Why courage is critical to morality

The cave you fear to enter...

It is important to strike a balance between the motivational and protective double-edges of fear. Individuals must not push themselves or be pushed to do the thing they fear prematurely. However, more than anything, moral courage requires the ability and willingness to risk doing the right thing even though others might disapprove of or exclude you, writes Dr Stephanie Fagin-Jones.


One of the main findings of my research on the personalities of the non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust was that one of the significant traits that distinguished these heroic individuals from a group of verified, passive bystanders was a willingness to undertake risk. This was in addition to the highest levels of empathy, social responsibility, and moral reasoning. Moreover, I discovered that this dispositional tendency characterized by care-based moral courage likely emerged via socialization experiences in the rescuers’ childhood, often under the guidance of a moral role model, typically a parent.  Based on these findings, I developed a theory of prosocialization, defined as the practice of parenting with the intention to raise kind and morally courageous kids.  Hence, when I became pregnant with twin boys in 2010, I resolved that I would do my level best to set aside my own fearful and avoidant behaviors and to model these prosocial and proactive traits as much as possible. Consequently, I decided to combat by lifelong phobia of snakes. 

Several years ago when my boys were about five years old, I took them on a trip to Ithaca, NY, where we visited its renowned science museum.  Among its main attractions was the house of reptiles.  Prior to having kids, I wouldn’t have set foot in a museum that housed various species of vipers.  However, on this occasion, I resolved to remain true to my commitment as a mother.  So, with extreme trepidation, into the reptile house I ventured, accompanied by my two sons on each side. I tried to focus my mind on my breathing and away from the intrusive, irrational thought that the glass enclosures would suddenly disappear Harry Potter-like and that a giant boa constrictor would escape, slither over and squeeze me and my two lovely, innocent children to death.

As it happened, we were the only visitors that quiet early weekday morning at the museum, and just as I began my “hero’s journey” around the reptile house, a museum employee-in-training entered with her manager.  The trainee was a slight, studious-looking young woman, barely in her twenties.  Her task that day was to learn how to clean the habitats.  In order to do so, she would have to reach her bare hand into the glass case and into the total darkness of an actual cave where a snake was snoozing and grab it.

To be clear, the napping inhabitant was neither a poisonous asp nor a giant constrictor, but rather a completely harmless, perhaps 3-foot-long corn snake.  Nonetheless, it was a snake, and the trainee was terrified. Seizing the opportunity for a teaching moment, I crouched down unobtrusively in a far corner with my boys and watched. The burly manager encouraged the young woman to take her time as she repeated what soon became an increasingly intense, almost ritualized, choreography of courage.  First, she sharply focused her attention on the cave; next, she grounded herself, taking several, audible deep breaths; then, she stretched out her hand toward the cave very slowly, gradually inching her way toward its entrance, only to abruptly recoil her hand each and every time.


Paradoxically, the very protections people often use to shield themselves from shame, often close themselves off simultaneously to these same vital life experiences that are central to human flourishing.


From our corner, we silently witnessed this ongoing “mind over matter” trial for easily a half hour, and all the while, the manager stood without expressing a shred of impatience or frustration.  He simply consistently and repeatedly provided his trainee with the encouragement and support she needed to feel safe, so that this dance of courage became a kind of co-regulating, relational pas de deux, until something transpired between them that sparked some new connection within the young woman’s prefrontal cortex, overriding her own reptilian brain, so that ultimately she was able to reach into the cave and grab the snake in a moment of sheer personal triumph, upon which my boys and I joined in the exhilaration and cheered.

As a parent, I’ve often revisited this moment and tried to emulate that manager in times of helping my children overcome personal challenges like standing up to bullies at school, encouraging them to have “one more click of courage than fear,” and to “grab the snake.”  In working with my clients in therapy, like the manager, I have tried to provide the kind of Winnicottian “holding environment” for my patients that would facilitate risk-taking both in and outside of session.  “Grabbing the snake” of course in that context, takes on many variations, but as Brené Brown discovered in her pioneering research, it almost always manifests as overcoming a dread of being vulnerable at the risk of experiencing some sort of shame.

