A telephone call with one of my more thoughtful professional friends last week yielded the following question: is courage a choice? She told me she had raised the issue when speaking with a mutual acquaintance who, like me, is a traumatic amputee.
Since I fancy myself somewhat of an authority on the subject, I immediately replied that I didn’t think that courage – in the context of limb loss – was a conscious decision. Though I didn’t fully understand why I said this at the time, I stand by it now.
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I think it’s important to make the following point before venturing into further discussion on this topic: I’m not saying that living with limb loss is a courage-free endeavor. People who undergo an amputation undoubtedly do demonstrate courage. The dictionary definition of the term supports this conclusion:
Courage: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.
But the issue my friend raised and that I want to explore is slightly different: does living with limb loss involve a conscious decision by the amputee to be courageous? So please note the razor’s edge that I’m walking on here.
First, I’d argue that some people – firemen, policemen, and soldiers, for example – choose careers that are so inherently dangerous that they necessarily involve some conscious decision to be courageous. Second, I’m further agreeing that coping with and living with limb loss involves courage. But my argument, nevertheless, is that based on my own experience, amputees – unlike the courage careerists – don’t as a general rule affirmatively make that choice.
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Here is the list of events beginning on December 7, 1996, and my categorization of them on my somewhat unscientific (but hopefully entertaining) Courage Scale Descriptor* system:
- Upon seeing stranded vehicle in middle of icy intersection, inform my wife that somebody should help the young woman standing next to the car “before she gets killed” and further decide that I should be that person. Courage Scale Descriptor: DUMB – I had no appreciation of the risks of walking into the middle of a major intersection in lousy conditions at midnight. To be courageous, I would need to be aware of the danger (so says Websters implicitly). I wasn’t, because I was too dumb to identify the danger or be scared.
- Pull my car into adjacent gas station and shine headlights on stranded vehicle from the side. Courage Scale Descriptor: REALLY DUMB – How would shining headlights on the side of a car when vehicles are screaming down a hill from behind it help? If I had half a brain in my 1996 head, I would have deposited my wife safely (and warmly) inside the gas station, pulled my car 50 yards behind the young woman’s with hazards on, and used my little blue Civic as both a buffer and warning system should a driver fail to see what was in front of him/her.
- Instead, I walk out into the intersection behind a car with no operating hazards in a dark green coat, dark pants, and dark hat. Moreover, at 5’7″ and 155 lbs, I fool myself into thinking that I’m going to push a midsize Mazda off a slushy road. Courage Scale Descriptor: GALACTICALLY STUPID. (If I had been drinking earlier in the evening and my judgment was therefore impaired, this would be the more acceptable “REALLY DUMB” score on the CSD. But no – I was stone-cold sober, with only Coca-Cola coursing through my system. Hello, GALACTICALLY STUPID.
- Wake up in ICU and ask wife why I didn’t just drive home and call cops. Get no answer other than helpless shrug. Observe that if I continue to think in this way, I will fall into a vortex of depression from which I may not emerge. Decide not to think that way and start asking questions about how to rehab most quickly. Courage Scale Descriptor: M’EH. Simply ignoring legitimate long-term impact of a missing leg isn’t courageous. But it also isn’t DUMB, REALLY DUMB, or GALACTICALLY STUPID. It’s, at one level, practical, but nothing more. Hence, the M’EH classification.
- Focus all time and energy on becoming Superamp, the guy who wears a prosthesis so seamlessly that no one knows he’s an amputee. Courage Scale Descriptor: DELUSIONAL. Pretending that you’re not an amputee when you are an amputee is nearly, but not quite, the polar opposite of courage.
Having indulged my creation of the CSD, at this point you might reasonably ask, “Dave, does it really make a difference whether one chooses to be courageous on the one hand, or merely acts in a courageous manner on the other?” At least for me, the answer is “Yes, actually it does.”
When firemen rushes into a burning building to try to save a family, they know full well what awaits them. They talk about fire like it’s a living, breathing demon, and yet still race toward it, fully aware of what they’re walking into.
On the other hand, in many instances you can’t train or prepare for navigating the world with less than a full complement of limbs. You just do it, because the alternative is to do nothing.
Maybe, in the final analysis, I’m suspicious of lionizing someone because they’re overcoming an obvious, physically visible obstacle. And perhaps that’s because the only qualitative difference that I can discern between overcoming physical differences and successfully handling crippling mental challenges that are just as limiting is that people appear much more willing to impute courage to the former rather than the latter.
I suppose that’s because people focus on what they can see. But I also think it’s the result of outdated concepts like, “That person is inspirational because they don’t let their disability keep them down!”
And maybe the fact I think that says more about me than it does anyone else.
*For those of you who are curious about the full range of Courage Scale Descriptors, they are as follows, from least courageous to most:
- Galactically Stupid
- Really Dumb