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The Courage To Be

by Herb Stevenson

existentialism >n. a philosophical theory which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.

Courage is taught to men from the beginning of life, or should I say, the courage that has become culturally acceptable is taught to men from the beginning of life. This generally accepted form of courage is portrayed as “charging the hill” in battle whether the battle is real as in the Viet Namese or Iraqi wars or imaginative as in a John Wayne movie on television or metaphorical as in creating a totally new concept within an organization that meets a wall of resistance. In truth, these battles can be arguably stated as examples of courage, when it reality, it often reflects willfulness, an important piece of what is courage.

According to Paul Tillich, “courage is strength of mind, capable of conquering whatever threatens the attainment of the highest good.”(1952, 7). To attain this highest good, we need to realize that blind courage, such as charging a hill, does not necessarily attain the highest good. True, it may save lives or end the war or increase territories, but these are typically short-sighted results. To attain the highest good from an act of courage it must be integrated with wisdom and balanced by temperance and justice. In other words, “courage listens to reason and carries out the intention of the mind. It is the strength of the soul to win victory in ultimate danger...” (1952, 8) As such, true courage is seen in the capacity to search for meaning in life, to search for one’s true purpose, and to struggle with the anxiety of one’s existence. This can experienced as the courage to overcome physical danger, the courage to maintain moral integrity in the most dire circumstances, or the courage to “relate to other human beings in such a way as to risk one’s self in the hope of achieving meaningful intimacy.1” (May, 1994, 17)

In Tillich’s terms, the courage to address these issues manifests in the form of (1) the courage to be part of a larger whole, (2) the courage to take a stand alone, and (3) the courage to accept the fact that we are carried by the creative power of being in which every creature participates.

Anxiety and Existential Courage to Face Life and Death: The experience of being—alive and dead

Existential Instincts to Face Life

Otto Rank introduced the existential contest between life and death. He felt we have a "life instinct" that pushes us away from joining and towards individuation so as to become individuals, competent and independent, and a "death instinct" that pushes us away from our individuality so as to be part of a family, community, or humanity. (Boeree, 1998) In many ways, these are the determining factors between whether we approach life with courage or out of desperation. Both instincts create a tension that, if held throughout life, supports living on the edge of life in a state of being (or creating). When the balance is lost, we become overly enveloped by one instinct to the point in time that the other instinct erupts creating a sense of desperation to re-balance the tension between. Often experienced as an internal disintegration, the re-balancing process creates massive internal chaos until a new equilibrium is found and established.

Anxiety as Existential Fears of Facing Life

Juxtaposed to these instincts, we feel a certain fear. The "fear of life" or “life fear” is the fear of abandonment, separation, loneliness, and alienation (Boeree, 1998) and is typically associated with the “fear of going forward” to become fully individualized. (May, 1997, 151) “It shows itself in the need for dependency on someone else and/or the need to throw one’s self so completely into a relationship that one has no self left with which to relate.” (May, 1994, 18). Therefore, “life fear” is the polarity, or more appropriately the shadow, of the “life instinct”.

Similarly, the "fear of death or “death fear” is the fear of getting lost in the whole, stagnating, being no-one (Boeree, 1998) and is typically associated with the “anxiety of ‘going backwards’ thereby losing one’s individuality.” (May, 1997, 151) “This is the fear of being totally absorbed by the other, the fear of losing one’s self and one’s autonomy, the fear of having one’s independence taken way.” (May, 1994, 19) Therefore, “death fear” is the polarity, or more appropriately the shadow, of the “death instinct”.

Life’s Separations

Our lives are filled with separations, beginning with birth. Rank's earliest work, in fact, concerned birth trauma the idea that the anxiety experienced during birth was the model for all anxiety experienced afterwards. After birth, there's weaning and discipline and school and work and heartbreaks.... But avoiding these separations is, literally, avoiding life and choosing death -- never finding out what you can do, never leaving your family or small town, never leaving the womb! (Boeree, 1998) So we must face our fears, recognizing that, to be fully developed, we must embrace both life and death, become individuals and nurture our relationships with others.