Paradoxically, the very protections people often use to shield themselves from shame, often close themselves off simultaneously to these same vital life experiences that are central to human flourishing.  People protect themselves from the terror of shame in a myriad of ways that help them survive, and since shame often accompanies trauma, responses to the actual or perceived threat of shame often include fight/flight/freeze, collapse/submit, attach/cry for help, and please/appease responses.  Psychological symptoms can be construed, in many respects, as manifestations of a person’s attempt to regulate and protect the self from this fear, and therefore, as survival mechanisms. 

Thus, a caveat emerges.  My goal as a therapist is to help people recover from trauma and move from surviving to thriving by finding the courage to relax maladaptive protections and approach feared situations and relationships. However, a person should not push oneself or be pushed to do the thing which they fear the most prematurely or without proper adaptive coping supports in place, because doing so could be harmful and should be avoided. In a recent interview with the New York Times, several athletes competing in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic games spoke about the importance of striking this balance between the motivating and protective double-edges of fear.  Top American ski racer, Alice Merryweather, who sustained serious injuries from a heartbreaking crash that kept her from participating in the games, is on the road to recovery and is aiming to get back on skis as soon as possible. “The joy that comes from going really fast and arcing a really beautiful turn,” she says, “is like nothing I’ve ever felt in any other aspect of my life, and that outweighs the fear ten times to one.” On the other hand, when asked by the interviewer if fear is a good thing, German snowboarder Andre Hoëflich reckoned, “If we didn’t have fear, we would all be dead by now.”


Not only did the rescuers save human lives, studies show they also experienced significantly greater degrees of life satisfaction and well-being than the passive bystanders in later life.


In my psychotherapy practice, the manifestation of such fears and people’s attempts to cope with them have ranged widely: a psychotherapist coping with debilitating social anxiety and co-dependency stemming from chronic bullying in childhood and adolescence and domestic violence at home, finding the courage to confront potential humiliation by creating and performing standup comedy about her personal struggles as a middle-aged, unmarried woman; a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor’s courage to cope with survivor’s guilt toward her parent’s murder by the Nazis and to permit herself to have a good death surrounded by people who love her; a black woman who internalized a long history of racism and abuse who overcame years of psychiatric hospitalization and substance abuse to complete her undergraduate degree in her 50’s; an adult survivor of childhood incest who shrouded herself in secrecy and silence for decades with depression and empowered herself in therapy to reclaim her body, her voice, and her integrated self.

But even beyond helping people connect to their willingness to take risks on their own behalf, another often overlooked and critically important element of these post-traumatic growth and other redemptive narratives is moral courage. This character trait is defined by genocide scholar Ervin Staub as “the ability and willingness to do the right thing even though others might disapprove of or exclude you.”  For example, finding the courage to give voice to a long-buried, shameful family secret, such as incest, is inherently a morally courageous act. 

During my research, I discovered that many non-Jewish rescuers of Jews risked, and in some cases, sacrificed, their lives to help the persecuted “other” because they felt they had no choice.  Their moral identities, many firmly established in childhood, demanded that they take action when they became aware of the need to do so, because they couldn’t do otherwise and remain morally integrated.  By contrast, in one study, non-Jewish passive bystanders who failed to take action when action was required exhibited a dispositional aversion to risk and avoidance of responsibility toward others.  Notably, not only did the rescuers save human lives, studies show they also experienced significantly greater degrees of life satisfaction and well-being than the passive bystanders in later life. 

In his later years, humanist-psychologist Abraham Maslow recognized the importance of the highest human need to strive beyond self-actualization for self-transcendence, to achieve higher purpose- and meaning-driven goals outside oneself in spirituality and altruism. The individual motivated by self-transcendence, he argued, seeks to further a cause beyond the self, engaging in service to others to experience “communion beyond the boundaries of the self.”

In so doing, by choosing to help the “other” when, under the law, even giving a Jew a piece of bread was punishable by death, the heroic altruists who rescued Jews during the Holocaust confronted their greatest fear, saved lives and perpetuated generations, and, in comparison to passive bystanders, were more likely to live “the good life.”  We may think that in order to be moral one must simply be able to discern what is right and wrong. However, morality not coupled with the requisite courage to take risks on the behalf of others is, to a certain degree, futile, not only for those we may seek to defend, but also for ourselves. In a beleaguered world beset with conflict, with hate crimes, active threats to Democracy, and the persecution of minority groups steadily increasing, we simply cannot afford for people not to enter the cave and grab the snake, especially when doing so is on behalf of the vulnerable “other.” 

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