Remember when you excitedly, but nervously, got onto your first bicycle and said to the adult holding the back of the seat: “Let me go. I can do it!” Or, how about when your dad coaxed you from the deep end of the pool as you nervously twisted your toes on the diving board. “I can do it,” you thought as you plunged downward, a clumsy, wobbly, terrified projectile in a bathing suit! Courage. This took courage.
And remember the Cowardly Lion in that wonderful imaginative movie, The Wizard of Oz? Actor Bert Lahr was fantastic in the portrayal of the timid king of the beasts. “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage!” But, my favorite line of his is, “Put ‘em up, put ‘em up!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about courage the past few years, especially in light of political events throughout the world. And, I might add, in our various religious traditions. I’ve been making a list of persons who would qualify for a new book on Profiles in Courage including a doctor and health care workers who died of Covid while caring for its victims or political and government leaders and military officials who lost careers by testifying, honestly, in fairly recent impeachment hearings. I’m also adding some of the religious leaders who avoided the temptation to cave to political pressure, which their colleagues claimed to eschew. The braver leaders took the high road of the Gospel or the tenets of their various faiths to avoid compromising for funding and outright support of particular political advantages. I realize there are manifold complexities in these issues so I do not casually make my list on personal bias. I study the issues carefully, and on occasion, I have even changed my mind. But more and more I see the need to put into practice the courage many people have provided for us lately. If you are Catholic, courage is one of the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit called fortitude. Its graces have swept into your soul through the sacrament of confirmation.
The good part is that my list is growing longer by the day and, for me personally, the list is beginning to include people from constituencies with whom I never aligned myself before. Case in point: those in politics being censured because they will not embrace a cult of personality in opposition to the Constitution they were sworn to uphold. The tide against them is raw, uncontrolled and selfish power which might corrode their careers if not wipe them out entirely. These are courageous leaders compared to colleagues who prefer the comfort of obsequiousness rather than the courage of rightness. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the opposite of courage is cowardice. Like the cowardly lion before he became courageous.
It is no surprise that L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, was a political journalist who wrote the story as a satire on the rise of Populism in the 1890’s. There is a mountain of interesting research on the story but supposedly the lion represents the inner child in each of us, according to researchers. The child emerges stronger and braver as the story goes on, just as we do when learning to ride a bike or dive into a pool, growing from small experiences into greater issues. Courage can be walking with the marginalized, standing up for a friend or neighbor or taking an ethical position in our careers, or town halls like our politically censured leaders who hold up the Constitution and take a stand. Who really is the coward in such debates?
The Acts of the Apostles is the perfect New Testament book to read at this post-Easter time of our faith in the liturgical year. Peter emerges as the strong leader that Jesus knew he would be: taking a stand against the Pharisees, holding his own in debates with his colleagues. Like most of us, Peter, was a simple, untrained person whose belief in Jesus brought his mission to courageous maturity.
Read this wonderful testament of our faith and pray for the courage you might seek even if it is what one writer called, “the silent voice.” He wrote, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes, courage is the silent voice at the end of the day that says I will try again tomorrow.
God be with all of you and remember: “Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!”