The Habit of Courage

Fall Books PreviewI’m currently reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s most recent book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism and it’s fantastic so far. I read her Team of Rivals a few years back and I still contend that it’s one of the best books on leadership I’ve ever read. I’m only a few chapters in, but Goodwin has already intrigued me with her perspective on the importance of the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft. I’m really looking forward to this read.

Goodwin recounts the early years of both men: Taft’s upbringing as the son of a prominent attorney in Cincinnati and Roosevelt’s sickly childhood in Manhattan. Asthma and stomach problems forced Roosevelt (or “Teedie” as he was called) to frequent periods of bed rest as a child. Fearing that his son was becoming too frail and timid, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., according to legend, pulled his young son aside and said, “Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.” Young Teedie is purported to have responded with typically steely Roosevelt determination: “I’ll make my body.

Cue the Rocky Balboa workout montage.

Goodwin reports another anecdote along these same lines. As a young man, Roosevelt embarked on a stagecoach ride to Maine and was beleaguered by two older boys for the duration of the trip. When he made an attempt to fight back, Roosevelt came to the hapless conclusion that he was powerless to fend off even one of his attackers, much less both of them. Never again, Teddy vowed, prompting a workout regimen that forged the vibrant, lively, fearless version of Roosevelt that abides in our collective consciousness to this day.

Goodwin records Roosevelt’s own words on his character formation: “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.” In modern parlance, fake it till you make it. Goodwin continues:

As a childhood friend observed, “by constantly forcing himself to do the difficult or even dangerous thing,” he was able to cultivate courage as “a matter of habit, in the sense of repeated effort and repeated exercise of will-power.”

I find that remark fascinating. For most of my life, I’ve considered courage to be a character trait — something you possess. Moreover, I’ve always considered courage to be something that only some people possess. Courageous people to courageous things because of their innate courage. Right?

But these comments from and about Roosevelt challenge that view. For Roosevelt, courage was a choice, something he regularly put into practice even when he didn’t feel it viscerally. The picture of Roosevelt in our mind’s eye — the Colonel, the Rough Rider, the picture of masculinity and fearlessness — was product of countless choices, choosing to be courageous, choosing to do the difficult thing, even in the face of great odds. If courage truly is a choice, then it dispels our notion of innate heroism possessed by only a select few. If courage is a choice, then it stands as a viable option for you and me.

Or to put it another way, per the comments about Roosevelt, courage is a habit, something to be cultivated through repeated effort. I like this way of thinking about courage, too, for there is much here for our consumption. If courage is a choice, then it can also become a habit, a default posture for us when facing adversity. If habits are developed practices, then in order to develop courage I need to repeatedly force myself outside of my comfort zone. This means we’ve had it backward all along. You don’t take risks because you’re courageous; you’re courageous because you take risks.

This illuminates the biblical mandate for God’s people to be strong and courageous, free from fear and alive by the promise of God’s presence (Joshua 1). Joshua repeatedly hears this command from the LORD throughout his career as he leads Israel to inhabit the Promised Land. But I think I understand more clearly the intention of these words: as a summons for God’s people to choose faithful courage over the temptation of fearful rationalization; and as a deepening cultivation of valor as formative habit in the life of faith.

Make courage a habit.

Take risks.

Choose courage over fear.

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