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Why we need to be more courageous - and teach 'courage' to students

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The paralysis of fear that we call cowardice can corrupt every arena: not daring a shot at goal, to challenge the crowd or stretch towards some new skill. And yet "courage" is something that we never try and teach, to ourselves or to students in schools.

Partly, this is because when we recoil from the discomfort of doing what needs to be done we find a dozen clever arguments to rationalise our retreat: we weren’t being chicken, we tell ourselves, we were being sensible, sociable, patient.

Appearances can be deceptive, too. Only we know if we had to strive in clenched defiance of our tortuous forebodings.

So it is easy to pretend we don’t have a problem with courage. And it is easier to avoid acknowledging that such a skill needs to be taught.

But the ability to nurture courage in ourselves and others could be game-changing. Considering its role, it’s shocking that a thorough exploration of the subject, appreciating its potential and knowing how to nurture it, is not a specified part of the curriculum. We spend billions researching cancer, but nothing on cowardice.  

Can you teach courage? 

There are some things we do know. In The Anatomy of Courage, Lord Moran MC, who served as a medical captain in The Great War, describes observing first-hand how bravery behaves much like a muscle: it can be developed and trained so as not to be reckless, but if over-strained, it can collapse without warning.

We should also know that though we might find ways to neutralise the pain of our dreadful fear, by consuming something anaesthetising, fear is emotional energy and if we defuse it, we risk losing the drive and edge so vital to high performance. Fear, when well balanced with bravery, forms a compound that can make for something quite outstanding.

It is unlikely a “courage curriculum” will be developed any time soon, so what can we do in the meantime? It’s worth pondering the daily opportunities to exercise some small-scale pluck that might eventually mature into "valour under fire"; and the more we challenge our feebler inclinations, the greater our capacity to do so. And encourage young people to do so, too.

We should shake ourselves up: daring to ask for help, put right our mistake, befriend a stranger. Lead by example. Have the courage to be courageous.  

Dr Nick Baylis is a chartered psychologist and senior associate of the Royal Society of Medicine. Dr Peter Orton is the UK’s leading medical examiner for international airline pilots, advising them on the physical methods for dealing with their high-stress lives. 

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