The Virtue of Courage

Bill & Lois - Courage

When we say the Serenity Prayer at the end of every meeting, we ask for the courage to change the things we can. We pray for courage because change is hard. It holds the possibility of failure and of loss. We fear it, and we avoid it. Yet we live in time, and so change is inevitable. Hence the need for courage.

Courage is the natural antidote to fear. It is the virtue which enables us to face difficulties well in the pursuit or preservation of the good. Such difficulties constitute perceived threats to the things that we care about, arousing what the 12&12 describes as our fear of losing or failing to get them (S7, p. 76). The threat may be of physical injury or the loss of life. Meeting such a threat calls for physical courage. Or the threat may involve other adverse circumstances: challenges, obstacles, opposition, risks, hardships, pain, suffering. Acting in the face of these requires a different kind of courage. This is moral courage.

Ours is a program of change. Because they involve change, all of our 12 Steps involve difficulty. Indeed, they involve changing what is arguably the hardest to change: ourselves. They all thus call for courage, and specifically for moral courage, for changing who we are and the way we live. But because of the effort they call for and the challenges they present, perhaps none require more of this sort of courage than Steps 4, 5, 9, and 10.

That working Step 4 requires moral courage is explicit in its very wording. It calls for a fearless, moral inventory. Looking at our whole life and examining what is wrong with us, the wrongs we have done, and the people we have injured, is certainly no easy task. It presents us with a number of practical, emotional, and psychological challenges. It can be scary, daunting, and overwhelming. If nothing else, we fear the hard work that it requires. Some of us avoid it for years. Some of us do it half-heartedly and superficially, sidestepping the “searching” and the “moral” part.

Avoidance, both of the procrastinating and of the circumventing kind, is behavior defining of fear. It easily leads to dishonesty, one of the many character defects of which the 12&12 tells us fear is “the chief activator” (S7, p. 76). Dishonesty, we often emphasize, is the biggest obstacle to taking inventory. But the dishonesty is often rooted in fear. We “dare not look” (S4, p. 49), afraid of what we might find, afraid to know the truth about ourselves.

The fear may spill over into Step 5, so that we are not totally honest with the person who hears our admission of wrongs in that Step. It may carry into Step 9, so that we dread going back and facing those we’ve hurt. Deceiving ourselves with all kinds of rationales, we put off making prompt or direct amends to all of them; nor are we fully honest with those we do. If fear has marred these Steps, it will continue to mar our work with Step 10, which is their extension into our daily lives. It will continue to mar our recovery, which is an ongoing process of change and of growth.

Courage, we have said, is the antidote to fear. It is not its absence. Courage presupposes the presence of fear. If there’s nothing to fear there is nothing to be courageous about. Though courage opposes fear, therefore it is not its opposite. It is its corrective. The opposite of courage is cowardice and rashness. In cowardice, we fear too much; in rashness, not enough. Both result from a wrong construal of the danger or difficulty and the goods that are at stake.

Courage requires a right perception of these. In moral courage, we surmount a rightly perceived difficulty and do the morally right thing in spite of it. In cowardice, by contrast, we do not surmount the difficulty. Instead, it scares us away from morally right or into morally wrong conduct. In rashness, we do overcome the difficulty and take action, but our action is typically hasty, ill-considered, or excessive. We act without due regard to the risks, thus endangering the moral good.

Moral courage, then, requires right moral perception, motivation, and action. The fact that we may overcome a difficulty and act in spite of our fear does not necessarily make our action morally courageous. People overcome fear and take all sorts of risks for all sorts of reasons, including anger, pride, envy, greed, lust, and other selfish and self-centered motives. Most of us did when we drank, as a truly fearless and moral inventory will show. Alcohol numbed our fear and gave us the false courage we needed. 

In AA, the moral is grounded in the spiritual. A right understanding of the moral dimensions of courage is anchored in a spiritual understanding of this character trait. This is what distinguishes the view of courage we find in the program from the secular view we find in the culture at large, where, it ought to be noted, courage is very popular. All sorts of people are held up daily as exemplars of this virtue, secularly conceived.

