Part III: Transcendent Courage
The next element of leading from the soul is transcendent courage. Courage is the spine of character; it is the synaptic command and control system for all other virtues. We are all familiar with courageous acts; the firefighter who rescues the child from the burning building, the soldier who throws himself in the path of danger to save his comrades, or the passengers who uttered “Let’s roll” and gave their own lives to protect other innocent Americans the terrorists intended to kill at their target in Washington DC on 9/11. There is no question these acts are heroic and worthy of significant praise, even reverence. Are they born from courage? Panic? Desperation? Are they reflexive or triggered from a deeply-wired sense of personal responsibility? Is courage inherited or learned? Are courageous people attractive, intelligent, wealthy, or prophetic? Do they attend church every Sunday? Do courageous people necessarily perform heroic acts or is courage a state of being that may never be overtly expressed?
The etymology of courage, found in The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word has been used to describe the “quality of mind,” heart, spirit, disposition and nature of a person which “… shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking…” (emphasis added). This history of usage indicates a much broader notion of courage which is revealed by perilous circumstances of life; circumstances that by their very nature are not within the control of the courageous. 9/11 pilot Mohammed Atta, who committed a horrific act when he flew American Airlines flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, is heralded as courageous in many parts of the world. Dutiful? Absolutely. Brave? Perhaps. Fearless? I doubt it. Courageous? I don’t think so. But what if Mohammed Atta had flown his plane safely to an airport and freed the passengers? What if others who are ordered to act in a manner they know is wrong face their circumstances by acting contrary to those orders? They are still taking action. There are still perilous circumstances they do not control. And, they are doing so, consistent with what I will call their truth: which is the first dimension of transcendent courage as a state of being.
The truth in transcendent courage is based in the simple reality that we know what the right thing is to do; the difficulty comes in listening to and honoring our sense of truth (allowing its transcendence) against the pressures of competing influences. These influences take many forms and have many origins. They may be internally generated, like greed; or, emanate from the pressure of peers, family members, superiors, or clergy. Consequences imposed by these influencers, positive or negative, act to tether or suppress our truth. A person possessing transcendent courage however, has immediate and undeterred access to their truth. They do what they believe is right without regard to competing influences. They are the most innocently (or unapologetically) honest among us. They live in their truth all day, every day.
The second dimension of transcendent courage is the capacity to subordinate consequence to the importance of action; consequences are inconsequential. Fears are faced down. The prospect of immeasurable burden is accepted with grace and dignity. Physical pain, ridicule, even death are accepted as the inevitable partners of a courageous life; one which, above all, honors its truth. Many arrive here through their faith in God. Others believe that actions taken consistent with their truth will mitigate the severity of consequence, in time. I will suggest there is simply no other honorable way to express freedom. If we hesitate to do what we know is right in the face of consequence, we are forever shackled by our own chains. We abdicate our freedom.
The third dimension of transcendent courage is selflessness. Selflessness enables us to honor our truth and readily accept consequences. Many people define their lives by their service to others. They measure their self-worth by the extent to which they make others smarter, healthier, happier, and safer. Teachers, doctors, clergy, police, firefighters, paramedics, military, and community volunteers come readily to mind. By their very nature or life choice, people who spend their time serving others have a significantly greater propensity to possess transcendent courage. Service to others teaches us the intrinsic value of selflessness. It isolates the influence of adoration and remuneration from consideration. It gives us the opportunity to embrace our humanity and feel connected to community while enhancing our self esteem. Selflessness produces that warm feeling many call peace. Selflessness is the liberation of the soul from the oppression of our desires. Think of those who have served you well in your life…who have enriched your life. Are they profoundly successful, high profile, and wealthy, flamboyant people? Maybe. I’ll bet they are quite the contrary; quiet, unassuming, self-assured, and humble.
The fourth dimension of transcendent courage is self-acceptance. Are you comfortable in your own skin? Do you like you? Have you resolved with yourself who you are? People who have access to transcendent courage accept who they are and live lives bounded by dignity and imbued with grace. They are at peace with themselves, in the present. Only when self-acceptance has occurred can our consciousness turn to the needs of others; only then are we open to leadership through service … only then is transcendent courage a natural state of being.
The fifth dimension of transcendent courage is the transmission of strength. I’d like to tell you about Sara. I met Sara at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas at the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders where she was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia. I was a volunteer there for several years helping out with everything from restocking the shelves of videos in the infusion room to comforting patients who were having spinal taps to access bone marrow. I also spent a fair amount of time supporting the parents of patients; trying to help them make sense of the cruel hand they had been dealt.
Sara was five when she started her treatment and like most five year old girls Sara liked everything as long as it was pink, purple or somehow related to Barbie. Sara had pale, crystal-blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, always gathered with a satin, clip-on bow. She loved to have her nails painted and preferred patent leather shoes. Soft and shiny was her style which meant that both silk and fleece could be mixed in the same outfit without offending her aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes she looked like a kid who had dressed herself while standing in her closet, blindfolded. Everyone who spent just five minutes with Sara loved her, including me. Sara is the most courageous person I have ever known.
During Sara’s three years of horror battling leukemia I never saw her cry out, whine or complain. I will never forget the last few days before Sara’s death. Sara was the first one to accept what was coming. She helped everyone else through the painful anticipation of losing her. She smiled every moment she was awake. She never expressed concern for herself. She only wanted to make sure her mother, father, and little brother would be okay. Sara’s legacy is the strength she transmitted to those around her. Her courageous behavior made anyone who was in contact with her a better and stronger person. This is the fifth and final dimension of transcendent courage. Those who act courageously enhance the lives and behaviors of everyone around them. This is the true evidence of transcendent courage.