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Ukraine: How do people drum up courage?

Manasi Gopalakrishnan | Louisa Schaefer
March 15, 2022

People are awed by the bravery of the Ukrainian people, and of Russians protesting against their state despite all risks. Where does courage come from?

Women and children in the snow, Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Millions of people have fled Ukraine, most of them women and childrenImage: Visar Kryeziu/AP/dpa/picture alliance

As war rages on with no end yet in sight, Ukrainians have gone to unimaginable lengths to protect themselves and their country. Though many have joined the war as soldiers, others have stayed back to provide the fighters with food, medicine and other essential commodities or simply for moral support.

We have seen Ukrainian mothers taking their children over the borders, having to leave their husbands or sons over 18 behind. Or, in a particular twist, carrying offspring over the borders, placing them into safe hands, and returning to their home country to likewise help in the fight.

We try to digest the scared looks on the faces of these kids — a mixture of fear and instant maturity etched into their expressions.

There are journalists on the ground taking risks as they broadcast the news on the war to the world.

And then, there are the protesters.

Even in cities occupied by Russia, such as Kherson, Ukrainians keep marching and protesting against the invading army's presence and in support of the unity of Ukraine.

In Russia, too, masses of people have gone out on the streets and protested President Vladimir Putin's attack on their neighbor, even though the Duma recently passed a law allowing sentences of up to 15 years for people who spread "false" information about the army. That includes people protesting the country's invasion of Ukraine.

Tens of thousands have been arrested, including a woman who was taken into custody for holding up a sheet of blank paper.

On March 14, an employee of the state-run television Channel 1, Marina Ovsyannikova, stormed a news broadcast, yelling "stop the war!" and holding a sign warning viewers that they are being lied to: 

Russian journalist protests war on live TV

These are just a few examples of courage and bravery, and, while we may wonder if we'd act the same way in that situation, another question arises: What is courage and how do we, as humans, find the strength to be brave under trying circumstances?

What is courage?

"We define courage as taking a worthwhile risk," said Cynthia Pury, a professor of psychology at Clemson University in the US state of South Carolina.

Pury said there were three main elements to an act of courage in the sense of taking a risk: "As the word 'taking' implies, it means it is something people are choosing to do. It involves a choice. Secondly, it needs to involve risk. And thirdly, and to me it's the most important part of our definition of courage, is that it needs to be for something that is worthwhile, for something that matters, for something of value."

The worthiness of an action "is what moves courage from a thing that people do into the category of being a virtue," said Pury, who also co-authored and co-edited the book "The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue."

Courage can be selfless

Courage "is selfless and it has a lot of societal implications, because you're not just looking out for your self-interest, you're sacrificing yourself for the community," psychologist Shahram Heshmat, former professor at the University of Illinois and a contributing author to the popular US magazine Psychology Today, told DW. "And that's what we see in this crisis in Ukraine, that a lot of people are doing things selflessly, for their country."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting wounded soldiers in a hospital.
He became a role model by staying in Ukraine: President Zelenskyy (center) visiting wounded soldiers in a hospitalImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/abaca/picture alliance

He sees Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a good example of a courageous person.

He also points out that role models such as the Ukrainian president, who chose to stay in his country after the invasion, can also be helpful in inspiring courage in others. In comparison, former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover last August.

Does bravery equal fearlessness?

The notion that brave people are unafraid is simply not true, Heshmat said. "Courage is not a lack of fear; it's something you do in spite of being scared," he says. But courage, he adds, is different from reckless or psychopathic behavior. It's not some kind of high that one gets; it's a "deliberate decision" with "calculated risk-taking," he explains.

Protester in St. Petersburg, Russia being handled by police.
Russians have also taken to the streets, despite the risk, to protest their country's invasion of UkraineImage: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP/picture alliance

Pury said there was another dimension to the relationship between courage and fear. Despite their fear, people attempt to overcome it because they are afraid of the consequences if they don't, the psychologist pointed out.

"Lots of times people report feeling fearful in a situation, but they are fearful of what would happen if their action isn't successful," Pury said. "They are fearful of what would happen if they didn't save a baby, for example."

That is part of what makes us human, Pury said. "I think everybody has the ability to be courageous if it's something they find worthwhile," she punctuates.

Daily acts of courage

Being courageous is not limited to wartime or protesting authoritarian regimes. As humans, we witness and ourselves perform little acts of courage on a daily basis.

"Right now, we see what's happening in Ukraine; that's bravery, and physical bravery, because you're risking your life and you know you could die, but you do it anyway," Heshmat said.

Giving birth in bomb shelters

Firefighters, on the other hand, also constantly risk their lives, but in an everyday context, Pury said.

But being brave could also be more mundane than we imagine it to be.

Heshmat mentioned a 60-year-old woman who gets divorced and bicycled all the way across the United States, or a person who finally confronts their addictive behavior and decides to quit it. These are examples of courageous behavior.

People can practice courage

"On a daily basis, we see psychological courage in the sense of mental strength. You're facing doing something you've never done before,"  Heshmat said. What's more, it's also possible to train yourself in courage, "as an antidote to depression and anxiety," the psychologist added.

Courage as a character trait can be cultivated in order to meet the day-to-day challenges one experiences in life. "Let's say somebody went through some big failure in life. They didn't get a job and lost their self-confidence, which is an important element of courage," Heshmat says, explaining that higher self-confidence can lead to more courageous behavior.

The key to building self-confidence and, thereby, more courage, is to do something repeatedly and develop the skills so you begin believing that you can do it.

A woman in camouflage with a firearm wears the yellow armband of Ukraine
Alina is a 26-year-old dancer, but she joined the volunteer armed forces in UkraineImage: Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/picture alliance

But what makes humans courageous in a situation such as war? "Everybody, in a way, is courageous, but they don't know their potential," Heshmat said, adding that a brave action is often something people do spontaneously and intuitively.

What we see during Russia's invasion of Ukraine is people stepping up to the occasion, because the situation demands it from them, he said.

"Maybe two weeks ago, they never thought they would act like this," Heshmat said. "So the situation, the opportunities are really important, and, somehow, we rise to the occasion and act in a courageous manner."

Ukraine: Video Diaries from the War

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.
DW Editor and reporter Louisa Schaefer smiling into the camera.
Louisa Schaefer Culture editor and reporter based in Cologne/Bonn, originally from the US