Where, Parents, Shall Courage Be Found?
- Paul Coughlin Author, No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps
- 2009 10 Feb
"We want character but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it." ~James David Hunter
"Be men of courage; be strong." ~I Corinthians 16:13
Before departing on a cruise ship up and down the Pacific Coast with my family, I heard through the pounding public-address system an announcement that, in case of emergency, men should exercise selfless courage and allow women and children to enter the lifeboats first. I laughed, not at the call for masculine courage (a significant dynamic of thumos), but at the wishful thinking of the cruise line and, by extension, our culture. The only reason such a strange throwback to a bygone era (of male chivalry) is able to survive today is that such an (unfortunately) outdated perspective has yet to be challenged in the courts.
Many men now aren’t even inclined to exercise the courtesy of giving a seat to a woman or child on a train or bus en route to a safe destination, let alone a vessel about to sink to the bottom of the deep blue sea. If they survived the disaster after being forced to wait for lifeboats, they’d likely hit the cruise line and the crew with unprecedented litigation. And our gender-scrubbing society would applaud the class-action lawsuits.
In March 1954, my parents came to the States along the same route as the Titanic (sans fateful icebergs). The swells were still troublesome, so much so that Poseidon extended their voyage two days and shifted the cargo so much that the off-keel boat struggled to make progress. My mother was seasick from the start and didn’t feel better till she spotted America’s eastern shore, nine days later. I sometimes think of them retracing that course, my mother below, sipping soda and trying to swallow a saltine cracker, and my hardy father, drinking Guinness near the bow, incapable of sea sickness. Had calamity arisen, I know what decision he would have made.
One memorial in Washington, D.C., is a waterfront statue honoring the men who died on and around the Titanic. Seventy-four percent of the women passengers survived that 1912 catastrophe; 80 percent of the men perished after relinquishing seating that with even a moderate display of physical strength could have been theirs.
The eighteen-foot granite Titanic monument displays a man with arms outstretched, signifying both sacrifice and affection. It was erected in 1931 by “the women of America” to show their gratitude. The inscription reads:
To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic….
They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.
Such courage does not inspire us as it should. That act of corporate bravery played such a miniscule role in the 1997 blockbuster film as to constitute a kind of flag-burning insult. (Women can be and are courageous too; my point here isn’t that courage relates to one gender or the other but rather that we no longer clearly understand, cultivate, and practice courage on the whole.) Writes Christina Hoff Sommers, critic of radical feminism and defender of America’s young boys:
"[Today, such] male gallantry makes many women nervous, suggesting (as it does) that women require special protection. It implies the sexes are objectively different. It tells us that some things are best left to men. Gallantry is a virtue that dare not speak its name."
Job lamented, “Where shall wisdom be found?” (Job 28:12 KJV). Today we add to his timeless cry the demise of courage, because without it our children will still have life but not really live. As you’ll see, reading to them tales of courage, important as that is, will not get the job done. Kids need to see at least one parent living courage, which is far more caught than taught.
We’re involved in our community: Church. Coaching. PTA. Fellowship. Speaking engagements. In that cultural loop, I don’t hear courage talked about much at all. When we do talk about courage, it’s almost always ascribed to physical feats that demand bravery and some level of mastery over fear. Or to someone’s weight loss, which usually has more to do with ambition and desire.
The word courage was once reserved for the kind of behavior requiring sacrifice and suffering on behalf of a person for the common good, part of the definition of righteousness that’s found especially in the Bible. We’ve discarded this meaning for a more inclusive, less demanding, and more me-centered understanding, and we as a nation are damaged by this reduction.
Moral courage is a cornerstone virtue upon which other virtues gain their strength and stability. Most philosophers, sages, and spiritual leaders tell us that without courage, our kids won’t really create hope, faith, and love and their residual blessings because all of those demand risk of some kind. Courage helps us get through risk and face its associated fears in order to reap the benefits of virtuous living. Courage gives us power to be better spouses, parents, employers, employees, friends, citizens of earth and heaven. Courageous people do better in life; we need to show our children what it is, what it’s not, and how to obtain it.
When I speak at conferences and workshops, I often ask people to think of examples of moral courage. The most common answers are the rescue attempts during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and what our fighting men and women are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are good answers. But when I point out that our armed-forces combat troops comprise less than one percent of our population, an awkward silence follows. A nation can’t live vicariously through less than one of every hundred citizens.
I wrote earlier about my experience regarding church messages and Sunday school curricula. In the former, courage rarely surfaces at all (except in terms of either sharing God’s salvation message with others or giving more money to the church than we think we can afford). In the latter, it’s almost exclusively a defensive kind of courage—courage to say no when someone wants a kid to do something bad. I call this boundary courage, which is both valuable and necessary. However, what about offensive courage, the courage required to confront injustice, to help the timid and the weak, and to bolster the well-being of a community?
Search for “courage” on the Web sites of America’s most popular preachers, and you’ll be sadly disappointed. During a pulpit age where relationships take center stage, courage should be an intrinsically foundational subject, since no relationship grows meaningfully without the conviction and love that courage provides.
It also takes courage to exercise many spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; Romans 12). Ephesians tells us these gifts, which help us become apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers, have the ability to grow us into “mature manhood” and to stop us from being thrown around by damaging doctrines. Not only this, they also have the ability to help us combat human cunning, craftiness, and deceit. In so doing, we are better able to speak the truth in love.
Romans tells us that the gifts given to us by God’s Holy Spirit include wise speech and the ability to put the deepest knowledge into words. Use wise language and you’ll find that you’ll inevitably be standing against something—usually a popular cultural appetite. Speaking this way requires courage. What would be immensely helpful to the average churchgoer is learning that though these are good gifts from God, the exercise of them often requires an accompanying decision to exercise courage.
When I got married in my mid-twenties, I had no idea how much courage was required to really love someone, as opposed to doing what’s needed to give the appearance that we were getting along. Compromise is essential to marital happiness, but so is exercising the courage necessary to confront what must be confronted and doing it without either yelling or whimpering. Our lives expand or contract in proportion to our courage. Our divorce rates aren’t going to decrease without an increasing influx of courage.
When Dr. James Dobson was an elementary teacher, he couldn’t understand why so many adults were cowards. He writes regarding kids who were picked on by bullies, “I find it difficult to comprehend why adults have to be encouraged to shield a vulnerable child whose defenses have crumbled.” His frustration cannot be fully grasped unless seen in light of Mahatma Gandhi’s intimate comprehension of the dynamics of domination and resistance: “Bullies are always to be found where there are cowards.
I think one of the main reasons we have failed to exercise courage on behalf of the weak and the needy is that doing so requires more than standing for something and someone. Courage requires that we stand against something and someone. Standing against a bully means we name his behavior as wrong and dangerous. The spirit of our age has intimidated and silenced us. We’ve had our indignation toward wickedness drained by political and “theological” correctness.
For many Christian parents, teachers, and coaches, our training tells us to pray about a troubling situation and then get out of the way. Additional action is often deemed unnecessary, even unspiritual. God, we’ve been told, has everything under control—no need for us to get our hands dirty in life’s ugliness.
Too many of us have our spiritual hands in our spiritual pockets jingling coins instead of spending them. Our courage has atrophied, and we’re not the sources of salt and light we’re meant to be. Wrote Theodore Roosevelt, “You have to have courage. I don’t care how good a man is, if he is timid, his value is limited. The timid will not amount to much in this world. I want to see a good man able to hold his own in active life against the force of evil.” So do many others. But how?
Published February 22, 2009
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.
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