Our common conception of this repulsive quality is that it is simply a manifestation of outsized fear. (A soldier sees his city being overrun by intruders; instead of upholding his duty and honor, he turns and runs.) But given the opportunity for self-preservation, most of us will instinctively avoid danger, to stay safe. Most of us will avoid the unknown in favor of the known. What is it, then, that distinguishes the coward from the normal human being?
It is the duty and honor part. One can only be a coward — or feel like one — if he has shirked responsibility, refusing to perform the task that he has explicitly (or implicitly) agreed to fulfill. In the case of the soldier, he has made a kind of contract with his fellow citizens, a binding deal: no matter how frightening or horrifying the circumstances, he will set aside his fear and natural tendency for security and do what most of us will not.
We expect our fighters to fight. That’s the deal they made with us and themselves. We expect our fathers to be fathers, our teachers to be teachers, our farmers to be farmers, our singers to be singers, and our business partners to be business partners. We generally expect everyone but ourselves to hold up their end of the bargain, no matter how much fear they must overcome. When it comes to our own cowardice, we readily excuse it on the grounds that our fear is somehow more powerful, more compelling, than everyone else’s. We think we’re entitled to an exemption.
The logical ramifications are not pretty. If every individual were indeed exempt from upholding his various duties, nothing would work. Anarchy and chaos would fill the responsibility void.
Those of us who are not soldiers — or fathers or teachers — can skate through life without confronting any of our major fears, be they Intimacy, Speaking in Public, Cats, Airplanes, or People With Different Skin Color. But perhaps this avoidance is merely a different form of cowardice, a kind of low-grade dread that inhibits action and encourages passivity. We’re presently facing a number of crises in our foundering democracy: the devastation of our environment; a dysfunctional health care system; capitalist ennui. The temptation, for many of us, is to do nothing, because that seems like the simplest, easiest, safest play. But isn’t doing nothing another form of cowardice? Isn’t refusing to act as engaged, determined participants in the crucial discussions of our life a dereliction of duty? We have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters, our friends and family, our neighbors and our colleagues. Most of all, though, we have a responsibility to ourselves.
When fear controls our decision-making, when it forces us to abandon that which is right for that which is expedient, we’ve lost the battle. Shakespeare wrote that conscience makes cowards of us all. Sometimes, though, it’s a lack of conscience that produces the most disappointing kind of cowardice.