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I Will Never Tell You You’re Awesome, But I Will Celebrate Your Courage

By Tove I. Dahl | Published: January 15, 2019

I will never tell you you’re awesome. You know why?  Because you probably are. But then I hear “You’re coming over? Awesome!”, or “Did you see the new show?  Isn’t it awesome?”, or “Look at my awesome new pink pen!” Suddenly everything is awesome. And then nothing is awesome anymore. What could possibly make a pink pen as awesome as you?

By overusing words, their original meanings can get whittled away. True, language is always in flux, and we have to expect that words will change through use. When we overuse words that describe something profound, however, we can lose touch with what that profound thing really is.  Awesome has become one of those words.  

Let’s save courage from the same fate.

We all have some idea of what courage is. That is important for understanding what we mean when we say that the mission of Concordia Language Villages is “to inspire courageous global citizens.” However, we have been working to build a more precise and shared understanding of what courage means so that we can use it to capture those profound moments when courage is truly practiced.

The staff of Skogfjorden pose at the Lekemoya sculpture
Courage is at the center of Skogfjorden, literally:
the lekemøya sculpture embodies moving forward
into the unknown.

Psychological research by people like Cynthia Pury, Shane Lopez, Robert Biswas-Diener, and many others has tried to unpack what courage is, focusing most recently on personal courage. Personal courage is what we call on when we feel overwhelmed by an important task that really matters for us to see through.  More specifically, personal courage is that willingness and ability to act in the face of substantial risk towards a noble goal.

What’s a noble goal? It is something that contributes to the betterment of our own lives or that of others. It could be anything from politely trying new food from a culture we know very little about to speaking up when we see someone being bullied.

What’s a substantial risk? It is something that is new, unknown, uncertain, or something that makes us feel afraid.  What feels risky is different for each of us. So while meeting new people may be fun for some, the uncertainty about whether the people we meet will like us may make it daunting for others. For two such people, one may need no courage to jump right in, while the other may need to muster all the courage they have to give it a go.  

Acts of personal courage often go unseen. What may look courageous to some people (like meeting new people, or even saving someone from drowning) may not be experienced as courageous at all by the seemingly courageous person. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, personal courage is funny that way.

Once we give “personal courage” a go, we can learn from it and tame that feeling of risk. By acting with sufficient skill and will, we often learn that the risk we dread is typically not as bad as we feared. That can help us manage the risk better next time.

The more we practice taking on risk with smaller things in our lives, the less risk will scare us in general.  Also, the more often we experience success with trying, the less courage we will need for similar tasks in the future. That way we can focus our courage on the really big things we care about.

Villagers after a soccer game
Personal courage looks different for each of us: 
a soccer game may be fun for one villager and a
terrifying new challenge for another. 

At the Language Villages, we are aware of how profound courage is for the achievement of noble goals—particularly to those related to being bold global citizens who dare to speak up or act where we see room for making our world better for ourselves and/or others. Assuring that everyone is treated with respect and fairness are noble goals that are possible for all of us to practice at home.  Assuring that everyone is able to lead a life where their basic human rights are protected and fulfilled are noble goals with global impact. Whenever approaching any of those goals feels risky, though, we understand how profound acting courageously feels.

Though you will never hear me say you are awesome, I will definitely respect you when you muster the skill and will to act in the face of substantial risk towards a noble goal. I will gladly celebrate your achievement with you—whether I see it myself or you tell me about it. If you want to see more courage around you, help yourself and others matter, encourage mastery, make lots of room for learning, and give mistakes a safe home.

Let’s use powerful words judiciously. Let’s protect the true magnificence of courageous global citizens.

About the Author

Tove and Curt at Nobel Prize Ceremony

Tove I. Dahl is dean of Skogfjorden, the Norwegian Language Village. She is a Professor of Educational Psychology at UiT The Arctic University of Norway (the world's northernmost university). Tove’s current research focuses on the nature of courage. Imagine, then, the thrill of accompanying her husband Curt Rice at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony this past December when Nobel laureates Dr. Denis Mukwege and young Nadia Murad were honored in Oslo's grand City Hall. Both laureates' words and deeds have required courage time and time again. There examples remind us that courage can be practiced at any age, from any walk of life and have huge ripple effects. 

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