The Ultimate Fountain of Courage


By DR. HAROLD W. DODDS, President of Princeton University

Delivered at the Baccalaureate Service in the Princeton University Chapel, June 15, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 621-622

SUCH is the state of the world today that it is impossible to consider any question, even the most intimate affairs of our private lives, except against the background of a tragic present and an uncertain future. But individual aspirations are as important today as ever, and it would be a mistake to permit problems of world conflict so to preoccupy our minds as to cause us to neglect our own individual problems of human personality, which in the final analysis determine our careers and the help we can bring to others.

I do not propose, therefore, to speak this morning to you of the Class of 1941 on world politics, national ideologies or national policies. Surely it is fitting and proper on an occasion such as this that we should think about ourselves as individuals and plan how we may develop our individual potentialities to the full, how we may prepare to make our own lives count and thus avoid frustration and defeat, two dangerous enemies of modern man.

And so in order that we may be on guard against it, I invite your consideration of a topic on which we all need to be informed these days; namely, the unhappy part that fear and the less apparent but more sinister state of anxiety may play in molding our personalities and conduct.

It is my firm belief that a considerable share of the present national disunion and infirmity of purpose abroad in our land at this moment springs from an unconscious urge to rationalize our fears and anxieties. Here lurks a grave danger to our free society hemmed about, as it is, by those who would betray it. For more than a decade nations have lived under gathering clouds of fear. For a while America alone seemed to escape, but now we know that the conditions on which we counted for safety no longer make us secure and fear has at last reached our shores. It has broken upon us suddenly and it finds us poorly prepared to meet it. For two generations we have enjoyed a "serene and ordered existence" without realizing how rare and abnormal such periods of calm have been in human history. Science had removed the superstitious fear of natural catastrophies under which earlier generations suffered. Even our religion had become so saturated with thoughts of man's goodness that contemplation of hell, either in this life or hereafter, had ceased to be intellectually respectable. But now all this has changed and once more we are conscious that evil still exists in the world.

Fear is a natural human emotion. In its rightful place it is beneficial. In proper proportion, fear compels us to weigh the consequences of our conduct and thus makes us wiser and more temperate human beings. Fear also may inspire to deeds of great courage and self-sacrifice. It may be the necessary call to action which awakens us from indolence or indifference when action is required. Thus by its restraining influence at one moment and by its motive power at another the emotion of fear works for self-preservation and self-realization.

But like most useful things in life, fear must be controlled or it will work harm rather than good. Instead of tempering our conduct when it should be tempered, it may driveus to rashness and folly; and instead of arousing a desire to act when action is needful it may work in the opposite direction by weakening or degrading the will. The rational man is not the one who never feels fear, but the one who refuses to be dominated by it.

The danger to which all of us, young and old, are susceptible today, when there are so many reasons to be afraid, is that we shall become anxious. Anxiety is fear in a corrupted form. It is a sort of chronic fear. An anxious mind is one weakened by worries which color the whole life of the individual although he may not be aware of the cause. When one feels fear in its usual sense one is conscious of an objective danger which is rational and of which one would naturally be afraid, but when one is possessed by anxiety the fear is hidden and subjective and corrosive. It is a state of mind which few of us escape in some form and into which any of us may fall at any time. The average person does not understand the part that it plays in our lives. Anxiety may be one's chief obstacle to happiness and success, I repeat, without one's being conscious of it.

As William James once said, "Men habitually use only a small part of the powers which they possess and which they might use under appropriate circumstances." One reason for this is the presence of anxieties which lower our mental tone, paralyze the will and condemn us to careers far below that which we should otherwise enjoy.

There are special reasons why you of the Class of 1941 should be anxious. What can one do to prevent it?

First, let us consider some methods which are often tried but which never succeed. We may seek to stupefy our anxieties with alcohol, narcotics, feverish social activities or frenzied overwork to the point of exhaustion. Not only are such efforts bound to fail but they impair the function of the mind in the process. Another method is to pretend to ourselves that everything is all right when our reason tells us that it is not. Thus we are led to shun action when we should be active or to evade danger when we should run forward to meet it.

But as nature has made us subject to fears and anxieties so has she equipped us with valid means to resist and overcome them. The antidote to fear is courage. Trite though it may be, it is nevertheless true that when courage goes everything goes, for, as Dr. Johnson declares, "unless a man have that virtue he has no security for preserving any other."

How then can we build courage into our lives? How can we meet the threat of anxiety in the days ahead and thus be free to use our full latent powers as individuals and as a nation? Platitudes commanding us to be courageous are not very helpful in pointing out how we may cultivate courage. Something more is needed.

The solution is through self-knowledge. Although self-knowledge is by far the most difficult lesson of life, nowhere does the precept "Know Thyself" apply with greater force than here.

The first step is to understand that fear is as natural and universal as hunger. No rational person escapes it. There is no thoughtful person, no conscientious leader great orsmall, who does not experience it time and again. Boswell records an anecdote related by a friend of Dr. Johnson regarding the Emperor Charles V, who, when he read on the tombstone of a Spanish nobleman, "Here lies one who never knew fear," dryly remarked, "Then he never snuffed a candle with his fingers." In times of stress and danger, when one's fears can so easily become chronic anxieties, it helps to remember this.

