Courage: it’s all the rage

“Talent is absolutely luck,” he said one day while talking about his early fear of performing. “And no question that the most important thing in the world is courage. People worship talent and it’s so ridiculous. Talent is something you’re born with, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is born tall. That’s why so many talented people are shitheels. But courage is everything because life is harsh and cruel. I believe it completely. The two things that I wish I had are courage, which I don’t feel I have, and that I was born with religious faith. Those two things would be great. I’d probably need less courage if I was born with religious faith. But if I was born with those two things, I’d be very far along in the game.

“You can’t mistake courage for show-business courage. That’s like being a comedy genius. There’s a difference between being a comedy genius and a genius. There’s the kind of genius where people on talk shows extol genius and courage. Genius for them is, you know, a guy who’s got six sitcoms going at the same time, and courage is always ‘He went on with just two days’ rehearsal.’ The stakes are embarrassment in those cases.

“Artistic courage is no big deal because life and death and bodily injury at not at stake. Courage is where you work for the underground in the war. Going onstage is not really courage, that’s sort of childish courage. The proper response to my fears is: ‘What are you making such a fuss for, jerk? Go out onstage and do it or stop complaining and go home and get another job.’

“My fear that I wouldn’t have courage under the right circumstances always humiliates me when I’m alone with myself,” he continued. “I cannot think of an act that I’ve done that required courage of any significance. Anytime that I’ve thought I might have a serious illness I was always reduced to sniveling, petrified anxiety. And I hope I never have to show courage. I hope I’m never passing a situation where two guys with knives are threatening a little old lady and my choice is to intervene or not, because I would be paralyzed.”

Whatever courage it took, [his managers] agree that Woody’s decision to give performing an additional six months was the turning point in his career. “There was a very strange thing going on during this period,” Joffe says. “He was really as bad a performer as you could know. The world had never seen such a scared person. But through it, the jokes were so brilliant that he was successful.”

–Eric Lax. Woody Allen: A Biography, (163-164)

Woody Allen never stopped being a neurotic basket-case, but he did eventually become somewhat comfortable with doing his stand-up routines.

So can courage be trained into someone? Is anybody courageous without a plethora of experience under their belt? Woody grew up with neurotic bickering parents, so no doubt he had little desire for attention when all the attention he received at home was worrisome and critical. And without practice from a young age, doing stage performances is pretty hard. And besides, for the more “cowardly” among us, don’t the little acts take as much courage as the amount those big acts take for our heroes? As some philosopher (whom I can’t remember off-hand) said: even the worst works of art and literature entail as much toil and suffering as the best ones. So… yeah.

Courage, like everything else, seems hard to define. It has a million different manifestations and people can argue over its definition endlessly because they see it from their little corner or aren’t satisfied with the limited definitions of another. So I’ll just stick to my guns and keep the definition I have to myself for now. Regardless, a lot of people probably envy talent the way Woody envies courage.

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One Response to “Courage: it’s all the rage”

  1. I think it comes down to that old adage, “fake it till you make it.” If you pretend you’re courageous eventually it’ll become ingrained and you won’t have to pretend anymore.

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