Some of you might remember that newscaster Dan Rather, back in 1986, took to signing off the CBS Evening News by looking into the camera and saying, “Courage.”
“Dan Rather reporting from New York. Courage. Good night.”
He only used that sign off for one week – five days – and it stirred some controversy and puzzlement. “Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs?” (Jake Rossen) – telling us to hang in there through such tough times as he had just been reporting on?

As we take up courage as our theme to explore for the month for May, we confront related questions. What, really, is the point of extolling this supposed virtue called “courage”? In the military context, the carrot and stick combination of praise for courageous action and condemnation of cowardly action does, I guess, make for an effective rhetoric for motivating soldiers in battle. But any active duty military personnel who might be among us not withstanding, do we civilians find the twin concepts of courage and cowardice playing much of a role in our day-to-day lives? Do you use those words when you are giving yourself a talking to? Do they show up on job evaluations that you get, or give?

To talk about courage we have to talk about fear – and if we’re going to find a truly meaningful use for the notion of courage it will grow out of how we understand fear. Courage, as every writer on the subject reminds us at the outset, is not an absence of fear. Courage is what we call it when, in a fearful situation, the fear is managed in a particularly skillful or admirable way.

Animals – humans and otherwise – are built to have fear. The main function of fear and anxiety is to act as a signal of danger, threat, or motivational conflict, and to trigger appropriate adaptive responses. Fear is very valuable. We couldn’t survive without fear. We animals need mechanisms that grab our attention and steer us away from danger.

Even those species with highly sophisticated reasoning processes still need systems of fear reaction because they’re quicker and sometimes time is of the essence. You’ve got head – reason – going on in the cerebral cortex and frontal lobe, and you’ve got gut – feelings and intuitions (which are also primarily processes in the brain, but we use "gut" as a metaphor for those brain systems that might feel as though they're based in our guts -- just as we use "heart" as a metaphor for those brain processes that generate and regulate our feelings of loving connection.) If you want reasoning, Head is gonna have to stop and think: maybe jot down some notes, talk it over with others. That’s how we reason. But if you need a snap judgment, Gut is there for you.

Gut doesn’t worry with having to explain itself – often you can’t explain your hunches, your intuitions. Your Gut, operating below the radar of consciousness, checks for the most readily available examples it can find in the brain’s storage. If an alley looks a certain way, you’ll feel uneasy about walking down it because Gut has grabbed a quickly accessible memory of something you saw in a movie in which someone walked down an alley like this and got attacked. Gut can’t even tell the difference between your first-hand experience and some one else’s stories. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand.

Head is gonna want to look at the statistics – the odds of this or that outcome. Statistics completely fail to hold Gut’s attention. Gut believes the examples that are most readily at hand. One or two lurid stories suffice for Gut.

On the other hand, animals, humans and otherwise, also have drives that sometimes override fear and self-preservation – which might be called the biological basis of courage, or might simply be called courage itself. Theologian Paul Tillich, in his 1952 book, The Courage to Be, put it this way:
“the balance between fear and courage is well developed in the animal realm. Animals are warned by fear, but under special conditions they disregard their fear and risk pain and annihilation for the sake of those who are a part of their own self-affirmation, e.g., their descendants or their flock.”
I’ll be coming back to Tillich later.

I originally selected a picture of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from the film, The Wizard of Oz, to be on the cover of today’s Order of Service about Courage. Tracy told me we really couldn’t use that because those images are copyrighted. She directed me to a site of public domain photos. I picked a macaw, and texted LoraKim, who is down in Guyana this week organizing parrot conservation, to tell her we were going to have a macaw on our Order of Service. She texted back:
“They are very brave. They risk their lives for their chicks, though not always.”
I texted back,
“Not to mention how brave it is to show up in public wearing those colors.”
Anyway. That bit about “not always,” is important. Evolution built us to have competing drives. We have drives for self-preservation, and these manifest as fear. We also have competing drives to set aside self-preservation and fear for the sake of our children, or our tribe. That’s evolution’s strategy: give us these competing drives, and let us work out the balance: sometimes risking our life for the sake of the chicks -- and sometimes not.

Which drive will prevail in a given circumstance is partly determined by prior experience with similar circumstances. If a similar threat has been successfully chased off in the past, we’re more likely to try to face it down. And it’s partly determined by genetic variations. Some people, and some macaws, are born with a little less or a little more inclination toward personal safety – or little less or a little more proclivity to sacrifice for the sake of offspring or tribe. It’s good to have this variability because the world is constantly changing and sometimes a little bit stronger self-preservation is the best way to get your genes passed on, and sometimes a little bit stronger protectiveness of children, or of tribe, is the best way.

