A Courage for Today: A Psychoanalytic and Spiritual Contribution
William S. Schmidt, Ph.D.
December 16, 2019
Hard times pose particular challenges for persons and communities. Times of crisis can threaten to erode the cohesion of selfhood, even as they force communities and persons to confront heretofore unforeseen threats and challenges. Although such times can have the effect of disorienting the self and its communal base, it can also have the effect of crystallizing self and community into a new concentration of strength, resourcefulness and transcendence. The word often used to describe this latter outcome is “courage”, a word we need in times of upheaval and uncertainty.
At first glance it would be easy to ascribe the label “courage” to any bold action of confronting a danger or even death, but this would miss the internal complexity of such an activity. If courage is a supreme virtue, its true nature and operations cannot simply be equated with an instinct, however bold or fearless it seems to be. True courage is not automatic in the sense of an unconscious or inevitable action that flies in the face of danger. It is rather, a highly self-reflective activity in which the true nature of a self or community reveals itself.
A Psychoanalytic Exploration
A formidable explorer of the nature of courage can be found in the person of Heinz Kohut, a Viennese Jew who escaped the Nazi takeover of Austria and eventually settled in Chicago. Kohut ultimately became the Director of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, and in 1964-1965 even became the head of the American Psychoanalytic Association. As his biographer Charles Strozier notes, Kohut became particularly interested in the topic of courage, perhaps in the aftermath of his own battles with the psychoanalytic establishment, in which he took on the ideological edifice of his day and profoundly transformed it. 
Kohut’ s particular interest in courage was shaped by his taste of totalitarian oppression as a young man, and his attempt to understand how some persons did not only survive that juggernaut, but courageously engaged and challenged it.  As he engaged the task of understanding this phenomenon called courage, Kohut selected the stories of three Austrian and German war resisters who each paid with their lives for their resistance. The three were Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian Catholic peasant, and Hans and Sophie Scholl, the Munich medical students who wrote and distributed underground newspapers calling their fellow citizens toward non-violent resistance, until they were caught and executed. Franz Jagerstatter was especially selected by Kohut as exemplary of the conflicts, struggles, and resolutions that occur as courage is born. His story has been given new and welcome visibility in the feature film “A Hidden Life.” (December 13, 2019)
Kohut concluded that Jagerstatter was not the only devout Catholic in his community, and certainly not the only one who realized that his religious values were in conflict with the total loyalty demanded of the Nazis. However, most persons ignored or set aside their reservations about the regime and joined the majority. Their psychological and spiritual equipment was not adequate to allow them to set their core self against the overwhelming presence of Nazi ideology and power. The quality that Kohut surmised was present in Jagerstatter and the Scholls’, but absent in most of his contemporaries, was the capacity not to withdraw from an inner conflict of intense and extreme proportions.
This internal conflict contains several interrelated tasks revealing three specific and discernable features: 1) one must identify with one’s core self (ideals), 2) one must resist the tendency to disown one’s core self, and 3) one must resolve to shape one’s attitudes and actions in accord with one’s core self despite inner doubts and external threats and seductions.
What Kohut’s conclusion reveals is that such courage is not simply easily arrived at, nor is it simply given. It is not like being on automatic pilot without inner struggle. It involves an often agonizing self-scrutiny, and out of such soul-searching the full meaning and implications of one’s core commitments emerges.
In examining the lives of these quiet heroes, Kohut concluded that they all manifested three features that gave their courage the quality of groundedness and non-psychosis, but also allowed them to transcend the entrapment of the status quo. These three features were not necessarily equally present in these different individuals but they all seemed to manifest them in obvious measure so that it was clearly discernable by others. These three features are: 1) a sense of humor, 2) the ability to respond to others with empathy, and 3) a deep sense of peace. This latter attribute was especially noteworthy in spite of the intense inner struggle underway in them as they faced their choices and its agonizing consequences. Their personalities seemed filled with a profound sense of serenity, perhaps close to what we would call wisdom. These three elements, especially the sense of peace or serenity, always seemed evident to observers, even to their torturers, persecutors and executioners.
Although Kohut does not pursue these features directly, it behooves us to understand their place in the emergence of courage. First, the presence of humor reveals the capacity to have perspective, and to recognize the absurdities and ironies of one’s life and situation. Humor indicates that one doesn’t take oneself too seriously even in the face of grand and noble pursuits. Humor is a mode of transcendence and it restores a sense of proportionality. It is an antidote to grandiosity.
