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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/24/17

This is what it takes to stand up: the essence of courage

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You have to pluck up your courage to express ideas that are not majority opinion, or to face the hostility or ridicule that may accompany departing from social norms.

Brave is not fearless: the science

Often we call brave people 'fearless'. But courage isn't fearlessness. As Nelson Mandela recalled: 'I learned that" the brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.'

If there is no fear to start with, there is no need for courage.

Admitting we are afraid can make us feel small. But often the first step towards being brave is to feel fear -- then do the thing we are afraid of anyway, to paraphrase Sheila Jeffers' self-help classic. 2

Even those who feel no fear at the time of performing heroic deeds may find that the trauma catches up with them later -- as was the case for Loyau Kennett, who became depressed in the months following the event.

In praising fearlessness we may be making a virtue of deficiency. There is, indeed, a rare medical condition called Urbach Wiethe disease that damages the amygdala -- the part of the brain that processes fear -- and may result in total fearlessness.

'In biological terms,' says science author Jeff Wise, 'bravery emerges from a primal struggle between the brain's decision-making hub, the prefrontal cortex, and the focal point of fear: the amygdala. When we find ourselves in an unexpected and dangerous situation, the amygdala sends a signal to the prefrontal cortex that interferes with our ability to reason clearly.' 3

It can be paralysing.

People who act bravely appear not to succumb to fear. Sometimes their calm, practical responses derive from intense preparation. Firefighters, airline staff, paramedics, soldiers and the like, will have been trained for dangerous, unexpected situations. Their responses may be like 'muscle memory'.

In one 2009 study, Yale University psychiatrist Deane Aikins subjected soldiers to extremely stressful situations to see what happened to their body chemistry. He found those who remained calm produced less of the 'stress' hormone cortisol. They also made more neuropeptide Y, a compound that counteracts the effects of cortisol. His work suggests that by measuring hormone levels it is possible to predict who will keep their cool under pressure -- and who won't. 4 More recently, neuroscientists have identified a brain region called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC for short) as the part activated during courageous acts. 5

Passion and compassion

But for many analysts, the cultivation of courage has more to do with emotions. 'Follow your heart' is how psychotherapist Melanie Greenberg puts it in her useful analysis of the six main attributes of courage, which provides the framework for this article. She quotes the pioneering, 20th century Japanese actor, Midori Komatsu: 'Passion is what drives us crazy, what makes us do extraordinary things, to discover, to challenge ourselves. Passion should always be the heart of courage.'

And so should compassion.

In this magazine we feature half a dozen exceptionally brave people and their accounts are dominated by compassion, as well as passion.

Tatiana Vivienne braves daily violence in the Central African Republic to reach the most vulnerable girls and women; Alicia Cawiya, in Ecuador, defies authority at every level to defend her people and their environment from ruin by oil companies; Jlo Córdoba in Honduras, despite numerous attempts on her life, keeps challenging impunity for those who murder and abuse transgender people, because she 'loves' her community.

As the 6th century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu says, being loved gives you strength, but loving deeply makes you brave. He also says: 'From caring comes courage.'

It's a view that might be shared by Abdullah Al Khateeb, also featured in this edition, who will not be deterred from his humanitarian work with refugees though it has turned him into a target for both sides in the Syrian conflict. 'When you care about people, your responsibility is total,' he says.

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