Then somewhere along the growth of the evolution tree, the human twig off of the primate branch developed symbolic language, and we started using words to influence that balance between self-preservation – which we became apt to condemn as cowardly – and willingness to endure personal danger -- which we might praise as courageous, though sometimes we condemn it as rash or foolhardy. The Wizard of Oz’s cowardly lion wants the wizard to give him courage because he wants to face challenges that come his way, and also wants to command respect and admiration. He represents, of course, a certain type of human – and humans, through our symbolic language, are such a hyper-social species that we really want respect and admiration. But we also just want to be safe – hence the lion’s conundrum.

But just as our words can egg us on to be courageous, the reality we collectively weave with language can also magnify our fears. On the one hand, for instance, we have language describing the sources of the living tradition we Unitarian Universalists share. One of those sources is: “Words and deeds of prophetic people challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”

When we talk about the prophets, when we speak of our prophetic mission, or our prophetic voice to the world, we are drawing upon a tradition that goes back to the ancient Hebrew prophets -- figures like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea. We’re thinking about how these figures spoke as the social critics of their time. Standing outside the structures of power, they called the ruling regime to task for failing to live up to its principles, for breaking the covenant. Sometimes they predicted what the consequences would be for having strayed from the right path. Thus the popular understanding of prophecy as predicting the future is not entirely without basis. But the core of what made them prophets was speaking truth to power, the call for social justice -- not predicting the future. When we Unitarian Universalists today call upon this tradition of prophets, we mean to honor the voices for social justice, those who call us all to courage: the courage to stand up to oppression and harm, the courage to witness to and embody the transforming power of love.

The prophets of old, ventured into predictions of the future, and, yes, they used fear. They warned the people of Israel that their corrupt religion and disregard for the poor would result in destruction of the nation. They called for Israel to repent or face a fearful judgment of wrath. So, usually, it’s not a simple matter of fear versus courage. The prophets used fear of one thing in their effort to evoke courage in facing a different fear: the insecurity that the powerful feared if they allowed there to be justice. Today we speak out against harm to our environment, to our eco-systems, to our climate, to our planet, invoking modern-day predictions of doom and destruction. We do so in the hope of spurring the courage to leave behind the comforts of our high consumption lifestyles.

Once we had symbolic language, we could conjure up imagined scenarios for each other, and the potential disasters grab our attention a lot more than potential benefits. So the balance or tension that evolution built into animals got thrown off in the animal with symbolic language. We talk ourselves into quite the dither of fear. We are awash in scared people earnestly talking others into being scared.

After the 9-11 attacks in 2001, fear of airplanes went up, as you might imagine. Analyzing patterns of car use and airplane travel after 9-11 shows that there was a shift from airplanes to cars that lasted about one year. It took a year for the fear of airplanes to die down, return to normal levels, and in the meantime, people were putting in more miles by car. The thing is, airplane travel is safer. As automobile travel went up, so did traffic fatalities. Gerd Gegerenzer analyzed the numbers, and was able to deduce that the extra car travel in the year after 9-11 killed 1,595 people. That is, the number of Americans killed in car crashes as a direct result of the switch from planes to cars was just shy of 1600. Those were people who would not have died if the ratio of plane travel to car travel had stayed the same as it was the years preceding 9-11. The actual collapse of the twin towers killed less than 3,000 people. The increased fear of airplanes over the next year killed over half again that many.

Things that spook us include, in no particular order:
internet stalkers
crystal meth
avian flu
genetically modified organisms
contaminated food
contaminated water
contaminated air
climate change
breast implants
the obesity epidemic
the next viral pandemic that will be much worse than the last one,
West Nile virus
mad cow disease
flesh-eating diseases
alien invasion (the international kind)
alien invasion (the interplanetary kind)
road rage
pedophiles lurking in parks and internet chat rooms
spontaneous combustion
Satanic cults
computer hackers
identity thieves
genetically enhanced bioweapons
self-replicating nanotechnology that turns everything into “gray goo”
AI robots that decide humans are unnecessary
weird experiments in physics that could create a black hole destroying the planet
and sharks.

There seems to be an awful lot to be scared of. It is the slogan of our times: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced every bush hides a pervert.” As it happens, as Daniel Gardner points out in The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t – and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger:
“Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the specters haunting parental imaginations.”
We overestimate the risk from things that make the evening news, and underestimate the risk from things that don’t. Murder, terrorism, airplanes flying into buildings, fire, flood – and sharks – seize our fearful imaginations. Risks like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease – and auto accidents -- are much greater but they’re boring. Maybe it’s time for the word courage to take a bigger place when giving yourself a talking to. As Noam Shpancer says, “Fear is an important consultant, but a lousy boss.”

