Courage, Cowardice and Apathy
America has a short attention span. The evidence is there. In regards to historic tragedies, Americans tend to quickly forget the lessons being taught. Once the initial shock of an event, 9/11 for example, has worn off, collectively we continue living our lives as if it never happened. That is, all with the exception of those who lost friends, loved ones and lived through those horrifying, catastrophic days.
They have the memories forever seared into their memories. However, many watched from the safety of their homes and offices on TV as debris rained down from the World Trade Center and terrified occupants trapped inside leapt to their death. Somehow, that’s not the same as actually being there.
No one truly knows how they will respond in a given situation until it’s personally experienced. But there’s no doubt courage was a common virtue displayed by those responding on that fateful day. And without question, they will remember.
But, what about the rest of us…will we? How many are aware there was a memorial service at the New York Mills 9/11 Memorial on 9/11/2012? How many know there is a memorial at New York Mills, NY, and it also commemorates the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Or how many know what's inside it? Inside the memorial are remnants of the calamity that rocked our nation, a steel slab from the World Trade Center, a chunk of the Pentagon and other haunting artifacts.
A famous writer once wrote something to the effect, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Don’t believe it? How many can recall who wrote it and without misquoting the statement, remember the actual quote? It has appeared in many different forms, but the earliest version is said to be that of the poet and philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," published in the early 1900s.
Courage, cowardice and apathy are descriptive words. Of the three, apathy is our biggest enemy. At least cowards recognize danger when they see it. Cowardice and apathy are relatively easy to define. But how do we define courage? That’s not as simple and there have been many who have tried. Some have said courage is acting without fear. Perhaps, but a better definition might be, acting in the face of fear.
William Ian Miller, a teacher at University of Michigan Law School wrote a book on courage, The Mystery of Courage (Harvard University Press, 2000). And even he calls it a mystery. Miller explains courage can be difficult to define and may be the most desirable, but messiest human virtue.
The first story in Miller’s book tells about "the good coward" during the Civil War. The soldier marches into every battle with resolute determination fully intending to do battle, but finds himself fleeing in terror at the first sign of bloodshed. When the carnage has ended he returns and prepares for the next battle, hoping to do better the next time. But unfortunately he consistently repeats the pattern. Desertion was punishable by death, but this soldier escaped that fate. "The coward was never punished," Miller says, because "categories like 'coward' are not so easy to fathom."
Indeed courage, likewise, is not easy to fathom. Many famous notables have attempted to explain it. Hopefully, recounting some of their quotes on the subject will give us a better understanding:
- Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. ~Ambrose Redmoon
- Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. ~Winston Churchill
- It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare. ~Mark Twain
- Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow. ~Dan Rather
- Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared. ~Edward Vernon Rickenbacker
- A coward is a hero with a wife, kids, and a mortgage. ~Marvin Kitman
- Bravery is being the only one who knows you're afraid. ~Franklin P. Jones
- Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one. ~Lauren Raffo
- Some have been thought brave because they were afraid to run away. ~Thomas Fuller
- Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. ~C.S. Lewis
- The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy. ~John F. Kennedy
- One man with courage makes a majority. ~Andrew Jackson
- Courage is the power to let go of the familiar. ~Raymond Lindquist