The Paradox of Courage

Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.  – G.K. ChestertonOrthodoxy

I am what nice people would call “risk adverse.” I much prefer the safety of the known, rather than the thrill of mystery. When contemplating an adventure, I also like to partake in a risk assessment. “Uncalculated spontaneity” is not a phrase that is normally part of my vocabulary.

While all of this makes me sound very drab, I like to think of it as being prudent. I’ve learned from experience that careful examination of a situation is often well-warranted, especially when facts remain unclear. However, while prudence has its place, it can also be a crutch. Instead of being beneficial to the person who practices it, it can be an impediment to obedience. As the above quotation from Chesterton illustrates, being courageous requires both an appreciation for life, and what he later calls a “disdain of death.” The courageous Christian will want to make this life count for all that it’s worth, for the sake of God’s Kingdom – and at the same time, will risk their very life in order to accomplish this purpose. It is not this life, or to death, that the courageous Christian clings, but to the Cross of Christ.

That is the paradox of courage – a willingness to give it all, while at the same time fighting for what one has been given. It requires both an appreciation for what this life affords, and an anticipation of the next. And it requires knowing that whatever sacrifice may be required of today, it is worth it for the sake of Christ.

What do you think?