As you set out to cultivate courage, the first step, I suggest, is to notice that, like the lion in The Wizard of Oz, you’ve always had it. The lion was quite brave in the scenes of taking on the wicked witch – and in the book, though it isn’t in the movie, there’s a scene where Dorothy and the companions encounter creatures that are half-tiger, half-bear, called Kalidahs. The lion initially cowers in fear, but then summons his courage, leaps forward, lets out a mighty roar, and the Kalidahs scatter in fear. Later, the wizard recognizes that people called heros haven’t got any more courage than the lion has, "but they do have one thing you haven’t got: a medal." So the wizard gives the lion a medal to symbolize his courage, and serve as a reminder that though fear may sometimes well up in him, he is courageous.

Following that model, it might be helpful to designate some object or trinket to serve for you like a medal for your conspicuous bravery -- a token reminder and symbol that you are courageous.

As a further way to hold in mind and heart that you are already courageous, call to mind the substantial courage you exhibit in daring to exist. You got a lot of nerve! Showing up, on this planet, morning after morning – there you are. The audacity! This is the courage Paul Tillich elucidated in The Courage to Be. Tillich says:
“The courage to be is the ethical act in which [we] affirm [our] own being in spite of those elements of [our] existence which conflict with [our] essential self-affirmation.”
We saw that term, "self-affirmation," earlier, when I cited Tillich observing that animals, human and otherwise,
“are warned by fear, but under special conditions they disregard their fear and risk pain and annihilation for the sake of those who are a part of their own self-affirmation, e.g., their descendants or their flock.”
To be as the beings we are, to affirm ourselves, is itself the ground of our care of offspring and flock or tribe. To be – to affirm that we are – like Ilsa in Frozen singing “here I stand, and here I stay. Let the storm rage on” -- is an act of courage.

The courage to be, for Tillich, has two aspects. There is the courage to be as a part – the courage to bring your being to participate in a larger being with others. Then there is the courage to be as oneself – a unique individual and an end unto yourself, not a means toward any group goal.

We face anxiety: anxiety about dying and the unpredictability of fate and fortune; moral anxiety about guilt and condemnation, and spiritual anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. These anxieties conflict with our self-affirmation, so to affirm who we are in the face of these anxieties, to affirm our being in spite of existential anxiety, that’s the courage to be. We enact this courage in those two ways: by participating in a larger whole that helps sustain our own existence and others, and by individuating as worthy in ourselves – balancing between extremes of too much collectivism and too much individualism.

I was intrigued to see that, while courageous and brave are nearly perfect synonyms, they come from wildly different etymological origins, which, over centuries, converged. “Courage” comes from heart, as the seat of emotions, as in the French word for heart, coeur, the Spanish corazon; Italian cuore. From “heart,” referring to one’s spirit, temperament, or frame of mind, it came to mean valor, or the quality that allows for meeting dangers and troubles without being controlled by fear. So when Dan Rather said, “courage,” he could have said “take heart,” and conveyed about the same idea.

Brave, however, started from the Latin pravus, meaning “crooked, depraved,” became the medieval Latin bravus, meaning “cutthroat, villain” which then evolved to mean “wild, savage.” From there, wild and savage were more and more closely associated with meeting dangers and troubles without being hindered by fear until it meant about the same thing as courageous.

These roots nicely parallel Tillich’s two aspects of courage: the courage to be as a part of collective projects and the courage to be as oneself. "Courage," from heart, as the symbol of love, connects us to others so that we can face dangers for the sake of our joint enterprises. "Bravery," in its origins, points to the strength to affirm your wild, untamed, nonconformist uniqueness.

On the one hand, fear can make me so self-protective I do not hear the call to love, to connect with others, to help them in shared difficulties. On the other hand, fear can make me seek the safety of conformity, going along to get along, not hearing the call to bring forth what I alone can.

Against all fears or anxieties about impending death, the unpredictability of fortune and misfortune, about our feelings of guilt, of having been or possibly being condemned by others, or by oneself, and the spiritual anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness – against all those fears – the courage to be is the inner voice affirming that you are and what you are. On the ground of that courage we find the courage to face forthrightly all the other fears conjured by Gut or Head.

Meredith Garmon reporting from Des Moines. Courage. Amen.

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