Existential Paradox of Life and Death

Instinct Supporting Courage Life Instinct pushes us away from joining and towards individuation so as to become individuals, competent and independent. Potentially leading to a fear or sense of aloneness. Death Instinct pushes us away from our individuality so as to be part of a family, community, or humanity. Potentially leading to a fear or sense of loss of self.
Fear/Shadow Supporting Desperation Life Fear is the fear of abandonment, separation, loneliness, and alienation. It shows itself in the need for dependency on someone else and/or the need to throw one’s self so completely into a relationship that one has no self left with which to relate. Death Fear is the fear of getting lost in the whole, stagnating, being no-one. This is the fear of being totally absorbed by the other (loss of internal authority to exist as in a family dynamic), the fear of losing one’s self (loss of internal authority/self-identity) and the fear of losing one’s autonomy (becoming co-dependent), the fear of having one’s independence taken way (loss of freedom and will). Prevents

Rank believed that “life fear” was more closely associated with women and that “death fear” was more closely associated with men, however he lived through the late 1930's, and it is now believed that both fears permeate the existence of both men and women. Moreover, “between these two fear possibilities, these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life” (Rank, 1936, 175) between claiming the right to fully individuate and claiming a place amongst mankind, such as being a part of a family, organization, and community.


Freedom is an inescapable truth for mankind. “Our freedom within certain boundless.” (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 30) We can choose to live consciously or we can choose not to choose and therefore live unconsciously. Regardless of our choosing, “it is an irrefutable and irrevocable fact that we have free will.” (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 31)

A Fish in Water

Culture manifested in family of origin, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, etcetera, presents the illusion that we are not free because like a fish in water, we are immersed and therefore unaware of these limiting or constricting influences. Nonetheless, we choose to deceive ourselves into believing that we are not free because like a fish, we can move out of water so as to know it and therefore decide whether to be confined by it or to accept it consciously within our free will.

“Once we have mustered the courage to understand, to accept, and to face fully the absolute existence of our free will, we will discover it can give us unequaled power to handle our fundamental problems. To accept and to understand one’s free will is to have reached maturity, to have developed the capacity to live life fully. (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 31-32)

To fully understand our free will requires that we constantly use selfreflection and introspection to examine what we choose and choose not to choose. This process results in the development of conscious awareness. As we develop our conscious awareness, we begin to find other cultures or fields of immersion that hold a frame of reference of how to be in the world. Once these fields of immersion are revealed, we begin to realize that there are other cultures, etc., and therefore that we are immersed in our own culture. Once we realize this state, we have further revealed personal freedom in choice and in use of free will.


“To feel responsibility for one’s actions is not merely a desirable frame of mind, but is above all the recognition of a fact of human existence, a fact that follows directly from our understanding of our free will or freedom.” (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 40) “Blaming other people or external circumstances for our problems, misfortunes, failures, and meaninglessness is not an insight into the “true” nature of things, but merely a cheap and eventually ineffectual form of escape. To blame others merely means making a decision to avoid responsibility which ultimately and inescapably is one’s own.” (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 41.) We are responsible for the quality of our lives.


“Realizing the fact and nature of our freedom makes us mature; it gives us the reins of our life—we can exercise control, direction, and command over our own existence, We each become an individual, with all the satisfaction, concreteness, solidity, and security that this implies. Successful and authentic living and action require a constant consciousness of the fullness of our freedom and the corresponding responsibility and control.” (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 78) In short, responsibility is learning to showup (be fully present) without preconceived notions while being able to clearly set boundaries and to take action congruent with whom you are.


We tend to spend tremendous amounts of energy subduing anxiety. Because it exists within every person, it is a part of the human condition. However, because we are a symptomatic society that ranks discomfort within the “bad” symptoms or conditions of life and comfort within the “good” symptoms of life, we tend as a society to eliminate part of what it means to be human. When we get down to the basics of humanity, we realize that the “experience of anxiety is not an undesirable pain but is, in fact, a fundamental clue to the authentic structure of the human condition.” (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 92)

Psychological Courage and Fear

Nonetheless, the fear induced by anxiety, often, centers around a loss of psychological stability. “Psychological fear is a sense of...a destabilizing of the "self".(Putnam, 1997, 2) In psychological courage, therefore, it is the psyche itself whose loss is threatened in terms of the possibility of not existing. The foreboding sense of anxiety that accompanies the sense of fear of losing a grip on reality are fears of a kind of psychic death. Existentially, it is comparable to facing the possibility of non-existence. This is not the issue with moral courage, for we know that a failure to be courageous will leave the self intact but with a sense of guilt or shame.” (Putnam, 1997, 2)

Authentic Anxiety

Authentic anxiety reminds us that we can experience life as pointless, empty, boring, and meaningless, while at the same time being terrified to admit it. (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001, 93) Simultaneously, anxiety reminds us of the nothingness of life that is experienced via dread, anguish, and angst, each reminding us of the deep sense of loss of those things that matter most. Anxiety is the threatened loss of existence as we know it. Often, anxiety leads us into despair where “we discover that ultimate anxiety discloses that the indestructible presence of consciousness. Rather than death, we discover “the very ground of being that we are. Thus anxiety is the threshold that leads to the understanding that the consciousness and the ego (which is not the same as my body or my person) cannot be thought of as not existing.” (Block & Koestenbaum, 2001,95)

