Heroism: Five Minutes Longer

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have heard the story of the brave Spartans at Thermopylae, 300 brave men standing against thousands. This legend has stayed vibrant after thousands of years of telling. Why? Because every society depends on courage for its survival. Suffering, temptation, deceit, death – they are all coming for us. If our courage fails at the onslaught – we, and our nations, will fall.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”

C.S. Lewis

The men of Sparta were hardened and made courageous by a brutal childhood. They were trained to see a glorious death as the ultimate goal. They were indoctrinated in their individual purpose and their nation’s ideals. They had a deep love of their homeland. In our modern world, many of these methods seem antiquated and backward. But have we dropped too many of these standards? We now see news stories of defenseless women attacked on the Subway while dozens watch, or film, without aiding her. We hear of known abusers of children or women never being confronted because of their power or position. We hear biological facts ignored, moral truths undefended, personal beliefs disregarded – all in fear of societal backlash. We need to make courage the supreme virtue again. But how?

The children of Sparta were trained from a young age to be courageous, the children of America, and much of the west, are left untrained for any battle – moral or physical. (To be clear, Spartan culture was pretty horrific and child abuse was the norm, so we shouldn’t follow their precise example.) The first step in inculcating a child in courage is to encourage them to step into the unknown, to be brave for five minutes longer.

Leonidas statue, Thermopylae, Greece

It is parents who plant the seeds of courage in their children. They do this by encouraging them to step into the darkness of the unknown. My dad would often quote Mark Twain to us kids when we complained about doing something out of our comfort zone – “Do something every day that you don’t want to do”. As a child, we traveled a lot. As we traveled, I remember thinking that my parents must hate speaking to strangers – they always made me do it. “Go ask that guy the way to the metro” “Go buy tickets” “See how long the line is”. I see now they were teaching me to be comfortable speaking with people and handling new situations (and honestly they probably didn’t want to do it). Now, in adulthood, when others may find meeting new people and traveling in foreign countries intimidating, I enjoy it. I am certainly nothing but ordinary – but I was pushed into uncomfortable realms that have helped me in this area of life. Put me on a ski slope, and my cowardice will quickly present itself.

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Will Durant summarizing Aristotle

When we teach our kids to read – we push them to a more difficult book than the one last week – they may whine that it is “too hard” – but we know that progress is made in the extra, not the ease. 

Teaching our children to be capable of “heroics” actually comes naturally to parents – we want our children to become strong adults. However, this can be stifled by an excessive desire to make life easy or “happy”.

Sometimes we don’t want to hear the whining. Sometimes we let our anxiety about the unknown, (perhaps because we have not pushed ourselves enough out of our own comfort-zones) keep us from encouraging our children into those “extra five minutes”. We take the safe and flat road, forgetting that strong legs and healthy lungs only develop on steep inclines. If parents are there for anything, it is to encourage our children to climb, and to climb with them.

The brave man is simply an ordinary man, but has become capable in those extra minutes – he likely has been there before. If we want to raise heroes we must encourage our children to step into those “five minutes”, in as many areas and as many times as we can, so when the time for heroics arrives – they know what to do.

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”


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