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Courage: Where do you draw the line?

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In a book addressed to his great-granddaughter, groundbreaking actor Sidney Poitier traces the thin line between cowardice and courage.

Cowardice, he says, can come at a moment when fear paralyzes you with a threat of overwhelming force. It might be a threat of physical harm or damage to your reputation or livelihood.

Cowardice is a decision to surrender. It can buy you life or time, but the choice is debilitating; it weakens you.

Cowardice might arise if you feel forced to hide your ideals and comply with a situation you find morally reprehensible. This happened to Poitier when his job as an actor rode on signing a patriotic loyalty oath renouncing the actor Paul Robeson, a friend of Poitier’s as well as his hero. Robeson was on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1940s and 1950s during the era of McCarthyism. Ultimately, Poitier wasn’t required to sign the oath, but he agonized over the decision.

Courage, on the other hand, can pop up suddenly, as when people plunge in to save another person’s life without regard for their own safety—often, there’s no time. Afterward, they say their only thought was to help. They often recognize heroism in others but not in themselves.

Bottom line:
As soon as you perceive the right thing to do, act fast. Hesitation may allow fear and cowardice to take hold.

— Adapted from Life Beyond Measure, Sidney Poitier, HarperCollins.

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