Training Courage

November 7, 2019


Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.

- Mark Twain


In his book On Combat, Lt Col Dave Grossman tells the story two soldiers manning a machine-gun during a firefight. One man is firing while the other spots in a different direction.


Suddenly, the man behind the gun is hit, shot straight in the head.


He is dead.


But before his body stops moving, he rolls over and taps his buddy on the shoulder.


"Take over."


And then he was gone.


The soldier did not perform this real-life changing of the guard with his final breath, like some drawn-out death soliloquy in a romantic tragedy. He was already dead. He died the moment the bullet passed through his skull. But somehow, he still acted, still did his part to help his team complete the mission.


How did he do this?


The answer is surprisingly simple: it was what he had trained to do.


When his brain shut down, his body naturally reverted to its instincts. For most of us, these instincts are drawn from the autonomic nervous system. But it is possible to override these natural instincts. With enough repetition, you can program your body to respond to certain stimuli with your own choice of reaction.


This is the main principle of all martial arts: override the flinch and program the block and the counter-attack.


The experienced martial artist doesn't think through his actions during the fight. All of his thinking about how he would react was done long ago, in the process of training. He just reacts. He sees a strike coming, and his arms do -- seemingly of their own volition -- what he has taught them to do in response to such a circumstance through thousands of repetitions.


Thousands of repetitions are not always necessary. Sometimes, simply going through the scenario once, with enough emotional power, is sufficient. Comedian Bert Kreischer describes his own experience with this kind of advanced decision-making:


"I'm a good person. I don't cheat on my wife. I don't cheat on my wife because one morning, our whole family was in bed -- the dogs, the cats, the girls, my wife -- and we were just giggling and it was pure. It was perfect. And I thought to myself 'I don't ever want to screw this up. This is the most important thing. This is what life's about.' And they got up to make chocolate chip pancakes, and I laid in bed and I said 'I will never cheat on my wife.' I had a conversation with myself, I said 'if I ever get into a situation where a hot girl is flirting with me, or I think she's flirting with me, and it seems like it could go further, I'm just going to cock-block myself. I'm just gonna look her in the face, in front of everyone, and go 'I DON'T CHEAT ON MY WIFE!'"


Bert "the Machine" Kreischer explains this heartwarming little story in the midst of a longer tale about his time with the Russian mafia, with whom he robs a train. He had never intended to rob a train. He thought it was morally wrong to rob trains. But he did it anyways -- in short, he was in that instance a coward -- because he had not had that conversation with himself where he says "I DON'T ROB TRAINS!"


And even if he had had that conversation, he still may have given in. Fear of the mobsters may have overridden his single conversation, because his conviction was in his head alone, and not in his body.


Fear paralyzes us. It freezes our higher cognition and reverts us to a more primitive, reactive form.


It may be difficult to think of the actions of a dead man as being "courageous" because we tend to associate courage with hard deliberation and making a good but risky choice in the face of danger. But just because a choice was not made in the moment does not mean that a choice was not made. Think of Bert Kreischer deciding in advance never to cheat on his wife. Think of the soldier performing countless repetitions of changing over the gun.


Both of these are choices. And both of these choices dig away all of the covering soil, and expose the taproot of courage.


Courage is not a particular state of mind. Courage is action performed in spite of fear.


Fear is physiological. It affects our body. It makes the hands shake and vision dim. It cuts off our thinking brain. Those who believe that they can rely upon willpower alone to overcome the paralysis of fear have probably never experienced true fear.


Sufficient fear can mentally incapacitate a man as thoroughly as a bullet through the brain.


But what can overcome that physiological fear is a pre-programmed body. We can make decisions in advance about what we would do -- what we would want to do -- in a given situation, and then we can practice doing them.


Perhaps you want to be the sort of person who calls 911 when we see someone having a heart-attack.


Perhaps you want to ask a pretty girl out.


Perhaps you want to fight back if someone attacks you.


Perhaps you want to stand and die, rather than run and live, if a wild animal comes after you and your child, and one of you isn't going to make it home.


The possible contexts for courage are endless, and which situations any individual might face will vary. But the variety is no excuse not to train for some of the more important ones. Some of this training can be done with the body, such as physical combat. Some of this training can only be done with the mind, through visualization, but this can still be done repeatedly.


In the end, courage is not trained by exercising a particular mental "courage muscle." Courage is trained by practicing particular actions so that we can perform those actions even when we are afraid.


It is for this reason that the central virtues of the Cascade Legion are Strength, Order, and Discipline, rather than Strength, Order, and Courage. It's nice to be courageous, but there's no way to improve one's courage just by looking at the word. Courage is the result of disciplined repetition.


All of the courage in the world would be meaningless without the strength to act effectively, and such courageous strength might be evil if directed towards chaos, rather than order. But all of it requires courage, and in the end, the only way to train courage is with discipline.

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