Courage to Be

As noted in the opening pages of ths paper, true courage is seen in the capacity to search for meaning in life, to search for one’s true purpose, and to struggle with the anxiety of one’s existence. It means acting and being oneself in spite of fear, dread, doubt and other responses to anxiety—the sense of nonexistence. In Tillich’s terms, the courage to address these issues manifests in the form of (1) the courage to be part of a larger whole, (2) the courage to take a stand alone, and (3) the courage to accept the fact that we are carried by the creative power of being in which every creature participates.

Courage To Be Part of a Larger Whole

Being part of a larger whole is about being intimately involved, committed to something greater than oneself that requires letting go of part of whom we are so as to truly become part of a larger whole2. Typical example are being intimately involved in one’s family or the various organizations that one participates, such as one’s church or temple or one’s place of employment. Many people fall prey to themselves by rendering participation that is either blind or unconscious. Blind participation is the unwillingness or naivete’ to be fully present and maintain the unwavering goal to integrate wisdom, balanced by temperance and justice. In other words, “courage listens to reason and carries out the intention of the mind. It is the strength of the soul to win victory in ultimate danger...” The acid test of such courage is to knowingly put one’s personal interest at bey, or if you prefer, to sub-optimize one’s personal action or interest for the greater good of the community. An example of responding to a death instinct would be following one’s need to belong and become part of a community at the expense of experiencing the loss of some independence, competency, and individuality. An example of responding to life fear would be to knowingly participate in the family dynamics that leads to dysfunctional behavior and/or to participate in church politics that subverts the actual teaching of the church or temple rather than stay in the anxiety of difference and the potential for aloneness, separation, and alienation. An example of responding to a death fear would be to knowingly buck, bully, and/or bounce against the group to avoid joining and losing one’s sense of self-control (independence). An example of responding to an existential death wish, per se, would be to knowingly lose one self in the whole (family, group, or community)so as minimize one’s existence.

The courage co be a part of a larger whole deals with group identification, self-affirmation through the group, and group affirmation through individuals. Self-affirmation requires both self courage to be and the courage to be a part of the whole. The self always includes self-affirmation of the power of being in which the self participates. The self affirms itself as participant in the power of a group, in spite of the threat of nonbeing. But once participating in a group, it is no longer the courage to be as oneself, but the courage to be as a part. Yet rather then being a weakness lacking courage, being a part points to the fact that self-affirmation of and threat of nonbeing remains in being a participant (Schwartz)

"We are threatened not only with losing our individual selves but also with losing participation in our world. Therefore self-affirmation as a part requires courage as much as does self-affirmation as oneself. It is one courage which takes a double threat of nonbeing into itself. The courage to be is essentially always the courage to be as a part and the courage to be as oneself, in interdependence." (Tillich, p. 90)

The Courage to be by Taking a Stand, Alone

To take a stand, alone, is to acknowledge that, in terms of existence, each of us are totally alone. This aloneness is a place where our capacity to search for meaning in life, to search for one’s true purpose, and to struggle with the anxiety of one’s existence can evolve.3 In Rank’s terms, this is the life instinct to seek individuation, competency, and independence. An aberrant life instinct would be the life fear of having not developed sufficient internal authority to pursue individuation and instead become frozen in the desperation and fear of abandonment, separation, loneliness, and alienation.

Tillich notes that "courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing. It is the act of the individual self affirming itself either as part of an embracing whole or in its individual selfhood by taking the anxiety of nonbeing upon oneself. Courage always includes a risk, it is always threatened by the sense of nonbeing, whether the risk of losing oneself and becoming a thing within the whole of things or of losing one's world in an empty self-relatedness. Courage needs the power of being, a power transcending the nonbeing which is experienced in the anxiety of fate and death, which is present in the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, which is effective in the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. The courage which takes this threefold anxiety into itself must be rooted in a power of being that is greater than the power of oneself and the power of one's world. Neither self-affirmation as a part nor self-affirmation as oneself is beyond the manifold threat of nonbeing." (Tillich, p. 155)

Hence, the courage to be part of a larger whole (family, group, community) requires the individual to be open and fully present as part of something larger than oneself and therefore capable of creating/enduring massive anxiety about one’s personal existence and staying within the tension to realize that part (self) and whole(family, group, community)simultaneously exist.

