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Interview: Courageous Hearts


Dr. Alan Milliren

Dr. Alan Milliren

In today’s fast-changing world, the ancient virtue of courage is more important than ever. In his latest book, The Psychology of Courage: An Adlerian Handbook for Healthy Social Living (Routledge), Alan Milliren (with Julia Yang and Mark Blagen) thoroughly maps the landscape of courage. What he discovered is real courage takes a lot of psychological muscle.

AHB reached Dr. Milliren at Governors State University in Illinois, U.S.A.

Ruth Dempsey: So how would you describe courage?

Alan Milliren: A man runs into a burning house to get his favorite pet dog. Is this courage? An infant steps out for the very first time on his or her own. Is this courage? A child raises his or her hand in class to answer a question the teacher has asked. Is this courage? A young mother hugs her young child closer and pulls the cover up tighter as they attempt to find warmth in a doorway to get through another night. Is this courage?

I think the best answers are found in the writings of Dr. Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychiatrist at the turn of the previous century. For Adler, courage was the act of taking a risk even when the outcome is uncertain. We take a similar stand in our book.

RD: Why write a book about it?

AM: We see courage or a sense of community feeling, cooperation and contribution as part of the answer to the problems facing our world today. So the book offers a host of tools to help parents and professionals teach skills that nurture a courageous stance in the world. Just imagine, for example, a world where the skills of cooperation and contribution were routinely practiced.

RD: You describe courage as a “psychological muscle.” So does courage become stronger with practice?

AM: First, I have to tell you that we are indebted to Dr. Frank Walton for the term, “psychological muscle.” And it does mean pretty much what the words say.

I certainly believe we can develop courage. In fact, the more we find ourselves measuring up to the demands of living, the more likely we are to continue responding to these demands with heart and spirit. Simply put, we won’t need to hide or avoid or sidestep because we will feel comfortable handling these demands on our own.

In the process, our self-esteem gets a boost. We may even save money from reducing and no longer taking some of our prescription drugs. Overall, life just gets better because we feel we have some control over things. And importantly, it isn’t just happening to us but we are making it happen in certain ways. We are pushing all the right buttons!

RD: In the second chapter, you explore courage and mental health. How does this work?

AM: Actually, this is a bit tricky to answer. You see Adler developed the word, “Gemeinschaftsgefühl”, to describe the ideal state of mental health. And because the German language allows for the creation of words to express very special meanings, it makes the “G-word” extremely difficult to translate. I think “community feeling” best captures the spirit of Gemeinschaftsgefühl. The gemeinschaft represents the community. And Gefühl describes the affective or feeling component of the equation.

Getting along with others, takes cooperation – an ability, or maybe more accurately, a disposition to give and take. The more one feels at home, the more one has a sense of belonging, the greater one’s sense of gemeinschaftsgefühl or feeling of being mentally healthy.

But this requires development. So, it is up to educators, parents, teachers, clergy, neighbors and family – in effect, the community. That’s why we say it takes a community to raise a child.

In addition, true satisfaction in living comes from making a contribution. We are not talking about major contributions. Our gifts can be as simple as a smile or an acknowledgement of someone else. Taking someone’s hand when they are feeling ill or sending a smiley note or making a quick phone call to say hello all fall into the contribution category.

RD: Does courage have a spiritual component?

AM: Absolutely! And I am glad you worded your question as you did. Adler talked about specific areas of accomplishment, which he called life tasks. Specifically, he focused on three tasks: work, love and friendship. Some of Adler’s students later added two more: the “self” task – learning to get along with one’s self; and the “spiritual” task – learning to understand the nature of the universe and how to relate to a higher power.

Participating fully in these five life tasks demands courage. But interestingly, the spiritual task appears to be the one that is most difficult for individuals to come to grips with. Maybe that is because it deals so directly with issues of life itself.

The spiritual task has many dimensions. For example, in the book we talk about the courage to heal. To heal is to become whole again. It’s about connecting with ourselves, others and the universe.

Adler advocated “acting as if.” So act as if change is possible, and we can grow. Act as if the future is realized in the present, and we have hope.

RD: Finally, what are the rewards of exercising our psychological muscle?

AM: I think I can sum it up in three points: living the courageous life allows us the opportunity to experience life more fully. We live with less fear. And we feel at home in this world.