Courage and Creativity

Paul Coughlin

Research into the creation of courage shows an openness to experience and creativity.  People are more courageous when they see they have options, which is one reason why depressed and negative people often are not courageous.  Ways to increase this capacity include journaling and idea spiders, where you write a goal in the middle of a board or page and then draw lines to related goals and ideas.  In time you may well observe connections and options you didn't notice before.


Our world was given a shining example of creativity's connection to courage in the life of Pope John Paul II, who will likely be the most memorable pontiff of my lifetime.  Karol Jozef Wojtyla was a poet and a lover of poetry.  He also was an actor who wanted to use theater to expose the atrocities of Nazi brutality to all peoples they attempted to conquer, especially those of his beloved Poland.  He joined the resistance against the Nazis, and then, as pope, the resistance against Soviet occupation of Poland.  He broke with tradition when he believed doing so was necessary to spread God's love, peace, and mercy.  Even people who were not fans of organized religion, including my own father, could not help but speak highly of him.


He was the first non-Italian chosen to lead the Catholic Church in more than four centuries, in part for his popularity among the young, his loving heart, his fertile mind (he spoke eight languages), and his infectious sense of humor.  But he was also known for his thumos-courage, which made him stand out among his peers, especially through his charisma.


The connection between courage and charisma—the hard-to-define x-factor that some possess—is obvious to our senses.  The pope's courage bolstered his charisma, his magnetism, his persuasiveness, his eloquence, his vision, and his ability to pull others to his side and join his causes.  Courage can bolster your charismatic x-factor as well.


Less than eight months after his inauguration, in 1978, John Paul II returned to his homeland for nine days.  Adoring crowds met him wherever he went and were a source of acute embarrassment to the communist government.  Officially, the country was atheistic, and it suffered food shortages.  The pope added to the authorities' discomfort by reminding his fellow Poles of their God-given nature.  "You are men.  You have dignity.  Don't crawl on your bellies," he told them.  And from there, the Soviet Union began to lose its grip on Poland.


A common expression about John Paul II by his peers that helped to explain his popularity was that "he was a man before he was a pope."  Please don't miss what this actually means.  What people noticed about him, what made him more courageous, bigger and better than those around him, was that unlike many spiritual leaders today, he possessed vitality of both soul and spirit.


When I say he was soulful, I mean that he was connected to the realities of life without being so "easily entangled" by its sinful side.  He was world-savvy, wise, courageous, and virile, and he was connected to the invisible, mysterious reality of divine energy and will.  This dual connectedness gave him uncommon power, perception, and proportion regarding what really matters to people.  It gave him a bottom-up orientation to life instead of today's prevalent top-down orientation.  His intimate encounters with wickedness and evil likewise propelled him in forging thumotic strength.


I think this helps to explain in part the power behind C.S. Lewis's writing as well.  Yes, he was brilliant and gifted beyond the norm.  He also came to Christ after a lot of wrestling in the soul-world of academia and its demanding intellectual rigors.  He brought this soul power, life-wisdom, and virility into his Christian life—he didn't discard it—and decades later the world continues to be fascinated by this unique and rare melding.


I think about Pope John Paul II also as the leader who pardoned the man who tried to murder him, who visited him in prison, praying for his would-be assassin and requesting the same in return.  I think about his courage in standing up for religious freedom and human dignity throughout the world.  Then I compare it to the sermons I've heard from men trying to convince us that the papacy will usher in the satanic New World Order of apocalyptic lore.  I think about the hours of convoluted sermons I was not brave enough to stand up and walk out on—today I wish I'd made public displays of disapproval.


I envision the better me standing up slowly and calmly as people do in movies.  I give my pastor a long, pensive stare—a form of steady courage and an acknowledgment that I will not be party to this message—then I turn to my wife and quietly say, "Let's go," and we slowly traverse the aisle as if part of a wedding procession, heads up, eyes straight forward.  But I'm left with the heavy stickiness of my cowardice instead.


I think about the members of the large charismatic denomination that has pounded out these worthless conspiracy theories, and I ask myself, "What would they have done in Poland if they'd seen people butchered in the streets and then later seen many others crushed under military occupation?"  I'm pretty sure I know what they'd have done: nothing.  They wouldn't have resisted for the good of those around them.  Instead they would have done what evangelicals are prone toward doing: they would have made islands.  They would have built their churches and colleges and, by and large, they would have gone along to get along, actually providing fuel for the antagonists of our faith.


They wouldn't have possessed the kind of thumos that enters the real world, as Roosevelt said, to wrestle with real men and real issues.  They would not have been capable of such greatness and heroics in part because their theological training and their church culture wouldn't have allowed it.  They'd even have called such behavior "worldly."  They should be ashamed of themselves for attacking John Paul II, a man of such courage, but I assure you they are not, and neither will those who comprise this denomination require their leaders to renounce their bigotry, character assassination, and false witness.


Closely related to creativity are mystery and wonder.  D.H. Lawrence wrote that a sense of wonder is our sixth sense, "and it is the natural religious sense."  Mystery and wonder give us a keen spiritual edge, helping us to see life with increased enthusiasm, animation, and gratitude.  They fill us with an awareness of possibility and compel us to fight off spiritual boredom and claustrophobia.


Wonder and mystery fill the chest and lungs—we breathe more deeply when in their presence.  I am no longer amazed but am humored when I hear formerly pacifistic friends of mine declare upon the birth of their child that they would fight to defend him or her.  Children awaken thumos in us like nothing else, and while it's upsetting that they didn't carry this conviction about other children before, at least they've joined the company of the courageous.  I feel like giving them a certificate and a gift card.


