Lessons On Courage From George R. R. Martin

I love reading. Since I was about eight years old, one of my favorite ways to be entertained is to kick back with a good book. I don’t read nearly as much now as I did then, of course, but I think it’s fair to say I still read more than most folks.

One of my favorite series right now is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the literary basis for HBO’s series Game of Thrones. I like it not just because it’s a richly-imagined fantasy world in which things don’t work quite the same way they do in my world, or because it’s full of characters engaged in life-and-death struggles that seem so much more important than the mundane stuff I deal with day to day. The real brilliance of Martin’s series is that his characters–all of his characters, no matter how minor–are fully human, with dreams and fantasies and phobias, motivated and terrified by the same things that would motivate and terrify you or me. When one of Martin’s characters acts with courage, it’s not a fearless act–I feel the character’s fear, and her determination to push through it, as acutely as I would my own.

Martin addresses exactly that point early in the first book of the series, called A Game of Thrones. One of the series’s protagonists, a boy named Bran, has a discussion with his father that goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing rather than looking it up):

Bran: Father, can you be brave even when you’re afraid?

Father: Bran, that’s the only time you can be brave.

This exchange sticks with me, because it’s as true in the real world as it is in Bran’s. Courage and fearlessness are not the same thing–they may lead to similar results, but they are not the same. Not by a long shot. Fearlessness means I do what I have to because the consequences don’t scare me; courage means I do what I have to do even though the consequences scare the crap out of me. I suppose fearlessness is probably much more comfortable, but courage is the better measure of one’s character.

So if courage is impossible without fear, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to claim we aren’t afraid, or to make fun of the guy who admits he is. Instead, let’s figure out a way to work through our fear, or to encourage that guy to do the same. Let’s let the product of our fear be courage, rather than more fear.

By the way–if you’re interested, you can get A Song of Ice and Fire here or the first season of Game of Thrones on DVD here. Both are for mature audiences (seriously–there’s some rough stuff here), so be sure to review them yourself before you decide whether to let your kids see or read them. For reference, we’ve allowed our fourteen-year-old son to read the books, but not watch the movies; our ten-year-old daughter, not so much.

I've been a soldier, a dreamer, a working stiff, a leader. A husband, father, example (good and otherwise), and now a survivor. I write about courage, because courage is what enables us to accomplish the impossible. If you draw breath, I love you. If you love in whatever way seems best to you and want others to love in whatever way seems best to them, I am your ally. If you believe someone is less than you because they do not love the way you do, I oppose you. If you see someone as a threat to be abused or destroyed merely because they do not look like you, or love like you, or worship like you, I am your enemy. I am a joyful and courageous man. And I stand with you who love.