Recognizing the cost of true courage

Published 5:56 pm Saturday, October 17, 2015

Courage is a word that means different things to different people. It’s like Rashomon, the story that changed every time it was retold through a different perspective.

I know some people think battling a disease is courageous. It’s not, really. What is brave about some of the afflicted, is that they don’t complain and keep their sorrow to themselves, like the mother who doesn’t want her children to worry but who is truly crumbling inside at the thought that she might not live to see them grow up.

My father had that type of bravery. When he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 42, he attacked the disease as he attacked the cases he handled as a litigator: passionately, but with intelligence.

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But instead of complaining about the bad hand fate had dealt him in the health department, he used the last year of his life to teach me a lesson. He sent me off to spend my junior year at Bryn Mawr in Paris and ignored my repeated pleas to stay home. Even though he knew sending me off meant he’d lose the last year with his oldest child, he had the courage to pretend — for me — that we’d meet again. He didn’t want me to see him die.

But that is the small type of bravery. Ted Flowers also had that grand, almost theatrical type of courage that led him down south to Mississippi to register black citizens to vote and run for local public office.

Martin Luther King would be assassinated the following year. So would RFK, hope of the nation. Black Panther sympathizers would raise their gloved hands at the Olympics after their deaths. And the KKK was still in business.

Unfortunately, we also sometimes mistake something else for courage, because society makes us feel that speaking out or coming out or living our truth or shaming others into recognizing our truth is brave.

The other day, I came across something on Facebook that sent a chill down my spine and tears to my eyes. It was a story I’d heard over 20 years ago, and I knew the details of the incident quite well, but seeing the pictures of the two men involved in the incident staring calmly back at the camera lens, frozen in time, brought home the enormous price true courage demands.

It was the story of two soldiers who ran toward their downed comrades in Mogadishu, the famous “Black Hawk Down” episode. The soldiers knew the occupants of the chopper that had been shot down by Somalian rebels would be captured and tortured, and they rushed to render assistance.

According to the posting from the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation:

“As they reached the pinned-down crew members, [Master Sgt. Gary] Gordon and [Sgt. First Class Randy] Shughart immediately pulled the pilot and other crew members out and established a perimeter, placing them in a very vulnerable position. They killed a number of enemy attackers until they ran out of ammunition. After scrounging for spare ammo in the wreckage, providing some of it to the dazed helicopter personnel, Gordon and Shughart fought until they were fatally wounded.”

Even amidst the mediocrity we encounter in our lives, there is the potential for greatness. Courage like this conveys immortality. Lives lived in this manner are never fully extinguished.

That is the power of courage. It is not the act of speaking out when society welcomes you. It is not showing off for the crowds. It is not being the “first” woman, or minority, or whatever, to do something important. It is not even fighting to survive an illness, unless the fight is to spare other people pain.

It is something indefinable, unexpected, sometimes unheralded. But we know it when we see it.


Christine Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Email her at