April 7, 2008

As Christians, we’ve been told and taught that we build integrity and character by avoiding sin.  Part of that answer (the negative) is right, but in overlooking the other half (the positive), we sell our kids down Good Intentions River, which runs through each state and country in the nation.  Jesus warned that the abundant life He offers is hard to find (Mark 10:24-25); we unintentionally make it harder to find, distancing our children from it by training them to focus on avoiding mistakes instead of living boldly and righteously.  Possessing integrity and character is far more than checking off lists of do’s and don’ts.

Courage, also known as fortitude, is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation, whether for ourselves or for others.  Courage, one of the four “cardinal virtues” (along with wisdom, temperance, and justice) is pivotal, because in order to possess any virtue, truly, a person must be able to sustain it in the face of difficulty.  This is why Winston Churchill called courage the “first of human qualities…because it guarantees all the others.”

Courage is the foundational virtue upon which others rest. Or don’t.

I believe we have avoided and minimized this dimension of character, in part, to settle our internal rumblings about our lack of virtue.  Senator John McCain, former prisoner of war and author of Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life, implies that we set the bar for “courage” almost on the ground, just so we can think and say that we have it: “We say it takes courage to be different from the mainstream in our preferences in fashion, music, the length and color of our hair.”

And he says, we are not teaching our children what this foundational virtue really is.

If children are taught that simply being honest or doing the best we can or appreciating what they have without complaint is considered by their society to be an act of courage, will they be more or less motivated to summon the real thing in a crucible?  

We know the answer to McCain’s rhetorical question even if we don’t want to admit it.  His guidance for parents is even more pointed:

Parents who want their children to have courage usually think of it in its physical expression first, and they try to impart it to them by experience and encouragement. When they fall from the horse we’ve set them upon, we’ll encourage them to get back in the saddle. Don’t be afraid of the ball, we tell them, trust your reflexes and your glove.  Don’t give up, keep trying, you’ll get better.  

These are, of course, sensible encouragements to a child.  They need to be so encouraged.  But we’re not exactly teaching them courage.  We’re teaching them physical skills. We’re teaching them to be strong.  We’re helping them acquire fortitude.  We’re building their confidence and giving them hope.  These are elements of courage in most instances, but not the whole virtue.  Their effect alone might only be to give them daring, nerve.  They might grow up and climb mountains or become risk-taking entrepreneurs. Not necessarily bad things. But is that all we think courage is?  Is that what we’re trying to teach them? Without other instruction, they could turn out to be Enron executives.  They had daring, to be sure.  But hey lacked ethics.  They lacked a sense of honor, and they lacked courage. 

Here’s another way of thinking about this issue: How often do we diagnose a behavior as cowardice?  For instance, what do you say after your son tells you about a bullying he witnessed and didn’t intervene, just stood there with the group?  Have you helped him figure out that the sludge-like feeling gumming up his soul is a result of cowardice?  Do you explain that cowardice is a normal but insufficient response to seeing someone unjustly treated or cruelly humiliated?  Do you teach him that being wise and acting thoughtfully does not mean he is also to remain frozen, inert, and innocuous?