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In Praise of Courage Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 30 May 2014

The great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn despaired of many things, not the least of which was courage, not in himself, but in others. He despaired of courage among the elite classes; politicians, Western business and intellectual leaders, and he knew their cowardice would naturally flow down to everyone else.

Like all virtues, courage is a habit built up by repeated acts over a lifetime, like a muscle, like all virtues. But courage may also be squandered.

There are moments when each of us has betrayed courage. Forty years later, I still see a basketball bounce a few feet from my grasp, back and forth between two guards on the opposing team. And how with the right timing, a few steps and a confident grab, there was nothing but open court before me. But I stood there frozen, and never grabbed that ball. That may sound a trifle, but it is a moment of cowardice that haunts me still.

A week later, it got worse. The coach looked down the bench to send in a scrub. His eyes met mine – and I looked away. Down and away. Message received. In the locker room, he told us that anyone who did not want to play ought to quit. So, I did. What a coward. Quitting, cowardice’s wicked companion, is an easy habit to start and hard to break.

I often think about Lenny Skutnick. Driving in Washington near the 14th Street Bridge, he heard that a passenger jet had just crashed into the icy water of the Potomac River. He nosed his car through stopped traffic, steered it close to the water’s edge, looked out at the freezing water, plane submerged and sinking, a wing sticking out with people clinging to it. He dove into the icy water over and over and saved them.

A lifetime of cowardice and quitting does not prepare you for that moment. Plenty of others had good reasons to stand mouths agape doing nothing. Not Skutnik. He dove in. How had he prepared for that moment?

I think I know why years ago I did not lunge for that ball – and almost certain, though momentary, glory. The kind of fear I experienced was not the kind of physical fear that kept those hundreds of people standing and watching Skutnik, and not helping him. Mine was the fear of embarrassment, perhaps the most common kind of fear in our age.

What if I lunged and missed? What if I got the ball and missed an easy layup down the court, or worse, got stuffed. Simply, what if I got caught out, laughed at? Better to do nothing.


         January 13, 1982: Lenny Skutnick in the Potomac saving a life

I am not immune even now. A conservative friend was presenting his new book on national sovereignty at the Council on Foreign Relations. Around the table were top officials from the United Nations, U.S. State Department, and think tanks. My friend oddly mocked the way pro-lifers have critiqued a certain U.N. committee. Instead of stepping up and defending the critique, I sat there. It would have been an easy layup. But I sat there.

And this is the fear we must all grapple with in this day and age. Those Skutnick moments are mostly for soldiers, moments where you overcome a fear of physical harm and even death. For us, there is fear of embarrassment, fear of getting caught out, laughed at.

Who among us has not hesitated to engage social issues; contraception, abortion, stem cell research? Who among us has not hesitated to engage on the gay question with friends, family, or even strangers, for fear of getting caught out, knowing simple assertions, but not the second and third and fourth thing to say? And then there is the mockery, a specialty of the other side.

David French, who works for the American Center for Law and Justice, went from a state university to the Harvard Law School. Before he went he fretted about whether he was up to the intellectual cut and thrust of an Ivy League law school. What he found was no intellectual engagement at all. What he got from the other side was mockery, only mockery.

Of all the virtues, the Church teaches prudence is the queen, for she teaches what to be courageous about. But without courage, at least in some cases, prudence might be all good intentions and not much more. Churchill said courage is the supreme virtue because of that. Fine, Churchill was no theologian. Still, he was onto something, and that is prudence needs her muscular friend courage.

Kids today are afraid of being caught out. Imagine a college campus with invited speakers shouted down and disinvited; professors mocking the beliefs family and Church taught you. The fear these kids feel is the fear of embarrassment, being caught out, being isolated. A habit of non-engagement gained in college is a habit that can last a lifetime.

Even worse, there is no private space any more. A young man blowing off steam in his dorm room could be recorded and ridiculed, perhaps brought up on charges before academic courts. And the lessons of Brendan Eich will last a lifetime; contribute to an unpopular cause (traditional marriage), and you lose a job, even six years down the line. This is the Solzhenitsyn world, where you fear everyone around you.

