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

What makes people brave? Vanessa Baird takes a look at an under-examined quality that can change the world.

Sometimes the unarmed, but brave, have the greater power. This protester is confronting Louisiana police after the killing by police of yet another African-American youth. © Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Who doesn’t love a tale of courage?

They pop up in all cultures, traditions and eras. From shepherd-boy David facing giant Goliath, to Gilgamesh defeating the monster Humbaba, to Harry Potter and friends confronting deadly Lord Voldemort.

There’s something exhilarating about individuals, pitted against the odds, rising above fear and narrow concerns about self-preservation.

And when real life provides examples of valour, our faith in human nature, in the possibility of virtue, is enhanced.

Take the passengers who in 2015 tackled and disarmed an AK47-wielding terrorist on a French train, saving who knows how many lives.

Or an ordinary – and extraordinary – woman called Ingrid Loyau Kennett, who in May 2013 was travelling on the number 53 bus when she spotted a young soldier, Lee Rigby, being knocked down and brutally hacked to death on a London street.

Ingrid leapt off the bus and tried to save Rigby’s life – in vain; his head had been almost severed. Then she went right up to his two assailants (armed with machete, meat cleaver and pistol) and talked to them – for 12 long minutes – until help arrived.

Her aim, she later said, was to keep them occupied so that they would not go on to attack more people, including women and children who had gathered nearby. When help arrived, she got back on a bus and continued her journey. In interviews later, she said she did not see her actions as heroic – she was just doing her job ‘as a human being’.

So what is courage?

To Aristotle it was a virtue, the greatest quality of the mind. For Richard Avramenko, who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin, courage is the primary means by which humans raise themselves out of their individualistic, isolated and materialistic existence.

He writes: ‘Courage... is the willingness to risk life and limb for the sake of something. In other words, courage reveals what we care about... It reveals that which inspires us to overcome ourselves. And it is the self-overcoming character of courage that makes it so poignant. When we are witness to real acts of courage, we know immediately what matters most fundamentally to the courageous actor – and it is not herself, not her own physical well-being.’ 1

In praising fearlessness we may be making a virtue of deficiency

Physical bravery attracts most attention, winning honours and awards. But courage takes many forms – moral, intellectual, emotional, psychological, political, social, spiritual, financial...

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.

Ingrid Loyau Kennett talkes to Lee Rigby's killer, still holding bloody knife, to try to prevent him from attacking other people.


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.

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.’

Illustration by Donaugh O'Malley

Donaugh O'Malley

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.

It would be deeply troubling – if not plain immoral – if such research led to the development of a ‘courage pill’ that could turn soldiers into ‘perfect’, fearless fighters.

Fear can stop us taking necessary action. But it can also give us pause for thought. The trick is not to let it take hold, and to be able to transcend it when we need to. ‘There’s only one way with fear and that’s through it,’ says psychologist Noam Shpancer. It’s an ongoing, dynamic process, that will never be completed and that is essential for making change happen, in the individual and in the world.

Of course, bravery does not always involve virtuous action. It can be violent, militaristic, macho, tribal. ‘This is the paradox of courage,’ according to Avramenko. ‘On the one hand, it is about self-overcoming and commitment to others. On the other hand... it is exclusionary and violent.’

He sees the shift away from an ancient, martial conception of courage to one that is political and justice-based as a way through this theoretical conundrum. The kind of courage we are focusing on in this edition is the justice-based variety. It is empathetic and community minded, geared towards resisting and limiting harm.

One common theme in all the stories is caring, and the comradeship that courage fosters as it creates a virtuous circle of valour. Many of our interviewees point to the work of others, and the sacrifices they have made, as sources of inspiration.

Such courage is the lifeblood of a healthy individual and a healthy society. It’s what makes for meaningful, purposeful change, challenging the cynicism of that slick, fashionable, armchair elision of the word ‘brave’ with ‘stupid’.

It inspires and impels the human spirit towards building a better world.

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  1. Richard Avramenko, Courage: the Politics of Life and Limb, University of Notre Dame Press, 2011,
  2. Sheila Jeffers, Feel the fear and do it anyway, Vermilion, 2012 (first published in 1987).
  3. Jeff Wise, ‘What makes people brave’, Readers Digest, 2013,
  4. Ian Sample, ‘Natural born heroes’, The Guardian, 2009,
  5. Daniela Schiller, ‘Snakes in the MRI Machine’, Scientific American, 2010
  6. The Courage Foundation