Gathering the Energy to Fight: Redefining Moral Courage

"Courage" spelled out in felt letters. Photo by Magda Ehlers via Pexels.

In fourth grade, a boy at my school thought it was funny that I am Jewish. For some reason, he thought it was the wackiest thing in the world, and he wouldn’t stop talking about it. I don’t think he really understood what it meant, because all he seemed to have to say about it was “You’re Jewish, you’re Jewish” in a sing-song-y voice. I always thought it was kind of odd, like it wasn’t really right. But I didn’t feel like I could stand up for myself because, through my eyes, he wasn’t being full-on antisemitic—he was just being stupid.

After a while, though, I got sick of it. One day in art class, he said something in reference to my Judaism that must have irritated me (it was fourth grade, I don’t remember what it was), and I finally snapped. I remember my exact words: “You’re always making fun of me because I’m Jewish, and I want you to stop.” He never said another word about it.

Standing up to the boy at school fits a straightforward definition of moral courage: Standing up for what you believe in, even if it means you are alienated or punished for doing so. If you see a kid knock another’s books to the floor in the hallway, the next action would be to go up to the bully and set them straight. If you hear a couple of colleagues at the water cooler calling the #MeToo movement ridiculous, you would tell those people off for their insensitivity right then and there. These actions, as well as the action I took, are all valid and honorable approaches.

But it feels important to acknowledge that confrontation is not always easy for everyone. Does that mean they can't be morally courageous?

Overcoming anxiety is not a matter of courage; it's much more complicated than that. Anxiety can come in many forms. When a child breaks their arm riding their bike, do you tell them to “suck it up,” that “it’ll fix itself,” or to “just keep riding?” Of course not; none of those would be remotely appropriate. It’s a broken bone! People with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can’t just “get over it.” For someone with social anxiety, standing up to a mean kid at school might not be an attainable goal without help and treatment. This does not make them a coward. A narrow definition of moral courage is exclusionary towards people with mental health struggles, as well as people with disabilities.

I think that moral courage should be defined differently. In my view, it isn’t really about courage; it’s about gathering up the energy to fight, which looks different for every person. If someone says something antisemitic in school, for confrontational people, fighting may look like an immediate verbal reaction explaining why that is inappropriate. For others, it may be a well thought-out letter to the offender or a complaint to the school administration. Still others might start a club focused on fighting ignorance and xenophobia. Whatever route a person takes, they are gathering up energy to fight for what they believe in. What they choose includes their own unique set of tools and complications. What these individuals all have in common is the fact that they put in energy and time to fight for right. And that is what matters.

I was able to stand up to the boy who was making fun of me in elementary school using my words. But it isn’t always that easy for everyone. It’s important to have compassion, in this time and always, and to make space for the different ways that people will do what they can to fight; there are a thousand ways to do so.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Activism
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Absolutely powerful and beautifully put! You are without a doubt, a shining example of moral courage. Thank you♡

How to cite this page

Harris, Eleanor. "Gathering the Energy to Fight: Redefining Moral Courage." 13 May 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 6, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/gathering-energy-fight-redefining-moral-courage>.

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