Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Amelia Earhart and how we define courage

I've been wanting to write about this for a while. Recently I've had a wonderful opportunity, I've interviewed several people who went above and beyond the normal call of duty. Their actions saved lives. They acted when others stood by. Their stories were inspiring and of course immediately made me wonder, what would I have done in their shoes? Quite likely I would have called 911, and waited for the proper authorities. But who knows, sometimes it seems that you act in ways that astound you. One of the people I interviewed honestly couldn't imagine how she'd physically managed to do what she did, in the process saving the life of the man she was with.

Under duress our best and worst sides emerge. It's made me think a lot about heroism. We know what constitutes it in these cases. It's obvious when you've risked your life and done some physical, semi super-heroic deed. But life creates daily opportunities for us to go above and beyond. It doesn't have to be obvious, active heroism to count. There are small heroic steps we all have to take. Death calls forth both fear and courage. How we die matters. Or how we deal with the loss or the potential loss of a loved one. Courage is something that we all have to tap into. It's impossible to know how it will be, but we will learn at some point in our lives. Sadly, we will learn how we will deal with death and loss.

Obviously Amelia Earhart was amazingly courageous, she flew solo over the Atlantic, and numerous other routes, she tested her limits at every turn and did it willingly, did it eagerly. She also fought for what she believed in, politically and personally. She was a role model to young women and is to this day. She used her fame to push a feminist agenda. She was a woman who was eager to make the most of what had come to her, and it had come because of her obvious desire to test her physical limits. She also had the courage of her convictions, they weren't always popular convictions. She was a pacifist, and a true liberal.

Which brings me to another sort of courage, the courage that comes when you refuse to name names in front of HUAC. Or go to prison and are executed for protesting the government's hard-line position in Iran. There are countless heroes and heroines who stood up for their convictions, many of them lost their live-lie-hoods and their lives as a result. That takes incredible courage.

And there's the courage I saw in my own students, those who had come to this country or were brought up here with absolutely no resources at their disposal, those who had lost relatives and friends because of violence in their communities, those who wanted something better for themselves and worked tirelessly, spending the day at a menial job then coming to school at night, those who fought for themselves and believed in their own potential, those who did it for their kids, or their families.

So courage matters, it matters in big and small ways, without it our world would be a dismal place. Human beings are so often terrifying selfish, yet when you think of how many of us are tested on a daily basis and manage to rise to the occasion, to do their best and even better than we could have imagined, when you think how we surprise ourselves and do it too, it gives me a reason to hope.


  1. I've often wondered how activists for a cause manage to have the courage to go back out there and campaign again after the first time they've been jailed, beaten, or worse.

  2. It's something. Watching the Iranian protests brought that home big time.

  3. New follower here.
    First of all I have to say what a fantastic idea you have with Amelia Earhart.
    Second, I love all of your different takes on courage. Brilliant! I have really needed some lately.

  4. Thanks G. Glad to have you here. Hope you're right about the fantastic idea, as for courage, it's something we all grapple with, no? I think we're constantly faced with situations where we have to make difficult choices. Those who act in big ways inspire us to hopefully make the right ones when we're faced with more private choices.