Courage (2)

                                                                                    “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as

                                                                                      the need for a father’s protection.”

                                                                                                                                   — SIGMUND FREUD

As with most families back in the 1950s, my stay-at-home mother had a much bigger place in my life than my hard-working father. Here and there, though, he stepped in and made an impact.

In school, I had a “friend” who would bully me around – not serious bodily harm, but enough to make my class life miserable. By the fourth grade, I had enough – but what to do? So I mentioned my problem to Dad. I didn’t really mean for him to get involved (or maybe I did, deep down?). The next day, as he dropped me off at school on his way to work, unbeknownst to me he waited in the car with a clear view of the classroom through the large, front-facing window. Sure enough, as I entered the classroom my “friend” grabbed my kippah (“yarmulkah” back then) and started making fun of me. Within a few seconds, my father stormed into the room, grabbed my bully friend by the collar, pushed him into the lockers, and warned him never to start up with me again. We were all shocked – but it worked. From then on, the boy actually became a real friend…

A few months ago I wrote a Reflections post called “Courage” (, about moral courage. This time it’s about physical courage – doing something that takes a measure of bravery. I’m not talking about wartime heroism, the supreme courageous act whereby soldiers are putting their life on the line. Nor does this have to be a war act; jumping onto the train tracks to rescue a young child that fell in, with the train quickly approaching, is just as brave. Let’s leave that for others to discuss (my army service was in Education – no line of fire there).

The first point to consider is that day-to-day courage is a relative matter – depending on the individual’s personality. I happen to be a minor “coward” – really hate any use of force, even when possibly justified. Other people might have a more aggressive personality, some even relishing the occasional scrap. For the former, it takes internal courage to stand up against physical threats; for the latter, such “engagement” is part of life – a Hobbesian approach to social intercourse.

Physical courage is also culturally related. Some hyper-aggressive societies view physical bravery as noteworthy, perhaps even an important value. Others have a pacific culture, in which any form of force is looked down on, preferring social diplomacy if and when conflict arises. This is not a matter of primitive societies vs modern ones. We now know that several primitive societies avoid warfare or internal force through such customs as “potlatch” (everyone gives gifts to everyone else); more advanced ancient and medieval societies used arranged marriages between leaders of potential rivals to smooth out the rough edges of inter-social contact.

The contemporary world, however, seems to be addressing the issue of physical courage by reducing actual physical contact! As we become more involved in virtual forms of social intercourse and communication – e.g., social media, Zooming, texting etc. – the “bullying” and other forms of “attack” become more verbal or textual, and less physical. This is not necessarily an improvement, given that the old popular rhyme has proven to be quite false: “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. Thus, “physical” courage today is being slowly transmuted into verbal/textual courage – whether standing up to online bullying or writing something not “politically correct”.

Of course, being “courageous” online is easier and harder at the same time. It’s obviously much easier to fight someone verbally than physically, given that no bodily harm will occur. On the other hand, physical courage was most often quite circumscribed to a small audience in the immediate surrounding. Online, however, most attacks are by a “crowd” in the victim’s filter bubble, a huge quantitative increase. Standing up to a vituperative mob is not as easy as literally facing down a bully or two.

Every age, every generation, and every culture have their own demands and challenges to be courageous. As long as individuals think and believe differently and even passionately, moved primarily by emotion (especially fear), we all will still need to find resources within ourselves to physically and communicatively stand up to those who wish to force their own behavior and ideas upon us.

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