Secondly, the presence of empathy names the factor of heart as central to the emergence of courage. Indeed, the word courage comes from the French word “coeur”, meaning heart. This heart or empathic factor suggests that one is connected to one’s own humanity and the full humanity of one’s neighbor, and, that one is prepared to act radically upon this knowledge.
Thirdly, the feature of peace and serenity emerges because the commitment to the truest center of the self, including one’s core ideals, generates a profound balance, equilibrium and harmony within the person, and the whole personality becomes aligned with this center. There is sense of peace and even joy released in us when our ideals and our personality and our actions have become one.
It is for these reasons that Kohut concludes that courage has to do with not only staying true to one’s core values, but to one’s core self. This core self is akin to an amalgam of one’s deepest ideals, most authentic goals, purposes, and life themes; in short, an expression of one’s deepest sense of self. The courage emerging from this core self is defined by Kohut as “the ability to brave even death…rather than to betray the nucleus of one’s psychological being, that is, one’s ideals.” 
The Contemporary Challenge
Kohut’s hero models are certainly exemplars of courage, and inspire us to deepen our commitment to cultivating our core self, including our deepest values and ideals. But our call to courage is not a call to resist totalitarian regimes, nor are we likely to be faced with the prospect of running back into burning buildings to rescue others, or face perpetrators of mass shootings in our churches, synagogues, mosques, or public spaces.
I would propose that courage regularly needs re-framing given the new and multiple challenges which confront every age. In fact, courage may be understood as the capacity to confront the unique and perhaps unfamiliar challenges of new eras. Our era faces the crisis of dystopia, of massively unstable ground under our feet. We are bombarded with the cultural realities of polarization, radicalization, and weaponization of our social fabric. Xenophobia, nationalism, racism, public and private dishonesty, etc., all produce a cynicism and a new form of paralysis in the form of exhaustion. It seems every era needs to redefine and reaffirm courage in relation to the particular challenges of the day.
I would therefore define courage as follows: “Courage is the freedom to fully engage the reality of one’s life situation while remaining radically committed to overcoming the Spirit and life-denying aspects of one’s experience.”
There are two specific challenges which confront our contemporary environment and warrant the cultivating of courage. The first challenge facing contemporary life is to cultivate that very center of self or center of values that would constitute one’s core. As many clinicians, counselors and pastoral persons know, many persons in our world are threatened with an eroding center. Kohut’s protagonist, Franz Jagerstatter, had a center out of which he could make choices. What if there is an eroded center, or if it is fragmented? Strengthening our own and one another’s cultivation of our center of purpose and meaning is the key to courage-enhancement.
The second challenge facing our current world is to find courage in the face of exhaustion and its twin, cynicism. To succumb to cynicism is to grant ultimacy to our human potential for despair, and to lock oneself into a world of withdrawal and self-paralysis.
Three dimensions of courage
To resist these decentering and paralysis-generating forces of our lives requires cultivating three aspects of courage. The first courage needed in times of trial and tribulation is the courage to face reality in all its starkness. Reality is hard yet it leads us to truth. Resisting one’s own temptation for denial takes courage and staying power. None of us can hold in our heads and hearts the multiplicity of all personal and social ills. But what we can do is to find focus. There where your heart is most burdened, you will find your path and your necessary mobilization.
If the ecological crisis is where your inner fire burns most brightly, be there, and your focus will ground and inspire you. If your fire burns there where refugees are violated, and children are separated from their parents, be there, and you will find the animation it demands. If your fire burns there where racism, sexism, classism abound, be there, and your focus will bring clarity and discernment in the face of the risk of a scattered and frenetic flailing about. One needs courage to face the reality of one’s situation, including one’s corresponding grief, sorrow, anger, and the despair we may carry.
As we engage reality in the contemporary arena we will face two major questions. These are the (1) “Why now”? and (2) “Now what”? questions. To face the “why now” question takes courage because it forces us to look at the contextual reality of our situation beyond the simplistic good vs. evil, black vs. white ideologies of the day. If we only respond to personal communal alienation by demonizing our adversaries, how is our world to find redemption? To ask the “why now” questions means we must be prepared to face the raw alienation visible in our reality. We must find the courage to examine our place in the world and the courage to hear what the world is saying to us. It takes great courage to listen.
