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.