Courage Is Mastery of Fear, Not Its Absence

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Our experience of the world is the most basic stuff of life. In other words, the most basic human reality is to live our lives in this world of experiences. Unlike the Earth, the world that we inter-subjectively share has been conceived, shaped and signified by our very own humanity. We are the creators of this world of fleeting delights and sorrows, momentary satisfactions and disappointments, transitory elation and desolation, ephemeral triumph and defeat. Moment by moment, each of us navigates the cultural fiber of this world in a complex landscape dominated by problems and difficulties, anxiety and despair, apprehension and pain. Faced with all of this, the human will is expected to stand courageously to confront the challenges and engage in the struggle.

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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.¨ – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Given the limitations that characterize our humanity, how far can we sustain the courage within to emerge triumphant? How thorny is the way that will finally lead to a better plane after our calculated steps to overcome the scattered obstacles? Is there a more certain appraisal of what could happen ahead? When is the appropriate time to move on and get engaged in the battle? Do we march onward now or do we rehearse once more the battle plan? The future does not seem promising. There are shadows of uncertainty here and there. There is no available instrument with which to assess the probability of conquest. Most likely, we are headed for disaster… and in the nick of time, fear creeps in.

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We are creatures of fear as a matter of habit. Our anticipation of the unknown is the locus that substantiates fear. The conscious mind is adept at weaving and unweaving scenarios, both optimistic and pessimistic, on a large scale. In cases where pessimism dominates the circumstances, imbalance sneaks in, fear commences and the highly probable aspects of the upside collapse and dissipate in limbo. The rule of the game—the ideal—is to give rein to the will, whence courage emanates, to heighten the resolve to move on and fight. But a sense of uncertainty blurs the horizon. Fear manages to crush the essence of courage and calls it recklessness at best and a sheer impulse of irrationality at worst.

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In the end, fear controls the terrain. Fear appears to be, at its inception, guided by careful analysis, but it is ultimately overtaken later by the same incalculable surge of irrationality that operates in reckless courage. Our imagination of an anticipated disaster exaggerates fear; it becomes a gigantic monster called dread, and the imagined condition diverges to the boundaries of reason, where reality achieves a new configuration through the lens of terror.

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“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

Fear could be viewed from a variety of perspectives, and one factor generally stands out in the final analysis: fear, in its most fundamental state, is a life-preserving mechanism of the mind to neutralize an anticipated danger. Human beings do not have a monopoly of fear, which is conventionally characterized as being an ¨instinct¨ (though Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake would surely disagree because, according to his Theory of Morphic Resonance, there is no such thing as ¨instinct¨ but only habit).

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In the animal world, ¨hierarchies¨ determine the relation of one species to another so that one animal might be both prey and predator. As a prey, an animal is naturally expected to avoid, even run away from, a perceived predator’s threat. One conditioning in the lifestyle of a prey is its fear of known predators. One’s avoidance of a threatening situation is the recognition of an anticipated harmful experience, and such anticipation is spontaneously triggered by none other than one’s feeling of fear.

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The same feeling extends to humans, whose status as prey or predator is conditioned in the context of power relations. We are not talking here about a stronger species undermining weaker ones. We are talking about human beings and their multi-polar levels of existence, wherein one stronger individual can strike fear in the heart of a weaker counterpart. In this situation, fear triggers in the weaker individual’s mind the seemingly automatic decision to avoid a possible trouble that could escalate to a full-blown violent confrontation. As in the animal world, human beings, under normal circumstances, act to preserve their lives. We do not want to fight in a ¨fight-or-flight¨situation if this can be avoided.

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“A life not willing to sacrifice itself to what makes it meaningful is not worth living.” – Jan Patocka

In some dealings with the intricacies of this world of experiences, fear serves as a positive signal not to pursue an objective known to involve some degree of hazard to one’s life. In this sense we are, in many ways, grateful for having been ¨wired¨ with a nervous system that automatically calls our attention in the face of impending peril. Fear is therefore a natural ally that helps us to pursue serious endeavors by exploring the many alternative paths along the way that offer the least risk. Fear provides us with the tools to establish the limits of our safety and well-being. In this sense, we find fear within the confines of what is generally reckoned as being normal, rational and hence acceptable. Fear saves and maintains one’s sanity within the range of the positive and natural. This is the upside of fear.

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Beyond the boundaries of what we consider to be natural and positive, fear, in its normal and rational configuration, is a negative factor that can wreak havoc on one’s integrity as a human person. For example, a failure to effect a defensive action, due to a fearful disposition, in the face of a clear and present assault that is offensive to one’s person, is a case of shrinking down to a sub-human level of being. In the final analysis, this failure to act besmirches not only one person but the very dignity of human existence. In the context of human power relations, exploitation, oppression and manipulation are connecting events wherein the so-called powerless are pushed either to the edge of a ravine or to the suffocating walls of a dark dead-end. Either of these is a life-or-death situation where the fearful keep their lives long after their humanity has lost its meaning. Those who manage to preserve their sense of human respect are the ones who can defeat fear by courageously facing death.

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Fear is always present. In our lives, however, we may be challenged to defeat fear in the face of death. This is an ideal that we know we must uphold, although no propositional explanation is readily available in the face of a challenge that borders on being a mockery, because few are willing to believe that one can actually stand one’s ground and fight for a noble cause even to the point of sacrificing one’s life. I believe that there is a concretely realistic space, over and beyond fear, which is well trodden by courageous individuals of previous generations, though this path might be uncharted by those of us who have not been challenged with life-threatening confrontations.

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 Editor’s Notes: Photographs one, six and nine by Helmut Hess; two and three by Stuart Anthony, four by Vandan Desai, five by David, seven by Alice Popkorn, eight by Gilbert Mercier, ten by Gavroche, eleven by Mike Vadala.

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2 Responses to Courage Is Mastery of Fear, Not Its Absence

  1. Cosmic Surfer September 7, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Beautifully written!

  2. Ruel Pepa September 11, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Thank you very much for the appreciation, Cosmic Surfer!

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