Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
When we think of courageous acts, our minds conjure up images of emergency responders rushing to a chaotic scene to save lives. Their decision to risk their own lives for the life of another exhibits a tremendous amount of courage. While most of us will never face a choice of this magnitude, we frequently encounter situations that test our courage.
Arguably, for many of us, the greatest threat to acting courageously is the pull of conformity.
Courage and Conformity
Merriam-Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Conformity occurs when we act or behave in such a way to agree with the majority.
In recent days, I’ve thought a lot about the choice we make between the two. Courage is not something we have or we don’t. It’s a choice and a practice. Conformity too is a choice, although when we conform we sometimes tell ourselves we have no choice. But these decisions are like a muscle. Exercising courage strengthens the muscle while conforming results in atrophy.
Courage is exhibited when we:
- Reach out and try to understand another’s point of view
- Speak up for what we believe to be right despite opposition
- Go first
- Try something new
- Step out of the comfortable place we’ve made for ourselves
- Respectfully disagree with those closest to us
- Listen to criticism and decipher what’s helpful and what’s not
- Follow that calling on our hearts
- Draw a line in the sand and declare enough is enough
Conformity, on the other hand, occurs when we:
- Remain quiet to prevent conflict
- Look away instead of getting involved
- Continue to do work that unsettles us, but claim we’re just doing our job
- Choose not to rock the boat
- Agree for the sake of fitting in
- Go along with the crowd regardless of where they’re headed
- Remain where we are so others won’t feel bad
Observations on Both
- Courage means we care more about what’s right than we do about fitting in. Once the words exit our mouth or we hit send on an email, there’s no going back. We’re vulnerable.
- At its root, conformity is more about protecting ourselves. When we shrink to peer pressure, we do so to fit in and avoid criticism. But as Joseph Campbell put it, “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”
- Conforming provides short-term relief but long-term angst.
- Courage serves to move us forward while conforming generally holds us back.
It’s not easy to develop the fortitude to dig deep and stand against the temptation to go along with the crowd. But with each small act of courage, the muscle grows stronger. Before we know it, practicing courage becomes more natural and we are able to practice other virtues more consistently.
What has most helped you choose courage over conformity?