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Delaney: Defining Courage

01/25/12 5:55PM By Dennis Delaney
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(Host) Events and challenges of the past year have inspired commentator Dennis Delaney to reflect on the origins and meaning of the word “courage.”

(Delaney) It comes as no surprise to me that the word courage harkens all the way back to the Latin word for heart and remains today a metaphor for inner strength. Courage is a simple word, just two syllables, yet it defies a single, firm definition. It’s more practical to know it by descriptions.

When we hear of a fireman who rushes into a burning home to save a child, we recognize courage through that instantaneous act of selflessness. Courage is a soldier on a battlefield who, under fire, carries a wounded comrade to safety. And I’m certain that in years to come Vermonters’ defiance in the face of Irene’s rage will be characterized, in part, by the word courage.

This winter, I’m reading a book called Explorers of the Nile; and, despite its rather lackluster title, this book is a fascinating up-all-night read. The author, Tom Jeal, weaves a wonderful tale of late nineteenth century explorers who, with ample doses of courage, noble intent, and certainly ego, pierced the heart of unexplored Africa to locate the source of the Nile River. A recounting of the trials endured by the explorers, which Jeal describes in shocking detail, beggars the imagination.

For some, like David Livingstone, there was a nobility of purpose that transcended adventure. In Livingstone’s case, that purpose was to remedy the enormous evil of the East African slave trade.

However, there’s another kind of courage that inspires even more admiration in me, and that’s the courage required to battle fear over time, while never being quite sure of the outcome. We’ve all seen movies or read accounts of the storming of the Normandy beaches by the allies in June of 1944. Courage, bravery, heroism are written all over these events; but what we can’t see or flush out of a narrative is the enormous courage it took to overcome the fear they felt as they moved ever closer to battle.

My father was a paratrooper in the fabled 101st Airborne in World War II. One day, as a cocky but not too bright adolescent, I said to him: “I’ll bet every time you jumped into battle, it was easier than the time before.”

He replied: “No, each time was worse.” And that was all he would say on the matter. By that I understood that while his courage may have been unquestioned, his fear was unspeakable.

Most of us know John Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage about men in public service who had the kind of quiet courage needed for making difficult but correct decisions for the public good. Often they were met with rebuke and failure. In these days of presidential campaign frenzy, I think it ought to be required reading for candidates, on the chance that one of these days they may need some good, old fashioned, face-down-the-fear-of-consequences courage themselves.
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