Be scared, but don’t be afraid

“Courage is Calling” by Ryan Holiday

This is book no. 1 out of 4 on the four Stoic virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. And courage is the important first piece of the four, because without courage none of the latter three are possible.

So, what is courage? first and foremost, it is not the absence of fear, but the management of fear. It is using fear as a risk alert and then follows it up with due diligence to define what we’re actually facing.

As Ryan Holiday remarks, “[f]oresee the worst to perform the best. When fear is defined, it can be defeated. When downside is articulated, it can be weighed against upside. When the wolves are counted, there are fewer of them. Mountains turn out to be molehills, monsters turn out just to be men. When our enemies are humanized, they can be better understood.”

“What we thought were incredible costs,” he then continues, “turn out to be clear calculations—calculations well worth making. The risks, it is revealed, were far outpaced by the rewards. Black swans come into view and can be prepared for. Attacks that we’ve anticipated can be repulsed. The spectrum of possibilities is reduced, the scope of Murphy’s Law is diminished. Vague fear is sufficient to deter us; the more it is explored, the less power it has over us. Which is why we must attack these faulty premises and root them out like the cancers they are.”

Indeed, courage is measuring the danger and carefully calculating our moves to tackle them. Because it’s not whether or not things will be hard (they will) or scary (they are), but it’s about our response of sizing up our obstacles, making plans to defeat them, train for them, and attack them one step at a time.

Courage is also the decision to still go ahead despite the unfavourable odds from our due diligence, when it’s the right thing to do. It is the firefighter rushing into a burning building, the whistleblower taking on corrupt powerful people, the entrepreneur going into business alone, the activist protesting against tyranny, or John F. Kennedy’s decision to help Martin Luther King Jr. to get out of jail for protesting the segregation even though the move was considered a political suicide.

Courage could also means restraint, as Sun Tzu said “it is best to win without fighting—to have maneuvered in such a way that the enemy has lost before it has even begun.” This is what Abraham Lincoln did by managing to maneuver the South into its unwinnable role as the aggressor in the Civil War. It is what Malala Yousafzai shows when asked about the Taliban that shot her in the face and left her for death, she replied “[e]ven if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him.”

One lesson that is sobering from this book is that great legendary heroes were all humans after all with the same doubts and fears like the rest of us. For example, in her version of Hero’s Journey, Florence Nightingale at first refused her “call to adventure” because “it’s too hard, too scary, because they must obviously have picked the wrong person.” But sometimes our calling is much bigger than our fear or the risk, and courage means eventually pursuing the calling even when it feel like the whole world is against us. And that is the thin margin that separates the heroes from the rest.

Churchill was 54 years old and could’ve just retired and lived a simple old days when the danger of Hitler started to appear. Steve Jobs could’ve just stayed content with his second act with Pixar and never to attempt the uphill battle to recoup his first invention Apple. And nobody would blame Charles de Gaulle if after fleeing from Nazi prosecution with his wife and kids, he chose to live anonymously in Britain far away from danger and didn’t organise a French uprising.

Courage is also contagious. I love the story from the ancient Greece where when a city-state needed a military help from Sparta, the Spartans wouldn’t send their army, but instead they only send one Spartan commander. As Holiday explains, “[b]ecause courage, like fear, is contagious. One person who knows what they are doing, who isn’t afraid, who has a plan is enough to reinforce an outnumbered army, to buck up a broken system, to calm chaos where it has taken root. And so a single Spartan was all their allies needed.”

Moreover, sometimes courage appears in a split second decision making. As Holiday remarks, “[c]ourage is defined in the moment. In less than a moment. When we decide to step out or step up. To leap or to step back. A person isn’t brave, generally. We are brave, specifically. For a few seconds. For a few seconds of embarrassing bravery we can be great. And that is enough.” And I can’t think of a better example for this than the recent tragedy where an Uvalde teacher shielded her students from a school shooter, thus saving the kids’ lives but lost her own life.

Yes, courage can also mean sacrifice. Like the act by Irma Garcia in that Texas school shooting that saved a lot of her students’ lives. It can also appear in the form of a mother who puts her career ambition aside to take care for her sick child. It is the immigrant who works in a menial job overseas despite having a medical degree from back home. It is the employee who resigned from a high-paying job in a company or industry that is making the world a worse place. It is that person who has a unfairly damaged reputation because they’re silently protecting someone else.

As we have seen, being brave doesn’t mean we are fearless. Far from it. But we can be scared and do it anyway, as the calling or the reason or the purpose are much bigger than our fear. This is what the heroes in history have figured out, that being scared is only a state of mind while being afraid is feeling the fear deeply, with novelist William Faulkner sums it up nicely when he said “be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” And that, in a nutshell, is courage.