The secular view of courage stresses the overcoming of odds. To be brave is to be daring, to act boldly notwithstanding the obstacles or opposition. It stresses in particular the overcoming of odds that stand in the way of self-fulfillment. Doing what will make us happy—whatever that is—becomes the highest good. On this view, there’s no greater courage than the courage to be “yourself.” This makes courage a matter of self-will, a function of the will in the service of the self. Its underlying attitude is often one of defiance. It tends to court, if not the rash, the brash, and sometimes even the brazen.

The courage we seek to practice through the Steps is a different sort of courage. It is neither self-willed nor self-serving. When we pray for courage in the Serenity Prayer, we are recognizing in God its spiritual source and nature. When we pray for courage to change the things we can, we do so in a specifically spiritual context: in the context of our decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of God in Step 3, where the Prayer first appears. What we are praying for is the courage to carry out that decision, whatever the circumstances—in all our affairs. 

Carrying it out begins with the next Step. God’s will for us begins with Step 4. A fearless moral inventory is the start of our practice of moral courage. It continues with Steps 5 and 9, and becomes a part of our daily life with Step 10. Together these Steps are the program’s training ground in courage, a courage born of faith.

The courage we ask for, and the courage we practice, is the courage to live the way God wants us to live and become the person he wants us to be. To the extent that his will becomes our will and highest good, and to the extent that we rely on the power of his grace to carry it out, to that extent courage becomes a spiritual virtue, founded entirely on the grace of God.  

[Image: Bill and Lois on their Harley-Davidson in the 1920’s. For Lois's autobiography, see Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the Co-Founder of Al-Anon and Wife of the Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.]

Bill W."When fear persisted, we knew it for what it was, and we became able to handle it. We began to see each adversity as a God-given opportunity to develop the kind of courage which is born of humility, rather than of bravado." – Bill W., As Bill Sees It    

Big Book
"The wisdom of the ages is that faith means courage. All men of faith have courage. They trust their God." – Big Book   

"Good judgment, a careful sense of timing, courage, and prudence—these are the qualities we shall need when we take Step Nine." – 12&12   

Life Recovery Bible"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." – Deuteronomy 31:6-8
“Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord." – Psalm 31:24  

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." – Lao Tzu  

"The secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage." – Thucydides  

"Courage is knowing what not to fear." – Plato

Aristotle "Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it; men come to be builders by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just; by doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled; and by doing brave acts, we become brave." – Aristotle   

"Courage stands halfway between cowardice and rashness." – Plutarch   

"The burden which is well borne becomes light." – Ovid   

"No one can be brave who considers pain to be the greatest evil in life, or temperate who considers pleasure to be the highest good." – Cicero   

"He who is brave is free." – Seneca   

"Fortitude is love bearing all things for the sake of the beloved." – St. Augustine   

St. Ambrose
"Fortitude without justice is a lever of evil." – St. Ambrose    

Miguel de Cervantes"That valor which has not prudence for its guide falls under the name of rashness; and the rash man’s successful actions are rather owing to his good fortune than to his bravery." – Miguel de Cervantes   

St. Theresa of Ávila
"An imperfect human being needs more fortitude to pursue the way of perfection than suddenly to become a martyr." – St. Theresa of Ávila    

Samuel Johnson
"Bravery has no place where it can avail nothing." – Samuel Johnson   

Baltasar Gracián
"Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit." – Baltasar Gracián   

St. Francis de Sales
"Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections." – St. Francis de Sales  

Benjamin Franklin
"How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them." – Benjamin Franklin  

Mark Twain
"It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare." – Mark Twain   

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before." – Ralph Waldo Emerson   

Herman Melville
"Familiarity with danger makes a man brave, but less daring." – Herman Melville 

Napoléon Bonaparte
"Courage isn't having the strength to go on, it is going on when you don't have strength." – Napoléon Bonaparte  

Joseph Conrad
"Facing it, always facing it, that's the way to get through. Face it." – Joseph Conrad   

Nelson Mandela"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
– Nelson Mandela   

Ann Landers"Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it." – Ann Landers   

