While there are variations, most descriptions of courage involve the use of mental strength to persist in the face of fear, pain, or other difficult emotions. Courage is often linked with one-off situations (e.g., running into a burning building), but perhaps not often enough with difficult, on-going circumstances people can face.
Maybe this focus on the one-off is partly because such acts easily stand out when compared with situations that go on for extended periods. Single instances of bravery can also be nicely packaged with the ‘hero’ label, which is an attractive title. This is not to devalue individual acts of courage. We can all think of important examples of heroic acts. But society could do much more to take notice of the ‘persistently courageous’.
Specific Skills Required
Persistently courageous people come in many forms; the young person going to school despite being bullied, fighting a prolonged mental health or medical issue, or working a job that involves working in dangerous conditions (to name just a few). Being courageous day-in, day-out is a special ability. Showing courage over a long period requires resilience and determination. But this often comes at high personal cost. Persistent courage requires on-going effort. This can strain coping resources, and generate demands that may not occur during one-off events. In other words, being courageous over an extended period is stressful and challenging.
One-off acts of courage perhaps emphasise actual behaviour. On-going courage also involves specific behaviours, but also relies heavily on psychological skills. Examples of these skills include motivation to keep being courageous in the face of negative consequences, an ability to use humour as a way to cope with fear or pain, effectively managing emotions (e.g., keeping them in check so you can do important jobs). These are sophisticated and valuable attributes. We can learn a lot about these skills from the persistently courageous.
Psychological skills required for persistent courage are advanced ones. But, because they do not usually scream “LOOK AT ME!!!”, they tend to fly under the radar. So what? So what if on-going acts of courage go largely unnoticed? One problem is that the extraordinary might be thrown into the box labelled ‘ordinary’. As mentioned above, persistent courage comes at a cost. Focusing on such costs (rather than the courage shown) can lead people to believe they are not coping well. People can lose sight of just how much courage and energy is required to keep going in difficult circumstances. This can ultimately undermine efforts to go on being courageous. Equally, appropriate support from others may not be provided when courage is insufficiently acknowledged. We may also rob ourselves of lessons we can take from true heroes in our communities. I would rather acknowledge the carer, the paramedic, or solo parent, before the goal-scorer.
Going Beyond the Limits
Persistent courage may require a person to go beyond previous beliefs about what was he/she was capable of. You have to generate, not only courage itself, but also the belief that you can push beyond perceived limits of courage. What can help here is having witnessed someone who was able to push the boundaries in this way. So, perhaps when someone says ‘this person taught me about courage’, they are really saying ‘this person changed my perception of what I was capable of’. Like an athlete who sets a new world record time on the track or in a swimming pool, inspirational people come along from time to time that make us see beyond perceived psychological limits.
Supporting the ‘Chronically Courageous’
People who are persistently courageous are often doing so out of necessity. It is easy to try and intervene, or ‘take’ some of the burden of courage away from someone. But, this may not be the most helpful thing to do. Ask how you can help someone to maintain their current level of courage. Provide some acknowledgement of what they are achieving. Perhaps lend a hand with practical tasks to ease the load. Persistent courage can be required in such a wide range of situations, so there are many possibilities to acknowledge and support those who demonstrate this ability.
Yes, let’s acknowledge those people who run into the burning buildings. But, let’s also stand up for and support the persistently courageous amongst us. They may not be acting in a particularly obvious way, but they too should hold a special place in society.