Mothers get their thumos going in the protection of the child's body, mind, and soul.  Fathers do as well (there's always overlap), but their thumos tends to focus on the macro, the world "out there" that the child someday will enter.  This is one reason that at a dinner party, most of the time, the men will talk mostly about civic life and the women will talk mostly about family.  I'm not saying this is the way it should be, that it shouldn't change, but that it's the way it is.  This is why most reformers and revolutionaries are men and always will be men—it's the world "out there" that tends to most fully capture their thumos.


It's because children are the universal language of life and culture that they draw out of us the better side of our thumos.  Writes International Justice Mission's Gary Haugen, in his excellent work Just Courage,


Over time, I have found a nearly universal point of contact—and that's the experience of being a parent.  Parenting seems to be the great leveling experience among human beings—especially in the unique sense of vulnerability that mysteriously accompanies parents of all places…We love so much and can control so little.


There is nothing more repulsive and grief-producing than witnessing the abuse of a child at the hands of an oppressor.  Coming in a close second is witnessing adults who do nothing when it's within their power to thumos-act on behalf of a child.  We are hardwired to be repulsed by cowardice so that we will be animated to love when duty calls us to love and protect.


But it's more than protection of the weak and innocent that spurs our courage regarding children.  It's the wonder of birth and of family, this "mini-civilization" that we create, the possibility of our children surpassing us in good deeds, joy, and fulfillment.  There's the wonder of watching their personalities unfold, seeing how the flesh of our flesh is like us but not like us.


As a parent, you feel and know that you're part of something bigger and better than you, and the wonder of it makes you feel alive and humble.  It takes the pressure off, and somehow, in a way I can't well describe, it depletes fear.


God's wondrous, mysterious spirit and will, seen in his actions supernaturally and his creation naturally, also animate us toward the right orientation in life because they give to us the experience of his active presence among his people.


I remember as a teenager being very troubled while trying to sleep.  I remember praying that God would protect me and help me, and that he would send his angels to minister to me.  Right after that prayer our dog, Shilo, who was sitting by the side of my bed, looked up at the ceiling.  And he kept looking, for a very long time.  Like hours, in dog time.  To the human eye there was nothing that should have grabbed and held his attention.  No spiders, no flies, nothing unusual, nothing moving.  I lay there with a sense of awe that was frightening at first but later settled into a confident assurance that I was loved and protected.  I was emboldened and invigorated through wonder, mystery, and awe.


Socrates told us that wonder precedes vision, and thumos needs vision, a bone to gnaw on.  When we have vision without wonder, it's almost always mechanical, cold, and too "efficient" to include the work of God's Spirit.


Mystery and wonder scared me during the early years of my spiritual walk.  I was attracted only to what was "concrete" in God, and on some levels this was necessary, though I see now how it created some unfortunate rigidity, an inability to experience joy, and an undercutting of my courage.


I speak for many men when I say that in order for our faith to remain alive and vibrant, for us to play our part in taking the courageous steps necessary to imitate Christ, we don't need six more rules about our spiritual walk.  We need six fresh mysteries—mystery animates us and stirs our thumos, making us cheerful fighters.  True, we need comfort like anyone else.  But we also need strangeness: We need to be spiritually jabbed, shocked, disturbed by wonder and weirdness.  Yet most of Jesus' unfamiliar, startling, sarcastic, and pugnacious comments and behavior get washed out of most sermons, books, and songs.


G.K. Chesterton called the mixture of the familiar with the unfamiliar "romance" with God, and it's no coincidence that it's a Catholic, not a Protestant, who reminds us of this.  Our Catholic brothers and sisters are far ahead of us in regard to handling the mysteries of faith and living within the blessed tension that mystery creates.  They are not as prone to try to release this tension, which provides adventure, spiritedness, vitality, and enthusiasm for the divine realities in our lives.  This is a muscular romance that's intrinsic to heroism and chivalry—both attributes of thumos.


As Christians, we should use words that explain, but we should also use them to "evoke, to set us to dreaming as well as thinking, to use words at their most prophetic and truthful.  The prophets used them to stir in us memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without knowing that we starve."  That, starving modern man, is what we long for, what intuition tells us is mystery, the inspirer of courage.


For some strange reason that I cannot fully explain, these mysteries fill me with a rugged for of hope.  "If you lose hope," warned Martin Luther King Jr., "somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all.  And so today I still have a dream."


The most mentally healthy people, said Scott Peck, are those with a "great taste for mystery and…profound curiosity."  Peck found that one attribute characterizing the least mentally healthy is a lack of mystery and curiosity.


What bothers me the most is when I visit a psychiatric hospital is not the insanity, not the rage or the fear or the anger or the depression, but the apathy.  Sometimes it is drug-induced, but a terrible apathy often characterizes the mentally disordered.


I relived the tension I felt while writing this book by dipping in our hot tub.  At night I would listen to the wind stir the pine and fir trees behind me, and every so often, forty-five minutes or so after dusk, a large white owl would fly silently and directly over me, perch, and give me an almost contemptuous glare, as if to convey, "Did I say you could stare?"  That bird of prey filled me with awe—that piercing combination of fear and wonder, among the most animating feelings humans can possess.


After a while, all I felt was wonder.  Perhaps that's what awesome experiences are designed to do: condition us against fear so we can feel wonder all the more.  I live in the city, so such an experience is pretty improbable.  I've asked around the neighborhood and no one else has seen the owl.  I like to think that God was gracing me with his own special kind of weird airmail.


Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous FaithNo 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. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying. 

Visit Paul's websites at:, and

Visit Sandy's website for reluctant entertainers at: