Developing courage, one conversation at a time

How committed are you to your values? Would you stand by them even if it meant losing your job or alienating you from your friends?

John F. Kennedy’s 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, tackles these questions through a series of narratives featuring eight senators who demonstrated courage in office.

While they differ widely across the ideological spectrum, one commonality is that they all put their reputations on the line, risking their careers—and in some cases their lives—to support unpopular measures. They did this not to be rebellious or contrarian, but to stay true to their principles.

For instance, Edmund G. Ross voted against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, defying those in Congress who desperately wanted to oust Johnson. Even death threats from other senators, knowing Ross’s vote was the deciding one, didn’t deter him. On top of that, Ross despised Johnson! But he knew that voting in favor of impeachment would set a dangerous precedent where Congress could kick out any president based on flimsy evidence.

Of course, most of us don’t face these kinds of momentous decisions, ones where our lives and livelihoods are at stake. But the lessons in this book can apply to any situation.

As Kennedy writes: “To be courageous, these stories make clear, requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all. Politics merely furnishes one arena which imposes special tests of courage. In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience—the loss of friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men—each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.”

Have you ever avoided telling your friends about a song or movie you liked because you knew they would make fun of you? Or, after disclosing the name of the song/movie and then being ridiculed, meekly changed the subject rather than defending your choice?

Have you refrained from publicly expressing an unpopular opinion on a controversial subject for fear of being condemned by others?

I know I have.

While the Internet provides a forum for a diversity of voices, it’s also susceptible to group-think. It’s no coincident that you see the same jokes and phrases floating around Twitter and Facebook on any given day.

It’s more important than ever, then, to express what’s truly on your mind, even if it means dealing with the inevitable fallout.

Of course, sometimes it might be difficult to articulate (or know) what your authentic thoughts are when you are bombarded daily by inauthentic thoughts. These are times when it may be helpful to step away from the Internet and allow yourself the space to reflect.

Many of the senators in Profiles in Courage ended their careers as pariahs, with only their family (and sometimes not even that) for support. But they were at peace, knowing they had made their choices on their own terms and not anyone else’s.

When was the last time you held back from expressing your opinion? What steps have you taken to be bolder about speaking your mind?

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