‘Courage, mon petit elephant’
By Jo Broadwood
This is what my best friend and I say to each other whenever one of us is facing difficulties. Her mother said it to her as a child. I have looked for its origins, thinking it might be from her African Caribbean heritage. It turns out that it probably comes from a Disney cartoon. Nevertheless there is something about the idea, of us as little elephants making our way through an uncertain and sometimes challenging world that offers an image of persistence, integrity and bravery, and it is exactly these three strengths that are required for courage. For some writers and thinkers courage is the primary virtue and is linked to all other virtues, and a necessity for any type of virtuous action that takes place against adversity.
‘..without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.’
Others go further and question whether someone can really be said to care for another unless they are willing to face dangers on that person’s behalf. The word itself comes from the old French and Latin for heart (cor), and in Middle English means the seat of the feelings.
Putnam identifies three types of courage – physical, psychological and moral. These have been further sub-divided into personal and general courage. A personal act of courage is one where an individual acts despite their personal limitations. A general act of courage is measured by the extent an act is courageous compared to the typical behaviour of others.
Physical courage is the first kind of courage that we recognise as children, and perhaps therefore the easiest to understand. An act of personal physical courage might be undertaking something that is relatively frightening for the individual – such as abseiling off a tall building to raise funds for charity. General physical courage might be demonstrated, for example, by firefighters – running into a burning building, and risking their own lives to save others.
As children we see courage as principally being about physical bravery and risk taking, but as we get older we start to understand courage as being multifaceted, and that courage can be built through managing our feelings and thoughts.
‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.’
Psychological courage involves developing emotional resilience and strength. Personal psychological courage might be utilized to overcome a fear or phobia, such as handling snakes or spiders. Being a support, strength and example to others whilst suffering yourself displays general psychological courage. Stephen Sutton, dealt with having a life-threatening illness by dedicating himself to raising money for cancer research, and ultimately by demonstrating cheerfulness, optimism and humility whilst confronting his own death from the disease.
Moral courage is characterized as ‘standing up for what we believe is right’. Challenging a friend or colleague about an act of dishonesty or prejudice will require personal moral courage. General moral courage might best be exemplified by the idea of someone who speaks up about something, that they consider wrong, harmful to others and / or against the public interest. The Quakers call this ‘speaking truth to power’.
And of course some circumstances require all three. Nelson Mandela showed physical, psychological and moral courage in his leadership of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa, becoming a symbol of hope, humanity and dignity in adversity during his incarceration on Robben Island.
Acts of physical courage and psychological courage are most likely to be recognised and rewarded by others. But responses to acts of moral courage can be more ambiguous, they are motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong and our response will depend on whether we share similar values. Furthermore, versions of right and wrong depend on the prevalent social and cultural norms. As a result acts of moral courage tend to be recognised in hindsight. They can involve bringing about a change in public perception and opinion, and sometimes a change in social and cultural norms that might take years to achieve. Nelson Mandela was labeled as a terrorist by many nations during the early years of the anti apartheid struggle. Those who do speak truth to power and stand up for others against oppressive laws, systems, and practices can often end up making considerable personal sacrifices, in order to bring about social change.
‘Isn’t the crucial role of art to challenge the way society is run?’
So what might be the role of the arts in helping to build physical, psychological and moral courage?
Art forms such as dance might inspire physical courage by reminding us of what the human body is capable of. Dancers from the Jasmin Vardimon Company (our partners in this years Artist Commission on Courage) are renowned for their physical bravery in performance.
Stories of individuals overcoming challenges and obstacles might develop our faith in our own abilities to face and overcome adversity, developing our psychological courage.
Work that exposes and explores injustice, and social and environmental harm could spark feelings of moral outrage encouraging audiences to take action. And seeing and hearing tales of others committing acts of courage may inspire us to do the same.
If we look back through history at those who have fought to bring about positive social change, we can see that often it has taken great courage, employed consistently over a long time. Working towards a kinder more just world is not always comfortable or easy, but maybe art can help motivate and encourage us. Pury and Kowalski point out that courage and hope share many of the same characteristics. They both involve a sense of agency, goals and active striving. The little elephant needs courage for the long journey in front of her, but also travels in the hope that eventually she will arrive at a kinder, more just world.
This article was written based on research cited in the following:
1. Pury, C. L. S., & Kowalski, R. (2007). Human strengths, courageous actions, and general and personal courage. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 120 – 128. doi:10.1080/17439760701228813
2. Gisela Szagun & Martina Schauble (1997) Children’s and Adults’ Understanding of the Feeling Experience of Courage, Cognition and Emotion, 11:3, 291-306.
3. Crompton T (2010). Common Cause: The Case for working with our cultural values http://www.valuesandframes.org/downloads