by Mary Reitano
Photo Credit: Buddy Morrison (used with permisson)
“O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave–o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?” Hearing these words, especially on patriotic holidays, inspires gratitude for the brave soldiers who defend our freedom. Risking one’s life in combat takes great courage. Returning from war requires bravery to readjust to civilian life or long-term injuries. Bravery is one of twenty-four universal character strengths traits that positive psychology founders Seligman and Peterson identified during three years of research and wrote about in their book, Character Strengths and Virtues. “To be brave is to face your challenges, threats, or difficulties. It involves valuing a goal or conviction and acting upon it, whether popular or not. A central element involves facing—rather than avoiding—fears” (viacharacter.org). There are different types of bravery: physical, moral, and psychological.
Physical bravery describes military, police, firefighters, and medical workers. Recall firefighters and police who ran to the Twin Towers on 9/11 when everyone else was running out. And firefighters battling Party Rock wildfire in 2016 demonstrated courage as burning trees tumbled towards them down the steep mountainside. Medical professionals exercised bravery during this pandemic, before vaccines, when work was life-threatening. Many members of the military exhibit bravery. The USO website describes an assault on enemy targets in Afghanistan in 2019, when a huge explosion injured three Army Rangers. “Amidst machine gunfire, rockets, and grenades, Ranger combat medics, Army Staff Sgt. Charles Bowen and Army Sgt. Ty Able, leapt into action.” Pulling critically wounded from enemy fire, they performed surgical techniques and blood infusions. Two men were losing blood fast and all blood units were gone. As enemy fire continued, the medics performed a direct transfusion from a volunteer to the injured Rangers, saving their lives. The medics shielded their patients with their own bodies to prevent further injuries from enemy fire. During the evacuation of the wounded, Able steadily attacked the enemy, providing cover. Their calm demeanors under fire, saving their fellow soldiers, demonstrates incredible dedication and valor. Captain Tammy Duckworth was a helicopter pilot hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents when flying back to her base in 2004. She lost both legs and some mobility in her right arm–the first female double amputee from the war. She battled back to health courageously, and fought for veterans’ needs, eventually becoming a U.S. Senator. More stories are on Library of Congress website, “Experiencing War: Stories from the Veteran’s History Project.”
Moral bravery occurs when making a stand or implementing social change against opposition, which Congressman John Lewis demonstrated in his fight for racial justice. Participating in a legal, peaceful march in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, he was beaten by state troopers and suffered a skull fracture. He survived, and bravely continued his activism. Ben Dean, PhD. observed different fears and related opportunities to act with moral courage, including fears of job loss, criticism, making enemies, or losing status. And “one may fear loss of ethical integrity…if he or she fails to act in accord with conscience.” Psychological bravery is shown during challenges like serious illness, death of a loved one, financial setbacks, or major changes. It took guts for local business owners to persevere during the pandemic. Courage helps one to face chronic or life-threatening illness. Sometimes, when weighed down by grief, it requires bravery just to get up in the morning. We are more capable of courageous actions than we realize.
Dean noted that, since courage is a universally admired trait, most people consider it worth developing. One could argue courage should be primary; it enables us to exercise other virtues. Joel Runyon, former UPS driver, had to overc0me despair after he was laid off. He went from not being able to run a 5k to being one of six people to run ultra-marathons on every continent. He wrote A Brief Guide to Bravery, explaining “There’s this misconception that you must be brave to do brave things. There aren’t brave people – there are just people who do stuff that scares them and people who let fear tell keep them from doing things.” To increase bravery, Runyon recommends: “Pick out one thing you’re scared of doing and do it. Instead of running away from what you’re scared of, run towards it. Remember: You don’t suddenly become brave and then decide to do something. It’s the opposite. Bravery is based on what you do – not how you feel.”
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” – Mark Twain