The Courage to Fail, the Courage to Hope, the Courage to Love

Baccalaureate Address at the University of Evansville
Spring Commencement, 2019
by Michael Austin, Executive Vice President and Provost

At our commencement ceremony later this afternoon, we will all sing two songs that try to put into words and music what it means to be a graduate of the University of Evansville: the Alma Mater and the Sesquicentennial Anthem — both of which end with the same phrase: a resolution to “face the future unafraid.” This, apparently, is what Aces do.

But why is it what we do? I have never been big on facing things unafraid. Bravery can get you killed, and the future, quite frankly, scares me to death. I recently came across a quotation by the Internet philosopher and life coach that puts this into perspective: “Courage,” he says, “means doing something even if you know that it might hurt. Stupidity means the same thing. And that’s why life is hard.”

And yet, courage is an undeniable part of the University of Evansville’s heritage, and, just yesterday, the UE Board of Trustees approved a new mission statement that contains the phrase “act bravely” as part of our new, eighteen-word mission statement,

To empower each student to think critically, act bravely, serve responsibly, and live meaningfully in a changing world.

So, maybe brave is not quite the same thing as stupid. As I prepared this address, I decided to at least test this hypothesis by describing three kinds of courage that, I think, all of us need to have more of. These things, I suspect, are what it really means to “face the future unafraid.”

The Courage to Fail
The prospect of failure terrifies us because it confirms our worst suspicions about ourselves: that we are not good enough, or smart enough, or competent enough to succeed — that we are going to die homeless, friendless, and penniless with everybody laughing at our graves.

This fear of failure has been hardwired into us by about four billion years of evolutionary environments where just about any failure meant certain death. But things aren’t that dire any more. Most people who succeed spectacularly have to go through equally spectacular failures. And most people who succeed modestly manage to do so after experiencing only modest failures. But failure and success are tied together. They come from the same set of characteristics.

Forty years ago, Mina Shaughnessy changed the way that colleges teach writing classes by demonstrating that, as students’ writing ability improves in higher-functioning areas like critical thinking, synthesis, and analysis, they make more errors in things like spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Why? Because people make mistakes when they reach outside of their comfort zone and try things that they aren’t already good at.

It is possible to live a life virtually free of failure by sticking with things that you already do very well. This way, you never have to risk doing things badly, or inadequately, or in a way that does not make people think you are wonderful. The word for the results produced by this philosophy is “mediocrity.” Mediocre things are often perfect, in the sense that they do not contain any obvious errors or imperfections, but they are perfect executions of things that are barely worth doing.

I want you to be excellent, and, for that to happen, you are going to have to make mistakes. Lots of them. You are going to have to get messy and lost and try things you don’t know how to do. You are going to have to fail, and you are going to have to risk failing even more. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and any success worth having comes with the risk of failure. Knowing this and trying anyway is part of what it means to “face the future unafraid.”

The Courage to Hope
Hope is the awkward middle child of the three great spiritual gifts Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 — what people of my generation might call the “Jan Brady” of theological virtues. It always finds itself stuck between the mountain-moving urgency of Faith and the flashy never-failething of Charity. Hope does its essential work much more quietly. But it is nonetheless essential work.

And hope is definitely essential. It is the combination of a vision and a motivation to work towards it. Unless we can imagine a better future, we can never attain it; and unless we believe it possible, we can never be motivated to work for it. Hope lies behind all of the progress that human beings have made to create a better world. And despondency — the absence of hope — lies behind the great majority of our problems.

But hope is also the most dangerous virtue. Every time we hope, we open ourselves up to disappointment and disillusion. And we will be disappointed. Everything that we can attach hope to — institutions, religious organizations, nations, other people, and ourselves — will sometimes fail, sometimes default on its promises, sometimes hurt us for reasons that we can’t accept or understand. Emily Dickinson wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul.” Perhaps, but hope is also the thing with talons / that gouges out the eyes.

I know many people who have been hurt so badly by hope that they try to live their lives without it. They assume that everything will turn out for the worst, and they are often right. And they are never disappointed because they have decided to live perpetually at peak levels of misery and unhappiness to make sure that nothing ever makes them unhappier than they already are.

This is what happens when people lack the courage to hope. Do not give in to it. Let yourself believe in things and trust people, even if that means that they may sometimes disappoint you. Because sometimes they won’t, and that makes all the difference.

The Courage to Love
Nothing takes more courage than love, because nothing opens us to more pain. I’m not talking about the theological virtue of love — agape, or the generalized love of all humankind. All humankind can’t reject me, or leave me, or die and crush my soul. Only individual people that I love can do these things. Loving other people can cause us so many different kinds of pain that we might as well just plan on hurting if we decide to let ourselves love them.

Love other people anyway.

Love them because they need love — even though they are flawed and broken and will rarely reciprocate your affections adequately.

Love them because you need to love. You need the experience of caring for somebody else’s welfare as much as you care for your own, and of being willing to give things up to help them succeed. You need to learn that you are not the only living organism that matters, and, to do this, you need to understand what it means for somebody else to matter more to yourself than you do.

Love them because we all need to live in a world where people love people. We have plenty of hate already. Plenty of apathy. Plenty of disdain, prejudice, fear, and manipulation. And we have, thank you very much, plenty of examples of people treating each other as vehicles for their own gratification or advancement.

Humans are capable of closing ourselves off to love. We are, among other things, scared and skittish little mammals with a strong instinct for self-preservation. We often bring this instinct into the realm of our personal relationships, where “fight or flight” looks an awfully lot like “being a jerk” — making sure to reject other people before they reject us or to leave them before they leave us or to hurt them before they hurt us.

But one of humanity’s greatest gifts is the ability NOT to act like scared little mammals in our personal relationships. We are not stuck using our squirrel brains all the time. We can open ourselves to other people and love them and experience genuine joy. But this means that we have to do scary things.

Love is a scary thing well worth doing. Nothing is sadder to me than a person who, when faced with the choice between fear and love, chooses fear.

This, I think, is what courage looks like.

Stupid, on the other hand, is something altogether different. I’m not sure that I really know what courage is, but I have a very good sense of stupid. Poking bears is stupid. Drinking and driving is stupid. Getting into situations that expose you to substantial risk — be it physical, spiritual, or emotional — and do not offer corresponding benefits is stupid. And doing things just to prove that you are brave enough to do them is stupid. Don’t be stupid. We expect better of you.

But do be brave. Head into the future with your eyes wide open to what might go wrong, but with a a sense of wonder about what might go right. Don’t make yourself ineligible for the best things that life can offer because you are afraid that they might hurt.

They will. I guarantee it. You will be hurt. You will fail. You will be disappointed — no matter how hard you try not to be. This is why you need courage, since it is by facing these things, not trying to avoid them, that we build a life that works within a life that counts. That, ultimately, is what it means to face the future unafraid.

Congratulations graduates!

Written by

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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