The other world of Solzhenitsyn is the one where millions of Poles stood shoulder to shoulder for the arrival of John Paul the Great. They shocked even themselves. Until that moment, each of those millions thought he was alone. I had hoped Chick-Fil-A Day would have been one of those moments for us, one of those days when we saw we were not alone. Alas it did not last.

Let us hope one day we in the West will find we are not alone – and that we have no reason to be afraid.

 
Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
 
 
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Comments (23)Add Comment
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 30, 2014
Mockery, not reasoning, is indeed the currency of many who have ascended to the celestial dome of the academy.

For instance, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's essay (2008 in the New Republic) entitled "The Stupidity of Dignity."

Mockery requires very little work or intellect. The response that will overcome it takes work and intelligence.

Ironically, mocking others is, in the end, a sign of ignorance, hence weakness, in those who resort to mockery. It is an opening...a sign of a chink in their armor.

If we can all remember what Mother Teresa said about humility, it can help us here - she said something like this: "If we were truly humble, nothing another man said about us would change our estimate of ourselves. If we received flattery or praise, we would not put ourselves on a pedestal, because we know who we really are. If we were mocked or blamed, we would not lose heart, because we know who we really are."
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written by Manfred, May 30, 2014
@Austin: May I suggest an example of someone who was courageous?Yesterday, May 29th, was the 60th anniversary of the canonization of Pius X. He was one of ten children raised in deep faith in a modest family It was he who wrote Lamentabili and Pascendi in which he called Modernism "the synthesis of all heresies" and he pointed to these heresies already existing in the Church at that time. He instituted the Oath against Modernism which every priest and bishop had to take at least once a year.(This was ended by Paul VI in 1965.) The Pope in 1954 was Pius XII.
One would benefit from reading those two encyclicals in which Pius X enumerated the speific actions/teachings of the Modernists, and then reflect on the number of those heresies which exist in the Church today.
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written by Dennis Larkin, May 30, 2014
The Catholic bishops in America are in a fight for the survival of the Church, which will require courage of them. I don't know if they understand that. Perhaps it should be a requirement that, in order to become a bishop, a man at some time in his life must have been in at least one fist fight.
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written by grump, May 30, 2014
Courage, next to honor, the best of virtues. John Wayne put it simply: "Courage is being scared to death... and saddling up anyway."

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written by william manley, May 30, 2014
Excellent essay, Austin…perhaps your best. Speaking of courage, why do so many commenters on this site prefer to make their comments anonymously? What are they afraid of?
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written by Schm0e, May 30, 2014
Guy, you need to get over it.

As a Catholic in this era you should find plenty of opportunities for penance.
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written by Sherry, May 30, 2014
Thank you for this excellent essay. It is very timely as we are in a confusing and challenging time. I needed to hear this today.
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written by Jack,CT, May 30, 2014
Austin, I have a total change of heart in regards to
you and I felt present "At the game"!

This is Austin Ruse AT his Best-
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written by Ray, May 30, 2014
Thanks for your great insight on a difficult subject. Made me stop and examine my conscience on how I live my life in 2014 America. I've resolved to make some changes. You should feel blessed to have been given this gift of communicating your Faith! Appreciate your work.
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written by Tiffany Borges, May 30, 2014
Thank you.
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written by Chris in Maryland, May 30, 2014
Manfred - you are right about Pius X.

Catholic adults ought actually to read encyclicals, which works better than being on autopilot and listening to journalists, Catholic and otherwise.

My sense, given what I have perceived about our Bishops, clergy and faithful, is that many don't have any idea what Pius X or The Church meant by the "heresy of Modernism"...and that when they hear that there once was an oath against "Modernism" they just think it means the Church somehow was generally against modernity, as if to say: "What - there used to be an oath against telephones and jet planes? Sooo yesterday!"

I think that rhetorically - referring to these heresies as "modernism" is a poor choice of words...it fails to communicate...and steps on the message.
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written by grump, May 30, 2014
@William Manley. Grump is my real name. Just ask my grandkids.
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written by Tony, May 30, 2014
I don't have the book next to me, but I've just read Paul Elmer More's brave saying, that in these days (he was writing just before the first World War) if a young man is going to be courageous, he was going to have to be "reactionary." That's because the reactionary refuses to be taken along with the historical current. He stands for something. Every one of us who stands for something we believe is eternally and immutably true will have to be a reactionary with regard to all attempts to stifle or pervert or deny that truth.