The Power of Being, not Alone—The God Above God And The Courage To Be

The ultimate source of the courage to be is the power of BEING. Only this ground of BEING has the ability to transcend the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness, taken into the courage to be. While the power of being does not devalue all that is concrete with meaninglessness, it accepts the doubt that allows their potential restitution. Absolute faith is a state of BEING.

Regarding the relation of man to the ground of his being, the participation with life in family, community, etc. and individualization of the self as a separate and unique person, determine the special character of the courage to be. If participation is dominant, then the being-itself has a mystical character, where in the individual transcends the experience of the earthly existence while witnessing the process. If individualization prevails, in the form of full presence as in body mind and soul, then it becomes a personal character. Nonetheless, when the depths of participation and individuation are codeveloped as joint and several experiences of one and the same, it becomes that of the character of faith. The power of being, unites and transcends the courage to be and the courage to be a part by both participating and self affirming as an individual. It avoids the loss of oneself by participation in something greater and the loss of one's world by individualization, (Scwartz) and therefore, we become part and whole at the same time in the horrific serenity of BEING. "If the self participates in the power of being itself, it receives itself back. For the power of being acts through the power of the individual selves." (Tillich)

"Absolute faith, or the state of being grasped by the God beyond God, (the power of BEING), is not a state which appears beside other states of the mind. It never is something separated and definite, an event which could be isolated and described, it is always a movement in, which, and under other states of the mind. It is the situation on the boundary of man's possibilities. It is this boundary. Therefore it is both the courage of despair and the courage in and above every courage. It is not a place where one can live, it is without the safety of words and concepts, it is without a name, a church, a cult, a theology. But it is moving in the depth of all of them. It is the power of BEING, in which they participate and of which they are fragmentary expressions." (Tillich,p. 189)

Becoming aware of this state, the power of being or ground of our being, is to change the traditional symbols of theism—belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe—to that of the God above theism, similar to the Sun Dance ceremonials of indigenous tribes that did not idolize the sun through dance, but expressed gratitude to the God or mystery behind the Sun. Symbols that promote theism, such as immortality, providence, judgment, inherited sin, remove the awareness of the power of being, the self-affirmation in spite of the threat of nonbeing. When the traditional symbols are changed so they can enable men to become aware of the power of being to withstand and take in[to] itself the anxiety of fate and death and that of guilt and condemnation, then the capacity to experience BEING exists. (Schwartz)

Closing Thoughts

Holy has become identified with moral perfection [when in fact] holy is an awareness of the presence of the something beyond ourselves that can be creative or destructive, divine or demonic. The choice is ours.
—paraphased Paul Tillich

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star”

Anxiety tests our courage to stand alone, our courage to be part of a larger whole such as a family or community or organization, and the courage to be responsible to the whole of creation, including all that is of or on the earth.
—paraphased Paul Tillic


1. It is the courage to invest one’s self over a period of time in a relationship that will demand an increasing openness. Intimacy requires courage because risk is inescapable.(May, 1994, 17)

2. To be part of the larger whole requires following the “death instinct” by overcoming the “death fear” of getting lost in the whole stagnating, and/or being no one. It is the courage to be a part of a whole (group) that demands facing the sense of loss of a separate self, the sense of non-existence.


Block, Peter, & Koestenbaum, Peter (2001) Freedom and Accountability at Work. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass/Pfeiffer.

Boeree, C. George (1998) Otto Rank, Koestenbaum, Peter (1971)The Vitality of Death: Essays in Existential Psychology and Philosophy. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.
.........................(1974) Existential Sexuality, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall
.........................(1978) The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy, Westport Connecticut: Greenwood
........................(1979) Managing Anxiety, Millbrae, California: Celestial Arts.
........................(1987) The Heart of Business: Ethics, Power and Philosophy. San Francisco, California: Saybrook Publishing.
........................(2002) Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness—a philosophy for leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

May, Rollo (1983) The Discovery of Being, New York: W. W Norton & Co.
.........................(1994) The Courage to Create, New York: W. W Norton & Co.
........................(1996) The Meaning of Anxiety, Revised Edition, New York: W. W Norton & Co.

Putman, Daniel (1997) Psychological Courage, Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 4.1 1-11

Rank, Otto, Will therapy (1936) New York: Alfred Knopf

Schwartz, Richard, (1952) "The Courage To Be." Edited, Abridged and Expanded.

Tillich, Paul, (1952) The Courage to Be. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Appendix A

Characteristics of Existential Reality

Rollo May noted that thee are six characteristics of a person's existential reality (May, 1983, 26-34).

