Brad Keywell

Courage: An essence contained within all of us

Courage. It’s an orientation, a virtue, an ideal. I’ve been curious about courage since September 1, 1986, when I remarkably encountered its duality of boldness and subtlety.

I was fifteen years old, summer was coming to an end, and I (of course) had waited until the last minute to open the assigned ‘summer reading book’ for Senior Seminar (an iconic class in my high school). I was back home after a month of teaching tennis at a sleepaway camp in northern Michigan, which meant I was back into our family ritual of together watching the evening news. We were a CBS News family, a trust first earned by the legendary anchor Walter Cronkite and then continued by Dan Rather.

The summer book?  Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy. School started on Tuesday, September 2nd, and I spent most of September 1st (it was Labor Day) finishing the book. How do I remember this so vividly?  Because that night, while watching the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather did something entirely new – he ended the broadcast with one word: ‘Courage’.

Courage.  Illustrated through stories of dramatic boldness.

I spent that day encountering the stories of eight U.S. Senators who boldly acted with integrity to their personal values and sense of purpose despite great criticism, pressure to conform, and existential career risk.  A core theme, notably of Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, and Edmund Ross, was personal efforts of individuals to leverage their positions as elected leaders to end slavery despite great public criticism and likely losing reelection. President Kennedy (who won a Pulitzer Prize for the book) defined ‘courage’ through stories of leaders going ‘all in’ on the grandest of stages.

Courage.  Presented as the word itself -- subtle, unexpected, and definitive.

I remember the shivers I felt when Dan Rather said the word ‘courage’ after I had been reading about the concept of courage all day.  It was as if he was speaking to me, a direct challenge to consider the meaning of courage at a deeper level.  Cronkite signed off newscasts with, ‘And that’s the way it is’, and others would say, ‘That’s our report, good night’ – so when Rather ended with this singular word – presented without platitudes – a public controversy ensued.  Viewers were apparently not prepared to consider courage in this way, and Dan Rather ended this sign-off after only five nights.

This one-two punch of courage hit me deeply, provoking wonder (was this a coincidence?), intrigue (is courage bold, or subtle, or both?), and curiosity (what courage was Dan Rather speaking to in us, the American public?).

‘Courage is grace under pressure’, said Ernest Hemingway, while Winston Churchill saw it as perseverance, illustrated well when he observed, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’ Mark Twain saw courage as related to fear: ‘Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.’

I like the sense of courage in small doses, contained in moments that add up to become our lives. ‘Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after. Such moments are tests of courage, of strength,’ words of the author Sabaa Tahir that resonate deeply these days.  Words heightened in purpose within the context of the first line of Maya Angelou’s wonderful poem Touched by an Angel: ‘We, unaccustomed to courage’.

I like the sense of courage as not the ignorance of fear or concern, but rather the awareness of something bigger than oneself, and acts (big or small) in service of that greater goal and better future.

I like the framework of courage not as a miraculously demonstrated by the few, but rather as an essence contained within all of us, if only we allow it to emerge – through quiet moments of understanding, small acts of empathy and kindness, doing the right thing when no one is looking, offering strength when those around us are struggling to find theirs.

So much around us today is uncertain, unfamiliar, uneasy. Yet so much within us is awaiting to emerge, offering each of us the opportunity to reveal our unique definition of courage.  Thirty-four years ago, I encountered a most unlikely consideration of courage. Now I’m understanding it more than ever.

Bold courage. Subtle courage. Your courage. My wish is that you continue to be a source of strength to your family and colleagues.  My belief is that the courage you reveal (through acts large and small) matters in a big way and has positive ripple effects.

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© Brad Keywell 2021