Nelson Mandela once said 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 confronts that fear.” To speak out against the oppressive Apartheid system and stand up for what he believed in, he spent 27 years in prison, then participated in creating a better nation for himself and his people after all he had been through. I think it is safe to say that Nelson Mandela was a man of great courage. Yet, I think it is easy to romanticize the story and forget that Mandela lived his life day by day and decision by decision, just like we do. Yes, those big things like the non-violent protests and anti Apartheid campaigns take courage, but it also takes courage to simply wake up and be ushered to breakfast… on the 856th day of a life imprisonment sentence.
Courage is connected with taking risks. Jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorbike, going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, or crossing the ocean in a rowboat- these are called courageous acts because people risk their lives by doing these things. But none of these daredevil acts capture what courage actually is. Because courage can also be picking up the phone and calling someone to share some bad news, allowing yourself to be seen eating alone in a public place, or getting out of bed and going to a job you are not happy with knowing it is only Tuesday morning. Don’t be mislead, these things take courage to do, as well.
In his writings, author Henri Nouwen says that the word courage comes from the Latin word cor, which means “heart”. So, a courageous act is an act coming from the heart. A courageous word is a word arising from the heart. The heart, however, is not just the place where our emotions are located. The heart is the center of our being, the center of all thoughts, feelings, passions, and decisions. And the heart is the place within us where God dwells. Courage is both an universal trait of all humanity, as well, as something that is unique to each and every one of us. You have to listen to your heart- listen to that place within you and above you where God dwells.
Courage is speaking and acting from that place within you where God dwells, not from that place of self rejection, or guilt, or fear, or anger, or jealousy. Speak and act from the place within you that knows what is the right thing to do, that accepts and loves you for who you truly are, that place where grace and hope live.
Courage is connected with taking risks, but daredevil acts do not capture what courage actually is. Courage is speaking and acting from the heart- the center of our being. Bene Brown in her book “Daring Greatly” says courage is more than a virtue, it’s a habit, just like we learn to swim by swimming, we learn to courage by couraging.
I truly believe that Nelson Mandela knew true courage. Both in the public stands against the oppressive forces of the world and in the daily living that presented him with countless opportunities to speak and act from the heart. So we too, can practice living courageous lives. Not lives filled with risk seeking or danger, but lives lived from the heart, listening to the still small voice that is ever present and calling us to courage.
By Jordan Harris, who is attending Boston School of Theology starting in the fall and is a member of the Young Adult Council. Devotional published in the summer issue of The Press, our young adult newsletter.