J. R. R. Tolkien
"It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit." – J. R. R. Tolkien   

Anne Morrow Lindbergh
"It takes as much courage to have tried and failed as it does to have tried and succeeded." – Anne Morrow Lindbergh    

T. S. Eliot
"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." – T. S. Eliot  

C. S. Lewis
"Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point." – C. S. Lewis  

Dale Carnegie"Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy."
– Dale Carnegie   

Amelia Earhart
"Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace." – Amelia Earhart   

G.K. Chesterton
"The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." – G. K. Chesterton  

Karl Barth
"Courage is fear that has said its prayers." – Karl Barth   

Anaïs Nin
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." – Anaïs Nin  

Emma Donoghue
"Scared is what you’re feeling; brave is what you’re doing." – Emma Donoghue   

John Irving
"If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it." – John Irving   

Winston Churchill
"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."  – Winston Churchill  

Josef Pieper"Fortitude presupposes in a certain sense that man is afraid of evil; its essence lies not in knowing no fear, but in not allowing oneself to be forced into evil by fear, or to be kept by fear from the realization of the good." – Josef Pieper   

George R. R. Martin
"Bran thought about it. ’Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?' 'That is the only time a man can be brave,' his father told him." – George R. R. Martin   

Lee Jampolsky"At least three times every day take a moment and ask yourself what is really important. Have the wisdom and the courage to build your life around your answer." – Lee Jampolsky   

Chris Bradford"Each mistake teaches you something new about yourself. There is no failure, remember, except in no longer trying. It is the courage to continue that counts."
– Chris Bradford 

Ruth Gordon
"Courage is very important. Like a muscle, it is strengthened by use." – Ruth Gordon  

Erica Jong
"Everyone has talent. What's rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads." – Erica Jong   

Montague Brown"The courageous person knows the seriousness of the danger than threatens and the importance of the good to be protected. Knowing these two things, the courageous person freely chooses to risk personal well-being for the good at stake." – Montague Brown    

André Comte-Sponville
"Without courage, we cannot hold out against the worst in ourselves or others." – André Comte-Sponville   

William C. Mattison"Fortitude is most basically defined as the virtue that enables one to face obstacles or difficulties well. The brave person is not swayed by trials and tribulations from her pursuit or grasp of goodness." – William C. Mattison III 

Mary Anne Radmacher
"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow." – Mary Anne Radmacher   

Courage to Change"The courage to change the things we can is found in our continuously-developing relationship  with a Power greater than ourselves." – Al-Anon's Courage to Change   

PTP123"Accepting what cannot be changed can involve its own characteristic kind of courage, especially when we are facing great adversity, such as suffering through a serious illness or loss. This is a quiet kind of courage, less dramatic, less episodic, more enduring." – PTP123   

PTP4"The courageous person feels fear as the situation demands, but not in ways that preclude morally right action. A person may properly experience apprehension before the prospect of making amends for very serious harm but still go ahead and make the amends." – PTP4 

Practice These: Courage - Franklin D. Roosevelt
Practice These: Courage - Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung

For more PTP123 passages on courage, see “The Serenity Prayer,” pp. 192–202. For PTP4, see pp. 232, 264, 378, 383, 384, 397, 404, 407; "Courage," pp. 172–173; "When Courage Is Not Courage," 389–390; as intellectual virtue, 380. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search under courage. See also entries under courage in As Bill Sees It. On this site, see Emotional Sobriety: Fear,  and The Virtue of Perseverance.  

Additional Resources

  1. Meditations for 03/17, 09/20, and 10/30 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Mediations for Recovering Addicts
  2. Meditations for 04/28 and 06/23 in Al-Anon’s Courage to Change
  3. “Courage,” chapter by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, editors 
  4. “Acting Rightly in the Face of Danger,” chapter in How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James S. Spiegel 
  5. “The Virtue of Fortitude and the Unity of the Virtues,” chapter in Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, by William C. Mattison III 
  6. For two secular accounts of virtue, see “Courage,” chapter in A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, by André Comte-Sponville, and “Strengths of Courage,” chapter in Character Strengths and Virtue: A Handbook and Classification, by Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P.  Seligman 

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