True story: I have recently been accused, in the same paragraph, of being a "lemming" and of not being current with the movement of history. As Mr. Spock would say: astonishing.
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written by maria louise, May 30, 2014
Thank you Austin for your humility in writing this piece. Humility btw is not weakness but true strength. Same as 'turning the cheek and getting slapped ...' is strength.

I see the same cowardice in Canada. Men and women who 'know better' turn, run or walk away.

Yes it is shameful and like you we all need to ask why and what are we afraid of? However I think the true story is why don't we trust God? God is always with us. Man will betray us til death! and yes leave us to die.
Thankfully there are some brave men and women who won't buy into that 'killing thinking pattern'. I believe the devil himself, the mastermind and strategist of how to take people down .. does much in this area and especially with the young. Look out for a book coming out in August on the devil' strategy (7 steps)...-- author: Father Maurice Emelu host/producer at EWTN - wrote Word For A Wounded World.
His series on EWTN will premiere in september! Now here is a cure for many inner soul ailments.
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written by George Johnston, May 30, 2014
Austin, Thank you for this wonderful article. Courage to speak up and say what you believe is lacking in many of us. So many prefer to be politically correct because they lack courage and are weak in knowledge of their faith. Some people will refrain from speaking/ teaching the truth because it may hurt someone's feelings.
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written by Beth , May 30, 2014
Let's hear it for the thousands and thousands of Catholic couples who have pulled their kids out of Catholic schools and public schools taking the risk to do the job themselves. They get grief from their families, their parish priests and fellow parishioners, their local/state/federal school admins. Everyone they meet has a comment and mostly a doubt that the job of raising children can be done well by the parents without the state interference. That's courage today that will pay off big for all of us in the future!
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written by Layman Tom, May 30, 2014
Well Tony, Live Long and Prosper! Good piece Austin. Thanks. Hope everyone has a good weekend, faced courageously!

Peace- LT
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written by Jack,CT, May 30, 2014
@Manley, "what do we have to hide",please do
not detract from a great piece by
creating false paranoia it truly
is silly my friend-
Regards Jack (real name ask
my kids!
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written by Laura Sirilla, May 30, 2014
Thank you for writing this. God, send us courage.
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written by Anne, May 31, 2014
We receive no guidance from Sunday sermons about how to live our faith with courage in a indifferent and many times hostile environment. For example, I have never heard how to defend marriage at a secular gathering where the topic comes up. Are there any talking points? We go into battle totally unarmed. There is no direction. The most important thing the Church must do is arm our young people who face a mocking irreligious world. It is not happening.
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written by Michael Marsili, May 31, 2014
This article really touched a nerve with me. I have fought this inner battle most of my life and continue to do so. I am a deacon candidate just completing my first academic year. The hardest part of discerning this call was getting over my fear of possible embarrassment in class, never having been to college. Then, if am eventually ordained, what if I say something stupid during a homily. The devil loves to put fear between us and whatever God is wanting for us. I have found that I don't struggle any harder than anyone else in class and that saying something stupid is something not limited to me or any of the students for that matter, we have had professors with foot in mouth problems. I don't know how this will end but I know that I would have been miserable had I not set out on this journey. Thank you for this article.
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written by Thomas, May 31, 2014
Nice article, Austin. Did you try wrestling in high school? If you did that, YOU would have jumped into the freezing river!!!
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written by littleeif, June 01, 2014
I would contribute something that I hoped to read in your article and didn't...in law enforcement I have worked with men who will risk their lives to save another's, but in a matter of internal or political dispute will stand silently by and allow another to suffer an injustice rather than speak up on his behalf and risk a political problem. The Church, too, I believe suffers terribly from this form of cowardice, where we are just too afraid of the consequences to defend the reputation or actions of another where speaking up draws us into conflict with another churchman or with someone powerful. This is the true front line of courage, where we fail grievously and often, at a terrible cost to others, and where Our Lord displayed his greatest strength.

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