The courage to face reality also includes being able to ask the “now what” question. In confusing and polarized times one is tempted to demonize “the other” even as we ourselves may feel victimized or “othered.” Ideological, political, religious, or a moral self-righteousness reinforces reactivity and deepens alienation. We may be tempted by the false belief that vanquishing the reactive forces of our world through force and power can resolve our dilemmas or restore our world to wholeness.
We must find the courage to affirm justice and assure its centrality in what we seek. In seeking justice for the causes we hold dear, we must become advocates of justice for all peoples of our world. It is not sufficient to serve justice when it serves us, but we must have the courage to pursue justice when it is not necessarily popular to do so, and this requires an awareness of the dynamics of privilege or power, a necessary humility that recognizes that we all contain our own blind spots.
The second dimension of courage required of us is the courage to face darkness in ourselves and in our world. Darkness is a force, an energy field that threatens to draw everything into itself, a black hole of the Spirit. The darkness that confronted Kohut’s protagonists was the darkness of totalitarianism. His examples of courage questioned the high priests of power of their day and Kohut’s hero’s challenged these power systems through non-violent resistance.
Our world confronts a somewhat different darkness. Our darkness is not so much a darkness of total power, but a darkness of violence, annihilation, and radical polarization. It is the darkness of an alienation that runs away with itself and consumes its world. In Kohut’s day, the enemy was obvious, visible, and strutting. Our so-called enemy is invisible and non-substantial; it is not fixed in time and place. When indiscriminate violence and oozing hatred threatens our lives, it unleashes inner dangers every bit as threatening as outer dangers.
These dangers include the darkness of fear and demonization, which can settle in our soul as a spiritual cancer, the form of paranoia, where ultimately the world itself becomes our enemy. Such fear itself becomes an enemy of Spirit. The effect of this darkness of fear is that we project it outward onto others who have no connection to the source of our fear. We then run the risk of succumbing to scapegoating persons or communities, or of hiding from the world in fear. These dual dangers of indiscriminant blame and withdrawal and isolation, are two of the dangers of the darkness we face.
But perhaps the deepest darkness one faces in an alienation-driven environment is the inner darkness of despair. Despair is the product of the loss of perspective, the product of allowing darkness to define our world. Courage is a commitment toward transcending the darkness one encounters in one’s world. Persons of faith have always known that darkness never has the final word. Darkness can only snuff out the light if one succumbs to it. A single candle can banish darkness into the furthest corners of any room. Courage is the name we give to any effort to kindle one’s Spirit as light-bearer.
The third dimension of courage needed today is the courage to permit our Spirit-Center to lead us where we would rather not go. Courage, as our commitment to overcoming the life and spirit-denying aspects of our reality, comes with a direction, a path. Courage goes somewhere, takes persons somewhere, toward a habitation of Spirit that is not yet their own. To be of good courage is to be on the move. But this movement is not necessarily one in step with prevailing cultural or political attitudes, beliefs, or goals. The norms of the day may not coincide with one’s truest inner center, and this center calls us first and foremost into integrity with ourselves. When we embrace this deep inner “felt rightness” it compels us to act accordingly. Sometimes that path means joining in solidarity with others who are on a parallel journey of seeking truth, justice, or goodness. Sometimes this path is a solitary path, where we are called by our inner Spirit to be a voice crying in the wilderness of reactionary forces.
It takes courage to face darkness,
both the darkness that others may impose upon us, as well as the darkness that
resides in our own hearts. The courage our world needs is the courage to be
faithful to a larger vision of wholeness than the merchants of hatred and violence
would have us believe. There is a larger unity that seeks to be born in our
world, and it takes courage to be champions of that unity.
1 Extensive revision with permission. William Schmidt, first published: “Courage” www.Oates.org/journal
Vol. 4, No.8, 2001.
 Charles Strozier, The Making of a Psychoanalyst. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
 Heinz Kohut, Self Psychology and the Humanities. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 1985, page 5 to 50.
 Erna Putz, Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Papers from Prison. Orbis Books. 2009.
 Peter Gilmour. Growing in Courage. Winona Minnesota: Saint Mary’s Press. 1998.
 Kohut, op.cit., p.6.