The French call it le cœur. To the Italians, it’s il cuore. In Spanish, el corazon. All of these derive from the Latin word cor, which means “heart.” Though the English word for this left-of-center muscular organ has Germanic origins, the Latin root cor appears in a number of familiar words like “accord” and “cordial.” Somehow, I was surprised to learn that it is also the source of the word “courage.”
Why the etymology lesson? When I began this post about courage, I wanted to explore what the word means beyond its obvious connotations of strength and bravery. Too often, we bandy our words about with little concern for precision. Why worry about the subtle distinctions between words like “abhor” and “despise” when they basically mean “hate,” right?
So what does “courage” actually mean? It’s not just the ability to do something dangerous or the willingness to risk harm. Courage is a property, a quality. It exists within us, arising from our core, our heart. It is not the absence of fear; it is the antidote to fear. It is the source of strength that allows us to act in spite of our fears, our doubts, our insecurities.
Whenever we find ourselves facing a threat (whether real or imagined), we have a choice. We can allow the coward in us to run for the nearest hiding place, or we can choose to face the threat. That is courage–having faith in yourself.
However, there is another kind of courage, which is less about faith and more about wisdom. It takes courage to ask for help. One of the hardest things I have ever done is admit that I cannot handle everything on my own. It took a long time to recognize that asking for help is not about weakness; it’s about the strength to understand my own limitations and allow others to support me. I’m sure dozens of self-help gurus have written exhaustively about this already, but I recently learned the lesson for myself.
Any 7th-grader can tell you that the heart is a muscle. It’s a sophisticated piece of biological machinery–an organic pump. That’s it. There is no reason to believe it holds any supernatural or metaphysical properties. However, it continues to serve as one of the most recognizable symbols of love, passion, and bravery. It makes sense. After all, it resides in the literal core of our bodies, so why not treat it as the figurative core of our lives? No matter where courage actually resides, it is a fundamental part of who we are and is instrumental in defining us. I, for one, take heart in believing that.