As I have grown older, my understanding of what constitutes courage has definitely evolved. It is easy to mistake unnecessary risk taking for courage. In my twenties, I travelled to places that were profoundly unsafe such as Yemen and the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek in Lebanon. I was delighted at the edginess of travelling through Nepal during the midst of a Maoist Uprising and felt a thrill of excitement when watching automatic weapons being fired into the night sky in Macedonia during the elections of 2002. The desire to place myself in such situations was driven by a fascination with history, politics and the human condition. In a different life, I would have become a foreign correspondent. The risks I took were calculated and I always believed that I was in control – even if that was an illusion born out of ignorance and conceit. Seeking the occasional adrenaline rush or trying to live life on the edge does not necessarily call for much by the way of courage.
In my defence, I had spent a childhood reading ‘Boys Own’ adventure stories and watching war films. Consequently, it is not surprising that my understanding of courage and bravery tended to be action-packed and overtly militaristic. The shadow of Britain’s colonial past was cast over much of my childhood reading. Plucky, stiff upper-lipped Englishmen (almost always men) rampaged around the globe performing acts of daring-do. The exotic backdrop of Africa and South America were irresistible for a boy growing up in Ipswich and Colchester.
These days, I would like to think that I have a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of courage. For me, courage is much more than wrestling barehanded with tigers or strafing the enemy with machine gunfire from the cockpit of your Spitfire. Courage is about living one’s life with dignity and selflessness in the face of grief, serious illness and/or any other form of adversity over which one has no control. Courage is not about carefully managing risk, it is about how you respond in the face of that which is frightening, arbitrary and intrinsically unfair. The sort of courage which enables people to carry on living life to the full when faced with a life-shortening prognosis is both inspiring and relatable. Courage is not the denial or absence of fear but the bravery with which one confronts that fear. It takes great courage to confront that which is unknowable, uncertain and invisible. Illness and grief are both shapeless and intangible. A marauding lion can be cornered or tranquilised whereas the uncontrollable growth of cancerous cells may not be so easily stopped in its tracks. Grief has no end.
One does not have to look far to identify examples of extraordinary courage. Within my own family, I have recognised great examples of courage over the course of the last few months and I think that there will be few who read this blog who will not be able to identify people in their own lives who have demonstrated incredible resolve when faced with adversity.
Sometimes, it takes real courage to get up in the morning and face a new day without a loved one. Sometimes, it takes courage to attend that routine consultant’s appointment or wait for the results of blood tests or scans. There is nothing routine or mundane about such situations though they might not seem as noteworthy as the examples of courage that, historically, we have been inclined to share with our children.
Dame Deborah James certainly lived her life with courage and she has undoubtedly raised the profile of bowel cancer. She stepped away from her career as a Deputy Headteacher and blogged about her diagnosis before becoming a Sun Columnist. The candid discussions that she had alongside Rachel Bland on the BBC podcast, ‘You, Me and the Big C’ will have helped many who have struggled with the impact of cancer treatment. By destigmatising a cancer that has all too often not been talked about, Deborah has left a legacy every bit as impressive as the £7,000,000 raised for her foundation over the last couple of weeks. The fact that we talk about cancer much more openly than in the past is due to the courage of those like Deborah. As a teenager, I remember being incredibly inspired by the bravery shown by Roy Castle as he raised funds to support research into lung cancer even although he himself was dying.
One in two of us will get cancer. That is an unspeakably bleak statistic but one that we need to accept. At any one point in time, there are those within our own community who are waiting for a diagnosis, struggling with an uncertain prognosis or coming to terms with the loss of a close family member. We have children who raise money for cancer charities and parents who dedicate much of their time to providing practical and emotional support to those who are suffering. You do not need to look far to see examples of great courage. True heroes do not need an exotic or exciting backdrop to bring their courage into sharp relief. Some of the greatest and most inspiring examples of courage are exhibited by those who are remarkably like us; by those who are fearful but resolute in the face of uncertainty.
The greatest privilege of my role is the opportunity to be inspired by the courage of those whom I meet. We have families who have fled war and experienced the devastating impact of aerial bombardment. We have families who are struggling with ill health or coming to terms with separation or loss. All of life is represented within our extended community.
So often we see the best of humanity in such situations and I think we need to become better at highlighting this to our children. We should encourage young people to reflect positively upon the examples of courage that surround us rather than letting them develop a stylised and unrelatable concept of courage that is invariably done by others in some far-off location. Dame Deborah James openly admitted to being frightened of dying. Honesty and an ability to acknowledge fear is perhaps the starting point of courage.
Headmaster of Rossall School