“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
~ Maya Angelou
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Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) is one of the most celebrated women, black or white, in American history. This multitalented woman achieved excellence in everything she put her mind and heart into. She won awards internationally as an author, poet, and made significant contributions in the fields of screenwriting, acting, singing and directing. Being raised amid racism and victimized sexually as a child gave her a burning desire to right social wrongs, so she became a social activist and good friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Maya Angelou’s life was a model of courage and inspiration.
Knowing a little about Maya Angelou’s life, I realized, when I read this quote, that she knew something of courage because she lived it. I have often wondered, where does courage come from? Angelou claims that we might not be born with this ability to act in the face of fear. However, she goes on to assert that we are born with the potential for courage. If this is true, then courage is an ability we acquire – it is learned from others by way of example.
I recall clearly in the days following the horrors of 9/11 that there was a lot of emphasis put on the actions of men and women who acted in the face of extreme fear. They were called heroes. One might have wondered why so much play was given to the concept of heroism. It was vital that this was done at the time and then continued for long afterward. The heroes in New York City, those on the plane destined for the White House that overcame the hijackers and forced that plane down, and the many emergency workers from Canada and other places within the States who came to help, were served up as examples of heroism. People of all ages, all over the globe, watched and learned. They saw ordinary people who put themselves in harm’s way to search for survivors and then, those who died. Some of those heroes lost their lives. We saw that too.
The children were schooled by these heroes of the 9/11 terrorist attack and it is very important that they learn how to act despite feelings of fear. The terrorists haven’t finished with the rest of us yet. We saw the same kind of heroism in Paris recently. I was struck by the gatherings of people paying their respects at the sites of the killings in Paris despite warnings by police to stay off the streets. I saw fear in those people’s faces, but I also saw defiance and determination. They schooled us too.
What strikes me most about Maya Angelou’s words is her assertion that we cannot practice the virtues of kindness, mercy, truthfulness, honesty or generosity with consistency if we do not have courage. The key here is the concept of consistency. She is saying in no uncertain terms that consistently practicing these virtues is not easy. There will be times when we must risk the displeasure of people we care about in order to live virtuously. Perhaps we risk the displeasure of someone in a position of authority over us at work. Acting virtuously is not always the popular thing. Jesus Christ lived a blameless life, modelled virtue in all that he said and did, yet he ran afoul of Jewish and Roman authorities who collaborated to execute him.
In the face of the persecution, arrest, torture, ridicule, and a public execution in the company of common criminals, did Christ cringe and beg for his life? “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and your children” Christ said as he carried his cross to his death. What about the Twelve, where were they? Did they stand proudly with him throughout his ordeal. No. They gave in to their fear and hid themselves. Christ forgave them because he loved them. He appeared to them after he rose from the dead. He schooled his followers one last time and gave them the example and inspiration they needed to live out their lives courageously. And many of them suffered horrible deaths as a result. They schooled us too.
All too often we consider heroes as persons who are, or were, bigger than life. That just isn’t so. Should a child or any of us aspire to be a hero? Yes, if our motive is to use a courageous act to serve others and not to win fame and glory. Acquiring the ability to act courageously is not at all easy. We must be able to put our mind in control over our base instinct to run or preserve ourselves in the face of fear. Too often, people allow their emotions to rule their words, actions and decisions. Having said that, emotions are not bad, nor are they good. They just are. It is what we do with them or how we react to them that can be judged. Maya Angelou understood this only too well, and we’d be wise to take her words to heart and allow her life to inspire us!