“Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps most precious is [the] courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions.”
By Maria Popova
Reconstructionist Aung San Suu Kyi, born on June 19, 1945, is one of modern history’s greatest champions of peace, following in the footsteps of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. In her 1991 essay “Freedom from Fear,” found in the altogether essential anthology Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings (public library), Suu echoes fellow reconstructionist Susan Sontag’s timeless words on courage and resistance as she explores the fundamental relationship between fear, courage, and human flourishing:
It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.
Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps most precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as ‘grace under pressure’ — grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.
Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.
Touching on some of the deepest themes Viktor Frankl explored in his 1946 meditation on humanity’s search for meaning, Suu examines the heart of what makes us human:
The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement. It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute. At the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.
A few months after this title essay in Freedom from Fear was published, Suu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.