Sunday, June 1, 2008

Wherefore Courage?

Ever since Freud psychotherapists have had a special aversion to giving advice. They have imagined that patients who were trying to solve their problems by taking action were making it more difficult to gain insight into their mental functioning. The Freudian solution to the mind/body problem is simply... to forget about the body.

Many therapy patients have embraced this aversion. They make treatment an excuse for inaction. Wanting to be good patients, then introspect and criticize themselves... all the while ignoring real world dilemmas. They have bought the promise that inaction will lead to insight and that insight will point the way to good decisions and good feelings.

This is a variation on a Freudian theme. Freud insisted that his patients should avoid all major life decisions while in treatment. He believed that an unanalyzed mind would always err, and thus, that doing nothing was better than getting it wrong. Apparently, it never crossed his mind that he might point the way toward getting it right.

Patients accepted this rule because, for many of them, it was a welcome relief from responsibility. It also deprived them of their courage, and undermined their character.

Courage is the character trait required to take action, especially when outcomes are uncertain and when risk is involved. When faced with a seemingly insoluble dilemma, you need to screw up your courage before taking action. More courage is required if the risk is higher.

It takes courage to put yourself out there, to engage with others, to compete and contend. Without courage you will simply be led around by your bliss.

Aristotle said that you only build courage by acting courageously. You cannot enhance your courage by understanding what it means to be courageous. Nor can you become more courageous by understanding why you are afraid to defend yourself.

Of course, Freud could not allow people to think that he was leading them down a road that would diminish their courage and their character. So, he allowed them to believe that it takes more courage to criticize themselves than to step into the arena. Uncovering your darker motives, facing the horrors of your unconscious mind... for Freud these showed "true" courage.

Surely, he was mistaken. Courage is a social virtue; it evinces itself in the way you act in the world. A person who backs down from competition because he is involved in intense self-criticism is a coward. If he calls his self-criticism a higher form of courage he is indulging in narcissistic self-aggrandizement.

If a person's only courage lies in self-criticism, how do you, living outside his mind, know its extent? How do you know whether or not you can rely on this person in time of trouble. You would be wise to conclude that you do not want to be on his team.

Next question: How do you know when you are being courageous and when you are just making a show of your bravery? How do you know when you are being a coward and when you are judiciously avoiding a meaningless showdown?

Go back to Aristotle. His idea was simple: true courage lies somewhere between being gun-shy and being trigger-happy. A person who is gun-shy never takes risks and never asserts himself. He is more than happy when his therapist tells him he must withdraw into his mind.

The person who is gun-shy avoids competition, confrontation, and conflict. He might well try to excuse his cowardice by criticizing the "system," but that is merely a rationalization.

A person who is trigger-happy makes a spectacle of his courage. He insists too much on his bravery, regardless of the circumstances. He might become enraged and pick a fight when someone jostles him on the subway. This does not show his courage; it shows that he is foolhardy and thin-skinned.

Finding the mean between these two extremes requires considerable human experience, and reflection thereupon.

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