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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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Stand up for what is right

Brave people are often those who take a moral stand and have a clear sense of purpose.

Environmental activist S Mugilan, like others we interviewed, ignores death threats to confront powerful business interests and their hired thugs who are 'swindling and destroying' the state of Tamil Nadu. He puts his courage down to being 'the kind of person who is determined to change how things work'.

'A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer'

Today, some of the bravest people in the world are defenders of human rights. 'Human rights activists in Saudi Arabia are an endangered species,' said Amnesty International's Lynn Maalouf recently. 'One by one they are vanishing -- prosecuted, jailed, intimidated into silence or forced into exile -- highlighting the authorities' zero-tolerance approach to freedom of expression.'

Whistleblowers, too, pay heavily for their efforts. Often they lose not only their jobs, but their friends, relationships, homes and liberty. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and, more recently, Barrett Brown, have felt the weight of US government retribution for their exposures of abuses the state wishes to conceal. 6

In all these cases, solidarity, the existence of people out there who support the whistleblower's actions, is vital.

Persistence in adversity

'A hero is no braver than an ordinary man,' wrote poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'but he is braver five minutes longer.'

Staying power in the heat of adversity is a frequent characteristic of the valiant engaged in long-term struggles for social justice.

Take Turkish lawyer and former newspaper editor Eren Keskin, hauled before the courts more than 100 times for her criticisms of the government, particularly its treatment of the Kurdish minority. Over the years she has been given several prison sentences. Following the failed military coup in Turkey in July 2016, her passport was revoked. Erin was to have been interviewed for this edition, but she is once again in court.

As artist and writer Mary Anne Radmacher puts it: 'Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is like the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.'

Expanding horizons

In his seminal study The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell identified key ingredients of the archetypal hero's journey.

She or he leaves their familiar surroundings and passes into a special world where they must confront demons, face challenges and ordeals, and encounter their worst fears. They need to conquer their fear and will ultimately claim 'treasure' or reward. Then they return home to their familiar world, but they themselves will have changed.

The people we are featuring in this magazine have, in various ways, left their familiar surroundings, journeyed, and grown. For Angolan rapper Luaty Beirão, the journey has been literal, political, personal. While in prison for speaking out against a repressive government, he became stronger. He thought: 'I won't accept your threats. If you want to kill me, do it. With each step I found I could take one step further. I found out I had the guts for things I hadn't imagined before.'

For all the physical privations the brave people in these pages have suffered, their actions have enabled them to overcome fear, to grow, and in a moral sense claim the 'treasure'.

Ultimate courage

Finally, there is what some people call 'spiritual' courage. This includes the bravery we may show when we endure suffering -- and ultimately, face death. Deep down it's the thing most of us fear most. I have witnessed people I love dig deep into their reserves of courage as they experience terminal illness. I have seen how their courage encourages those around them to be brave too. Courage does that. It encourages; it is positively infectious, even in the worst, most hopeless seeming of situations.

Good courage, bad courage?

While scientific studies of courage are intriguing -- one Israeli study puts the subject into an MRI tunnel, then exposes them to snakes! -- they have some worrying implications.

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