  1. Every existing person is centered within his self, and an attack on this center is an attack on his existence itself. As such, what is typically described as deviant behavior, such as neurosis, is not a deviation from what a person should be, but the precise method the individual uses to preserve his center, his own existence. It reflects the survival mechanism of the person to preserve this center (core self) and perceptually to exist. Hence, the neurosis is a way of accepting nonbeing of a part of the self so that some being may be preserved.

  2. Every existing person has the character of self-affirmation, the need to preserve his centeredness. Hence, to overcome the neurosis that has developed to protect some part of being, the person needs courage to step into the neurosis to expand the area of being. In the most general sense, it is the reclaiming of one's core self, that part that has been carefully enveloped with rage, anger, and pain from the denial of one's very own existence.

  3. All existing persons have the need and possibility of going out from their centeredness to participate in other beings. By exploring forms of existence beyond the closed-in-centeredness, the person becomes threatened with non-being as any shift in the center via expansion, contraction, or movement in any direction changes the entire sense of existence. Hence, awareness precedes consciousness and therefore to acknowledge existence beyond the self prescribed closed-in-centeredness, requires developing new awareness that automatically change the well protected center and expand consciousness. Typically, this is called an identity crisis. Often it results from "dispersing of oneself in participation and identification with others until one's own being is emptied".

  4. The subjective side of centeredness is awareness. Sensing that the self-prescribed closed-incenteredness is or potentially is threatened, vigilance (awareness of external dangers and threats to existence), hyper-vigilance, and/or anxiety rears up to bring the person back into its selfprescribed closed-in-centeredness (safe-existence).

  5. The uniquely human form of awareness is self consciousness. Consciousness, in contrast, is not simply my awareness of threat from the world, but my capacity to know myself as the one being threatened. In other words, it is my experience of myself as the subject who has a world. When a new function or knowledge or capability emerges into my self consciousness, the whole previous pattern, the total gestalt of my consciousness changes. Thereafter, I am changed or different in accordance with new consciousness. In this sense, the simple can be understood only in terms of the more complex.

    ence, when the person has been subjected to trauma, such as childhood abuse, the subjective side of centeredness is awareness of the threat to the existence or very being as a human being. To preserve this core self, blocking off, checking out and other forms of distorting self consciousness occurs. This can be in the emotional, physical, mental, astral, and/or spiritual bodies. For example, during sexual abuse, the child experiences overstimulation that creates a sense of threat physically, emotionally, mentally, and astrally (energetically). Vigilant awareness creates an early warning system of when it is time to shut down the body experiences. In time, this becomes the armoring that prevents a full range of consciousness/experience/existence to develop.

    The solution to reversing this self-prescribed closed-in-centeredness (safe-existence) is to create awareness of the self-prescribed closed-in-centeredness and to transmute this awareness into consciousness. As such, awareness is my knowing that something is threatening from outside my (self-prescribed closed-in-centeredness) world. Self-consciousness shifts this awareness to seeing that I am the one who is threatened, that I am the being who stands in this world which threatens, I am the subject who has a world. This expanded awareness creates the opportunity for in-sight or inward sight and therefore able to see the world and it's problems in relation to my-self. It gives me the possibility of doing something about the threat, including determining if it is still applicable to my-self, my-world, my-existence.

    Consciousness of one's own desires and affirming them involves accepting one's originality and uniqueness, and it implies that one must be prepared to be isolated not only from parental figures whom one has been dependent, but at that instant to stand alone in the entire psychic universe as well.

  6. Anxiety is the state of the human being in the struggle against what would destroy his being. The conflict within the person is the confrontation between the choice of whether and how far he or she will stand against his or her own being, his or her own potentialities, his or her own existence.

    The self confrontation which is involved in the acceptance of self-consciousness is anything but simple. It involves a cadre of self deprecating truths such as accepting the hatred of the past, his parent's of him and his of them, accepting his present motives of hatred and destruction, cutting through rationalizations and illusions about his behaviors and motives, and the acceptance of responsibility and aloneness which this implies; the giving up of childhood omnipotence, and the acceptance of the fact that though he can never have absolute certainty of choices, he must choose anyway.

    Noteworthy is the fact that consciousness itself implies always the possibility of turning against oneself, of denying oneself, of the temptation of consciousness killing itself. However, the confronting of genuine tragedy is a highly cathartic experience psychically. Tragedy is inseparably connected with the human being's dignity and grandeur and is the accompaniment of the person's moments of greatest insight.

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