This week is really the crux of the class, because courage is all about the choices we make as we go through life. As far as we know (although we’re learning more all the time about animal intelligence), humans are the only creatures who will knowingly put themselves in danger – physical danger, danger of failure, danger of loss of reputation or friendships – in service to some higher purpose. And that is what this week’s class is all about. And this week’s podcast. And this week’s slideshow.
Proactive Decisions and Reactive Decisions
The choices that I’m most interested in are those choices that we make voluntarily to put ourselves into a challenging situation. I call these proactive choices, which are like setting a course for a far shore, while reactive choices are more about weathering a storm that life throws at us. The latter can also draw forth our courage, for sure, but the emphasis of my course is on creating a courageous life, rather than reacting with stoicism to the vagaries of fate, hence my enthusiasm for proactively seeking out challenge rather than relaxing into ease.
(derived from Rushworth Kidder’s article – see reading list: GLBL252 Courage Syllabus)
The first, simpler kind of reactive decision is Right vs Wrong, or moral temptation. And you already know what to do about those. Wrong may be easier, but right is always, well, right.
The trickier reactive decisions are the ethical dilemmas, of Right vs Right, when you have a clash of values such as:
- Truth vs loyalty
- Individual vs community
- Short-term vs long-term
- Justice vs mercy
How do we choose which value takes precedence? Over the course of history, philosophers have come up with various ideas:
- Ends-based thinking (utilitarianism, teleological) – Greatest good to the greatest number
- Rule-based thinking (Kantian, deontological) – If everybody acted as I am about to act, would that serve the greatest good?
- Care-based thinking (the Golden Rule) – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
But even then, does one system always work best? Maybe you have a system that you naturally default to, but none of them can work as a one-rule-fits-all method for solving your moral dilemma.
I wish I could give you a quick and easy answer on this one, but philosophers have been arguing over them for millennia, so it would be presumptuous of me to try to. The best I can suggest is to unpick which values are involved in the dilemma, and see which values are most important to you. (See Week 4 for the values evaluation tool.)
Ah, now we get onto the decisions that really fascinate me – how do we proactively craft a courageous life? I realise that there may be people reading this who are frowning at this point, because life is already asking more of them than they can stand. Why on earth would you want to make life even harder for yourself?
At the risk of sounding like an over-privileged inhabitant of the developed world – which, let’s face it, I am – what I’m talking about here is what happens when we have a choice between living a rather mushy, safe, ordinary life, or deciding that we want to do more, be more, really stretch ourselves to evolve emotionally and spiritually. I hope that this is the choice more likely to be facing my students here at Yale.
Given what Anaïs Nin says – that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage – do we build our courage first? But isn’t it circumstances that challenge us and invite us to grow our courage?
After giving it some thought, and looking back over my own experience, I believe that it is a dance between the two. I had to have the ambition to live more courageously (created when I did the obituary exercise) which then led to an audacious idea (rowing across oceans to raise environmental awareness). The rowing voyages then presented me with challenge after challenge that forced me to expand my courage further.
And now I’m back in the stage of having courageous ambition, and waiting for life to catch up with me by throwing me a huge scary challenge again.
(I should be more careful what I wish for.)
Generating Opportunities for Courage
What can we do to prompt life to give us a challenge? After all, if this new project is going to elicit our courage, it has to be something that we feel really passionate about, and we can’t get passionate about just any old thing. It needs to mesh with our values and priorities if it is really going to set us on fire.
So we need to generate options until we find an option that we fall in love with so much that we’re willing to commit to it in the sense that we will stop at nothing to make it happen. We want to find our calling – the thing we can’t not do.
It has been said that we may not have free will, but we have free won’t. The idea is that we don’t have completely unfettered ability to create whatever we want in our lives – we will always be to some extent preconditioned by our past and present circumstances – but we do have the freedom to choose from the options available to us. In other words, when faced with a future containing an infinite number of paths, we need to start crystallising a manageable number of paths from which we can choose the one that really excites us.
I believe that having the courageous ambition starts that process. We get curious. We start talking to people, reading books, seeking out films that inspire us. We don’t need to have any particular agenda at this point, other than following our curiosity to see where it will lead.
Themes will start to emerge. Some ideas will appeal and we note them down. Other ideas appeal less and we discard them. This process can take a frustratingly long time, but hey, you’re crafting a courageous life here, and if it was easy everyone would be doing it.
And eventually, gods willing, there is the lightbulb moment when we hit on The One, the project that lights us up, the project that has us bouncing out of bed in the mornings eager to spend the day doing whatever we can to get closer to our goal, the project that will ignite our courage and all the other resources that we need to make our dream come true.
Simple as that.
As usual, Vic and I have a chat about the topic of the week in our podcast. Apologies for the lack of video in the first 15 mins – Skype was not our friend when we recorded. The video comes back later on, so you can see our happy smiling faces.
I was back in the UK a couple of weeks ago to give a lecture at Darwin College, Cambridge. The lecture is now available online.