was a lesson in life.

I recall, for example, her reluctance to using the doggie door. After a week of being left outside during the day, she overcame her fears and triumphantly burst through the doggie door late one afternoon. Feeling quite proud of herself, she conducted a brief “victory trot” around the house in celebration.

In 2009, Lulu had reconstructive surgery on a rear hip joint. Doctors’ orders were for her to be walked every day following surgery to keep the joint limber, and I was the designated physical therapist. Her leg was black and blue, red and purple, and still quite swollen.

We started with a modest 100 feet the day after surgery. Lulu followed slowly as I led her just past the house next door before lifting her head and looking at me with a facial expression that was simultaneously trusting yet pleading. Despite her obvious pain, she reluctantly took a few more steps because she wanted to please me, and in that instant, I recall thinking my little bulldog was one brave little girl.


imagesFinally, my concept of courage was cemented in 2010 when I saw the movie Gran Torino. Character Walt Kowalski is telling neighbor Thao about receiving the Silver Star in the Korean War for taking out an enemy machine gun nest. “Here, I want you to have it,” said Walt as he pins the medal on Thao’s shirt. … “Why?” says Thao. … Walt: “Because we all knew the dangers that night, but we went anyway … and that’s the way it might be tonight.” I could not have said it any better.

Per, the 13th century origin of the word “courage” is attributed to the roots “heart” and “age,” so it is unclear how and why it became defined as action without fear. Perhaps the tough and “fearless” male warriors of that era played a role. In any event, the existing definition of courage was already a media constructed reality by the time I started watching television as a child, but I believe most people would agree that the fearless denotation of courage has no basis in human emotion because it reduces its meaning to the mindless actions of a detached individual.


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