Reflections on Parkland: What is Courage?

In the Parkland high school shooting in South Florida, just a few miles from my home, we saw the extremes of human fortitude in the persons of Coach Aaron Feis and Deputy Scot Peterson. Peterson, a trained security professional, stayed outside while a shooting was in progress in the area he was hired to defend. Feis, a man not charged with the safety of others, protected them with his body at the expense of his own life.

I have thought about the idea of courage often; my writings on disaster preparedness presuppose that a certain amount is necessary to be resilient in the face of adversity. Yet, can a person really know what they will do when faced with a decision that can cost them their life?

Some just naturally run towards the sound of gunfire, while others naturally run in the other direction. The Department of Homeland Security recommends going the other way in their “Run, Hide, Fight” triad for active shooter events. There are those, however, who will run towards danger. Many of these individuals are or were in the military, law enforcement, and fire/emergency services.

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Examples might be hitting the beach on D-day, running into the World Trade Center on 9/11, or perhaps the nurse who ran into the building to help victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. In many of these instances, they knew they were in danger, but went above and beyond.

Courage takes other forms as well. If you were, for example, the first African-American student in an all-white school district during the civil rights era or the first woman cadet in a military academy, you’ll never have to prove your bravery and determination to me in any other way.

You might think courage is an inborn virtue, constant over a lifetime. I’m not sure about that. I, personally, was a fearful little boy, then became a (stupidly) fearless teenager. I eventually morphed into an average adult. Now, in my golden years, I may have more of a tendency to head towards the sound of gunfire; after all, what have I got to lose at this point? Sit me in front of a doctor telling me that I have cancer, however, and that might be a very different story.

Then there’s the fortitude it takes to re-invent yourself. I don’t consider myself to be particularly courageous. After I retired from the active practice of medicine, I was tempted to take up golf. It was something I had tried years before but was, frankly, terrible at.

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