The next step is to learn to recognize the symptoms of fear and anxiety in ourselves. Then one can, as it were, isolate the germ of the trouble and treat it as such. When one acknowledges that he is afraid; when one no longer strives to repress or conceal his fears from himself but frankly draws them into the full sunlight of his consciousness their power begins to wane. When one can feel fear and not be afraid he has developed courage. This I say to you in all humility, as one who does not pretend to be a courageous man but who has been helped by this technique in times of anxiety and who commends it to you as one aid to a good life.

In the last analysis, however, it is necessary to realize that the ultimate fountain of courage is not to be found in the applied psychology about which I have been speaking. It is to be discovered rather in one's inner resources culminating in the view of life which this Chapel symbolizes and which is the essence of this service this morning. It is a belief in the spiritual ordering of the universe and an unshaken confidence in the final good no matter how strong the immediate evil. Whatever place you may assign to Martin Luther in world history, we can all admit that he had reasons to be afraid; yet from the depth of his own experience he assures us in his immortal hymn so often sung in this Chapel:

A mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark never failing.

The man who accepts these words and makes them his own has established resources of the spirit against which anxiety cannot prevail. Those brave figures of the past who felt themselves to be in harmony with the will of the Almighty knew also that they were in communication with the Author of that moral courage which banishes fear. The prophets of the Old Testament foretold dire suffering and destruction for their nations, such as today we might describe as the end of civilization, yet they retained their faith in the victory of good over evil if men would but seek righteousness, and they were sustained thereby.

Now I realize that a sense of moral security such as this involves an act of faith and that there are some of you who prefer to place your trust in science where results, you say, can be proved. Personally I do not believe that the findings of science can be proved in the broad sense in which the word is generally used, or indeed in any manner that will define the nature and destiny of man. But waiving the question as to whether the facts of science are susceptible of proof in any universal sense, let me remind you most emphatically that those familiar doctrines which set our ideals of daily life and national behavior are acts of faith. If you believe in the integrity of the individual, if you cherish the values of democracy, if you favor a free society rather than one of vested privilege or tyranny, you do so by an act of faith. The basic principles of ethics to which we, consciously or unconsciously, pay allegiance were not derived from a study of anthropology, psychology, politics or economics. Rather are they a matter of faith which antedate the scientific methods of these scholarly subjects, and they still set the frame of reference for philosophy and the social

studies. And they in turn stem from the roots of the Christian faith.

And so I think that it is both rational and reasonable to acknowledge a power outside ourselves, a Divine Person of infinite goodness whose ways are not the ways of man but in whose being we can find refuge from anxieties which seek to oppress us.

I think it was this curse of anxiety which our Lord had in mind when, in the Sermon on the Mount, He told His disciples not to be anxious about the things of the morrow but to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. It is as simple as that. It requires no theological embellishment. It is a mystery, but so is the sunrise. Gentlemen of the Class of 1941:

I have not spoken this morning of the dangers of anxiety with any thought that you are faint-hearted. On the contrary you have, in common with your fellow students on the campus, remained remarkably stable and self-possessed under strains and stresses beyond those which your fathers had to face in their youth. No, I have spoken as I have because I am convinced that, in this moment when the techniques of fear have become national instruments of destruction, all of us, young and old, must understand the insidious nature of anxiety if we are to remain free to act wisely and competently.

You have pursued with commendable industry and singleness of purpose the business that brought you to Princeton in months when the temptation was strong to indulge in petty behavior as a drug in anxious moments. That you have acquitted yourselves so well is a source of pride and hope to me, as it should be also to each of you. We are in truth "passing through times that try men's souls," but there should be no doubt of the final outcome. America does not stand at the bleak end of a broken trail. The loose talk, of which we have heard so much in recent years, that there are no frontiers left to youth any more, has emanated generally from defeatists who would not recognize a frontier if they saw one or be able to take advantage of it if they did.

When the present world conflagration has been quenched there will be an unparalleled chance to build a more harmonious and fruitful America on a basis more sound and permanent than we have yet known. It can be done if your generation will exercise faith and tolerance when the hour of reconstruction comes. Undoubtedly that hour will bring changes in our society. In fact we are in the midst of them now. But remember that dynamic moments of history always open up new frontiers of opportunity. Such moments belong to youth who are adaptable and creative. For you, therefore, for the long pull I am an unwavering optimist.

And now as you are about to leave us to take up new and grave responsibilities, our hopes and prayers go with you. Your course of study and your extra-curricular activities have been designed to prepare you for a whole life, to fit you not only to stand on your feet in any age but to lead in molding the character of the age. We shall follow your future careers with more interest than you realize today, because we honestly expect great things of you. In the years ahead you will find that you have come to love this place and that its ties cannot easily be shaken off. Do not try to do so. The honor and glory of Princeton lies in her sons who exemplify her ideals of the good life. What you make of yourselves helps to determine what those of us who stay behind can do for future generations of students. Together we can move mountains. Good-bye and Good cheer.