by Nicholas Henkey — on


It goes without saying, I am no hero. Cowardice is a lack of bravery, or lacking in the strength to face fear. It's a vice that I am no stranger to, yet cringe every time I see it. So, what distinguishes the two?

Our ability to distinguish, pursue, and accept the truth is a critical component to our courageous actions.

Approach Mechanism

An approach allows the person doing the approaching to prepare, emotionally accept, and psych one’s self up for upcoming events. This practice allows the person doing the approaching to understand how his/her actions will affect the outcome of the situation. Approach mechanisms allow the person to confront reality as it is encountered.

To illustrate this concept: skydiving is terrifying. How many people do you know that are traumatized by a skydiving experience? My guess is not many. The thing about skydiving, or any approach, is that the approacher understands the consequences of the actions that he/she is undertaking. When you understand the consequences of your actions, you can move on from short-term pain or terror and move immediately to acceptance.

While emotionally an approach mechanism can be effective, physically it can be costly. There is a place for fear in our lives. I am terrified of heights and will walk very carefully next time I go on a hike at Yosemite. Recklessness is dangerous to our physical health even if the act of approach is better for our mental health.

Defense Mechanism

A defense mechanism allows a person to offset the negative emotions associated with a painful idea. These mechanisms allow the person to cope with a negative shock after the situation has passed. Defenses are important for people to deal with unintended consequences of their actions.

My family’s mischievous nature illustrates defense mechanisms concisely. Some of us are/were smokers. Most smokers expect a cigarette to produce smoke when it is first lit up. From what I have seen, in my family, it works the same way… most of the time. The other times, the cigarette explodes in the face of the smoker because someone planted a firecracker in the pack. This results in a hilarious 5-20 minute micro-example of the stages of grief:

  1. Denial - Bewilderment and “freeze” response before the event registers in the smoker’s mind
  2. Anger - Chasing the perpetrator to give him a slug in the arm
  3. Bargaining - Asking the perpetrator to never do that again
  4. Depression - Calming down from the adrenaline rush and catching his/her breath
  5. Acceptance - Realizing that if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t hang out with my family… or at least quit smoking
  6. Moving On - (Approach) planting a firecracker in the pack of the original perpetrator

For most defense mechanisms, reaching acceptance and moving on is much more complex and longer in duration. With that said, humans are strong and can take precautions to understand the reality that we live in and train ourselves to psychologically manage discomfort when the unexpected comes our way.

Knowing Yourself

Now I'm going to get a little weird and Shakespearean, “to thine own self be true.” This phrase did not resonate with me when I first read Hamlet since I was a naive high-school student. When we are young, it is challenging to detect the lies that you tell yourself; some of these lies are perpetuated by societal vernacular. Here are a couple:

  • “Follow your dreams”  - I still remember hearing this one as a child. It’s confusing to a kid. Children tend to take words literally and “dreams” in this phrase is an abstraction. My parents can attest to the number of holes I dug in the back yard looking for buried treasure… following my dreams.
  • “You can do whatever you set your mind to”  - I can acquire new concepts, write, program (poorly) but I was never going to play in the NHL. People have relative strengths, but ALSO weaknesses. This phrase glosses over the reality of why specialization exists.

These lies that we teach children have side-effects. I remember being young with disorganized thoughts and little resolve. Banal statements often neglect the specifics of challenge; they ignore the down-side. Coming up with an ambitious personal vision requires organization and grit and encouraging a blind approach to a harsh world is... nice? I guess?... but irresponsible. The following should be appended to both phrases: “but it will be exceptionally painful.”

Pursuing your goals requires that you remain true to yourself. As adults we must tell ourselves the truth even when unintended consequences trigger our defense mechanisms. This is the essence of the Stockdale Paradox:

“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” James Stockdale

I agree that this is too much truth for a 5 year old; one of the blessings of being a first-world child is low responsibility fun (it always made me a bit stir-crazy, though). As an adult this is the only truth that guarantees my  long-term happiness. Truth is challenge, a good thing for personal growth.


Valor requires approach and defense in measure = tempered by truth. The heroes we worship often find themselves in situations that catch them by surprise, they find the fortitude to accept the truth immediately, or recover from grief in a meaningful way. There is some debate regarding whether character is built or revealed; why not both? Courage is a major component of moral character. Making courageous choices is an attribute strengthened by exercise and therefore built; high-profile pressure situations reveal the courage and character of all of us.

I found the true nature of courage in Private Albert Blithe. Some of us watched episode 3 of the mini-series “Band of Brothers,” where Blithe was so terrified of battle that he preferred crying in a foxhole to fighting in battle. Inspired by his fellow combatants, he ultimately confronted his fear and fought the Germans in Europe. After the battle he fatefully VOLUNTEERED to take point and was shot in the neck by a sniper.

The series implied that he spent the rest of his life bedridden, which is not true. The real Blithe made a recovery and re enlisted multiple times after his discharge from the army. In the show, he was afraid and made a conscious decision to face his fears; in reality, after being touched by death he consciously chose to continue to fight for his fellow soldiers.

This story suggests that choice to help the ones we love lives in all of us, even the most fearful or worst injured.

The most important component of a person with this virtue is the ability to cope with uncertainty. We face uncertainty every day and deal in different ways: some of us mask the truth, others avoid risk, and some accept life for what it is. All of us face tragedy and challenges. But Remember: Only my family will carefully wrap saran wrap over your toilet bowl… so you have that one victory to be proud of.