Searching for the Source of a Fountain of Courage
In his 20 years as a firefighter and paramedic in Colorado Springs, Bruce Monson, 43, has had his little fist-bumps with death: a burning roof collapsing on top of him, toxic fumes nearly suffocating him.
在其作为科罗拉多斯普林斯（Colorado Springs）市消防员和急救人员的20年生涯里，43岁的布鲁斯·蒙逊（Bruce Monson）跟死神有过小小的亲密接触：一座燃烧的屋顶从他头顶坍塌，有毒气体几乎令其窒息。
Yet far more terrifying than any personal threats are what Mr. Monson describes as the "bad kid calls," like the one from a mother who had put her 18-month-old son down in his crib right next to a window with a Venetian blind and its old-fashioned cord.
"The kid had grabbed the cord and gotten it twisted around his neck, and the mother came in and found him hanging there," said Mr. Monson. "I'm the first one in the door, she's in a panic, and she shoves the kid into my arms, crying, 'Please save him, please save him!' "
The child's body was blue, but Mr. Monson and his fellows met parental despair with professional focus and did everything they could. "We worked on him for over an hour," said Mr. Monson. "It's like a state of calm. You're so tuned in to what you're doing, you're not thinking about the reality of the situation."
Their best was not enough, however, and later, at the hospital, the terrible sadness settled in.
As Mr. Monson filled out his report, the mother sat in the trauma room's designated "bereavement rocking chair," rocking her dead son, saying her goodbyes, while family members filed in and wailed at the sight.
An image of that mother in her rocking chair comes to Mr. Monson's mind every time he answers another "bad kid" call, spurring him to keep going, to never give up or grow sloppy or cynical, to simply do his job; and through doing his job, he has saved far more lives than he has lost.
Only once did he allow the furniture connection to spook him — when his own wife was at the same hospital having emergency surgery for a ruptured ectopic pregnancy, and his young daughter happened to climb onto the bereavement seat. "I knew it was a totally irrational thing to do," he said, "but I made her get out of that chair."
Courage is something that we want for ourselves in gluttonous portions and adore in others without qualification. Yet for all the longstanding centrality of courage to any standard narrative of human greatness, only lately have researchers begun to study it systematically, to try to define what it is and is not, where it comes from, how it manifests itself in the body and brain, who we might share it with among nonhuman animals, and why we love it so much.
A new report in the journal Current Biology describes the case of a woman whose rare congenital syndrome has left her completely, outrageously fearless, raising the question of whether it's better to conquer one's fears, or to never feel them in the first place.
In another recent study, neuroscientists scanned the brains of subjects as they struggled successfully to overcome their terror of snakes, identifying regions of the brain that may be key to our everyday heroics.
Researchers in the Netherlands are exploring courage among children, to see when the urge for courage first arises, and what children mean when they call themselves brave.
The theme of courage claims a long and gilded ancestry. Plato included courage among the four cardinal or principal virtues, along with wisdom, justice and moderation.
"As a major virtue, courage helps to define the excellent person and is no mere optional trait," writes George Kateb, a political theorist and emeritus professor at Princeton University. "One of the worst reproaches in the world is to be called a coward."