In Praise of Courage

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 Center for Family & Human Rights (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.