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The True Meaning Behind Bravery and Courage

Marta Wójtowicz, Durham University

‘You are so brave to have moved to study in a foreign country!’ I am sure that any international student has come across these words at least once. Generally, people believe that leaving your home country opens up new opportunities and can become an adventure of your lifetime. Is it scary? Yes. Do you have to be brave to say goodbye to familiar places and faces and embark on a journey of living abroad? Not necessarily.


I have never considered myself brave. I always get very nervous when having to deliver a public speech, I dread every phone call I have to make, and when there is no way for me to avoid it, I rehearse what I am going to say at least three times. I never start conversations with strangers, even if for a reason as simple as asking for directions (that is what I have Google Maps for) and my heart starts beating faster whenever I order something at a bar or in a restaurant. It often comes as a surprise to my acquaintances and even friends that there is so much anxiety within me. But does fear exclude bravery? And is bravery synonymous with courage?


The etymology of Bravery and Courage

The word ‘bravery’ comes from French bravarie – ‘defiance, daring, boasting’. The Middle French word brave meant ‘valiant, splendid’ borrowed from Italian bravo – ‘brave, bold’ (although originally – ‘wild, savage’). Another word closely tied with the word ‘brave’ is ‘bravado’ of the same etymology. Bravade in French, as well as bravata in Italian, both translate to ‘boasting, bragging.’ The word ‘courage,’ on the other hand, comes from Old French corage meaning ‘temper, heart, innermost feelings,’ from Latin cor for ‘heart.’ As such, bravery is a close sister of bravado – an ostentatious, put-on-a-show display of one’s heroism. Courage, on the other hand, traces its roots to one’s heart. Bravery could be a result of someone’s need for external validation, whereas courage is evoked by an internal feeling. While bravery signifies fearlessness in a situation typically evoking panic or unease (a brave individual is, after all, bold and valiant in their actions), someone who is courageous acknowledges their fear and overcomes it. As Mark Twain said, ‘Courage is to resist fear, mastery of fear – not the absence of fear.’


Virtuous courage

Virtually all children’s storybooks are filled with courageous characters giving examples of how to behave. Plato devoted some of his early writings to the matter of courage. Thomas Aquinas also pondered upon courage, referring to it as ‘fortitude’ and equating it with endurance. In Roman Catholicism courage is one of the four cardinal virtues. Both in Catholicism and Anglicanism, courage is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. All of this shows that the importance of courage is undeniable. C.S. Lewis went as far as to say that courage is ‘not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.’ No wonder we praise it so much. However, because we honour those who are courageous, we ought to understand what true courage means as well.


While one can be born brave and bravery may be considered a personality trait, courage should not be understood in the same way. To be courageous is to deliberately choose to face and endure fear and physical or emotional pain, such as humiliation, ostracism or failure. You are not born brave, but you have to find the courage within you and demonstrate that you believe there are things far more significant and more important than your fear. That is why courage, not bravery, is deemed to be a virtue.


‘Be Brave!’ ‘Be courageous!’

Fear is a natural part of human existence. The denial of fear does not make you brave since a truly courageous person is fearless (which can be somewhat foolish at times). It does not make you courageous either, for such a person accepts fear and conquers it. People would have never achieved anything had they let fear rule over them. You cannot live an adventurous and meaningful life if you do not learn to overcome fear. To quote Anaïs Nin, ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.’


So was I brave to have moved to study in a foreign country? And am I brave in general? No, I am not. But I have learnt how to be courageous. And that is far more admirable than being brave. 

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