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Courage figures prominently in many lists of the virtues. It is a key example for Aristotle of how virtue is a mean: the courageous person is neither cowardly nor rash, but finds an appropriate middle ground. It is among the three key virtues summed up by the Serenity Prayer, in nearly all of its versions. Yet in the 21st century we can be a little suspicious of it. A blogger called the Sober Heretic thinks the Serenity Prayer is wrong to emphasize courage:

The fact that I need courage to change says a lot about what the prayer thinks change is. What does a person normally need courage for? Marching into battle. Jumping out of an airplane. Giving a speech. Facing a life-threatening disease. Courage is necessary when you’re fighting something: an enemy soldier, a virulent pathogen, your own fear. The need for courage says that change is fundamentally combative.

The claim is an interesting one, and I think there is an important point made in it. Śāntideva says “I am at war with the mental afflictions (kleśas)”, and regularly uses explicit metaphors of combat to describe one’s relationship with them. For him it is a battle, a struggle. But the Sober Heretic points out a problem with this approach:

treating unwanted traits as adversaries is the worst possible way to change them. Battling them just energizes and entrenches them, making them harder to dislodge or modify. This insight is huge! For me, the only way to change bad habits or errant ways of thinking is to focus on them with compassionate awareness.

On this much I think the Sober Heretic is right. Modern mindfulness meditation practices like Headspace emphasize a point very much like this: fighting our kleśas, in practice, often makes them worse. Psychologically, we are better able to deal with them through a nonjudgemental awareness and observation that lets them simply pass away. And as John Dunne noted, while such a nonjudgemental, noncombative approach is a departure from classical Indian Buddhists like Śāntideva, it has plenty of other precedents in premodern Asian Buddhist tradition.

But I think it is a step too far to say that courage is not needed in such cases – because I don’t think courage is something fundamentally combative. In half of the examples that the Heretic lists above (jumping, speaking), the only thing one could actually be said to be fighting is one’s own fear. And nothing in their examples or in the concept of courage says that the way one must deal with one’s fear is by fighting it!

A quote famously attributed to John Wayne (I can’t find a source) says that “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” On that conception of courage, one isn’t fighting the fear; one is simply acting in a way that does not allow the fear to rule oneself. The Serenity Prayer’s first line is a reminder that there are cases where we can change something but do not – and frequently our reason for not doing so is or involves fear. Not always, perhaps, but very often. Courage is required for us to change the things we can, in the face of our feeling afraid.

For a little while I thought Wayne’s quote was at some remove from Buddhism, because Buddhist teaching is so psychologically oriented: for Buddhists we need to get rid of (or at least reduce) bad mental states, like anger or harmful fear, not merely to act well while the states continue unabated. But I have changed my mind on that, because it turns out that Wayne’s advice is actually a helpful way to get rid of fear! Modern psychologists have found that effective ways of dealing with anxiety (so closely related to fear) involve “saddling up anyway”, facing the objects of anxiety, in techniques such as exposure therapy, the SPACE treatment, and Ronald Rapee’s program which he explicitly calls BRAVE. Most strikingly, the Buddha in the Pali suttas practises a form of exposure therapy on himself! He says in the Bhayabherava (Fear and Terror) Sutta:

I stayed in the sort of places that are awe-inspiring and make your hair stand on end, such as park-shrines, forest-shrines, & tree-shrines. And while I was staying there a wild animal would come, or a peacock would make a twig fall, or wind would rustle the fallen leaves. The thought would occur to me: ‘Is this that fear & terror coming?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘Why do I just keep waiting for fear?

What if I, in whatever state I’m in when fear & terror come to me, were to subdue that fear & terror in that very state?’ So when fear & terror came to me while I was walking back & forth, I would not stand or sit or lie down. I would keep walking back & forth until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was standing, I would not walk or sit or lie down. I would keep standing until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was sitting, I would not lie down or stand up or walk. I would keep sitting until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was lying down, I would not sit up or stand or walk. I would keep lying down until I had subdued that fear & terror. (Majjhima Nikāya I.20-1)

There is a metaphor of combat – subdual – here, which is not in the contemporary psychology. But it seems to me that there is a fundamental agreement among the Buddha, the psychologists, and Wayne: fear is a major problem for us, and the way to address it is by “saddling up” and exposing ourselves to it.

Wayne, of course, is known as an icon of rugged masculinity, and combat considered a masculine activity. So I wonder whether gender is another reason moderns are reluctant to embrace courage: it seems too macho. Aristotle uses the word andreia for courage, which can also mean “manliness”, and this is not coincidental: he thinks men are supposed to be more courageous than women. In Politics III.4 he says “A man would be thought cowardly if his courage were only the same as that of a courageous woman…” Courage seems a central part of what Harvey Mansfield advocated under the rubric of “manliness”.

But I don’t think that Mansfield (let alone Aristotle) ever made a convincing case why courage should be limited to men, or found in men more than in women. Indeed, I think we are now seeing good evidence for the opposite: in the English-speaking world at least, courage is even more important for women than for men, because too often girls are unfortunately taught to lack it! Penn psychiatry professor Carmen McLean says

There’s an assumption that boys should be courageous and they should overcome their fears and face their fears. With girls, we are a little bit more accommodating, and we permit this sort of reluctance or avoidance of situations. You are teaching the girl, “If I feel a little bit nervous, this means I should not do something.” A boy learns, “If I feel this way, I should act anyway.” He learns, “I can do it, and my anxiety goes down.” He feels more confident and has more efficacy. A little girl doesn’t learn that lesson.

Andrea Petersen (whose first name derives from Aristotle’s word for masculine courage) cites McLean’s comment in her memoir on anxiety. Petersen then notes: “It is as if boys are engaged in continual exposure therapy. Perhaps this inoculates them from future anxiety disorders.” (80) For, indeed, McLean’s research notes, “anxiety disorders are not only more prevalent but also more disabling in women than in men.” Reshma Saujani, the CEO of Girls Who Code, argues that women can claim their rightful voices more effectively by being “brave, not perfect“, refusing to “play it safe”. Among the many things patriarchy has so far hurtfully denied women, it seems, is courage itself.