man silhouetted against sky

Albert Woodfox is famous for the horribly unfortunate distinction of having survived solitary confinement for four decades. That meant 23 hours a day locked in a tiny cell, 6 by 9 feet. During his time outside of the cell, sometimes he was allowed a shower, to go outside, to buy something from the commissary, to talk with other prisoners, or to see visitors. Sometimes he was not even allowed those things.

I wondered what thoughts Woodfox, having endured so much inhumane treatment, might have about courage and fear. Interestingly, he had thoughts about courage and fear long before he was a prisoner. And of course he also had thoughts about courage and fear while he was in prison. It might be instructive to examine two quotes about courage and fear from his memoir Solitary, starting with the thoughts of a young teenager on the street, and ending with the thoughts of a man in his 60s who had been living in a tiny cell for 40 years.

Courage and Fear Quote #1: 13 Years Old

A kid named Lawrence had been stealing stuff from young Woodfox. Woodfox let him do it because he was scared of Lawrence. But one day this happens:

“I was scared but this time when Lawrence pushed me I swung my arm and hit him in the head. That’s when I learned that courage doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. Courage means you master that fear and act in spite of being afraid. Lawrence and I fought and didn’t stop until I got up and he didn’t. For a while Lawrence and I fought every time we saw each other. Then he gave up. I never let fear stop me from doing anything again.”

It’s interesting that this lesson contradicts another lesson Woodfox learned later in life (which I wrote about last time): the lesson that it’s morally important to do no harm.

But this is an important lesson nonetheless. It’s a step along the path. When someone is disrespecting you, what do you do about it? For a long time, for Woodfox, the answer was nothing. He just kept letting Lawrence steal from him. Lawrence stole his sandwich one day, his belt another day, his money another day. All because Woodfox was afraid to take action.

Then, one day, something was different. Woodfox was still afraid to act—that wasn’t the thing that was different. The different thing was that he acted anyway.

As Woodfox matured, he learned that there were other ways of acting, in spite of his fear, that didn’t involve physical confrontation. For example, he learned that it’s possible to organize a group of people to demand humane treatment.

However, even after he had learned this lesson and vowed to be nonviolent, there were still instances when he was violent. Many times, prison guards and other authorities beat him, in response to him asking for more humane treatment, or just randomly, because they could. In those instances, he fought back. Physically. Because sometimes you have only two options: be afraid and allow someone to beat you, or be afraid and don’t allow someone to beat you, . . . at least not without a fight.

Courage and Fear Quote #2: 66 Years Old

I cannot imagine living in a tiny cell for 40 years. I read the book, but I can only imagine it in a small way. But I think this passage does as good a job as any in the book to explain it to us.

“Back in my cell, I was feeling out of balance. It was December. Most years run into the next when you are locked down 23 hours a day. A few years stand out for being worse than others. The year my mom died. The year I lost my sister. That year, 2013, was one of those years. Herman was gone. The degrading strip searches continued. I was being slandered in the press by the attorney general’s office—again. The state of Louisiana, which had already spent millions of dollars to defend my wrongful conviction and to keep me in prison, was now expending considerable resources to fight to restore my conviction—again. I was reminded of a valuable lesson I’d learned, and relearned, many times before. Whenever you don’t think you can take another step, the human spirit keeps going, even when you don’t want to.”

Woodfox doesn’t use the words courage or fear in this passage; but the sentiments are there, in his last sentence.

He first expresses that he didn’t feel that he could go on. He is experiencing the fear of life itself—an understandable fear, since life had been so cruel to him.

And then he expresses that he somehow kept doing the things he needed to do to live, despite not wanting to. He was experiencing the courage of living, even though life was so unbelievably fearsome in its pain and disappointments.

Contrasting the Quotes About Courage and Fear

Fittingly, the teenager’s understanding of courage and fear is concrete, while the elder’s understanding of courage and fear is abstract. There is a progression here from physical to metaphysical. This is the most interesting thing I noticed when contrasting these quotes about courage and fear.

The 13-year-old punches another kid even though he’s scared—because the only other alternative he can see is to be stolen from. The 66-year-old lives through another minute, another day, another year, even though he’s scared—because the only other alternative he can see is to give up on his values, and lose his right to fight for a life free from torture.

Sometimes, other people are scary. Other times, simply being alive is scary. Hell, I think being alive is scary most of the time—even when you’re not being tortured or stolen from.

So the wisdom of Woodfox’s quotes about courage and fear is that, unfortunately, we can’t avoid fear. Fear is a natural part of life. It’s always going to be there, in one form or another. What we can control is how we act in the face of our fears.

Are you gonna let someone steal from you? Are you gonna let the tribulations of life get you down? What matters more: your fears, or your values?

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