Cowards & Cowardice

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I’ve been thinking so much about cowards and cowardice lately (myself, and my own, included). Contemporary definitions tend toward the idea of lacking courage or an inability to put up with difficult things or situations; a desire to avoid struggle or pain. And, when I think about cowards and cowardice, that is indeed what I tend to think about.

Only, I’m pretty harsh about it in my head.
I think things like:

Feral Weakness
Rank Failure at Life
Risk-Averse Ninnies Who Are Too Afraid to Do the Work; and,
Grow the Hell Up

I associate it with people who will surround themselves with people whom they feel are smaller than they are so that they can feel big.

I associate it with flat, fearful people who will squash shiny people until they feel smaller in order to try to feel bigger.

I associate it with people who choose a path bereft of depth or challenge and all the things that make life worth living because they think “easy” is a worthy and desirable target.

I associate it with people who say things like “Well, *published author* can write like that because s/he’s *published author*” as if that isn’t a tautology; as if someone didn’t once have to take a risk on *published author*; as if popularity and success ever happen without the full-tilt support of a new creative voice whose style may or may not actually be bankable until it is but certainly cannot ever be bankable if no one ever supports it…

I associate it with people who are handed extraordinary gifts and beautiful, rich opportunities and turn away from them because they are unfamiliar or risky. 

I associate it with people who pretty much always let fear make their decisions.

And, frankly, I wanted to shift my thinking away from this string of righteous, rancorous vitriol.

I wanted to complicate the whole thing a smidge from this parade of judgmental twaddle.

I wanted a way to deepen my own process and stop calling myself, and other people, “coward.”

So, I went to my trusty English word origin dictionaries and found that “coward” is drawn directly from Old French coart which is, itself, derived from coe meaning “tail.” The whole damn history of the word, it turns out, is about an animal with its tail between its legs.

This did not seem helpful to me.

It doesn’t appear, at first glance, to have anything to do with the contemporary definitions. There wasn’t, in the immediate, even a thread I could pull to try to weave things together no less build something new… The etymology of the word “cower” seems to have a bit more connection to contemporary cowardice. It appears to have ties to the idea of skulking, to lying quiet, to being “rounded, curved, crooked…” This is closer, somehow, to the ugly mean voices in my head as they rant in unhinged ways about cowards and cowardice (myself and my own included). It evokes a bunch of hunched over losers staring at dirt. Paper doll people cut from two dimensions who tear if they try to go in any directions for which they were not designed. Though I know it isn’t quite right as a parallel or exemplar, I also somehow find myself thinking about Barbie’s unchanging, too-small feet that can only wear one kind of shoe.

But the word origins of “cower” have nothing to do with the word origins of “coward” so it’s basically just a coincidence.

And I needed more.

So, I looked up the evolutionary purpose of putting a tail between one’s legs.

Apparently, for dogs, it heralds back to their wolf origins and it is a kind of “apology bow” when the dog in question knows it has behaved badly.

It’s a sign of submission.
It’s done in order to avoid being kicked out of the pack.

And this clicked.


People are cowards (myself included) – avoid difficulty, challenge – so they can hold on to their status quo and not be excommunicated from whatever world it is that makes them feel safe. Not my definition of safe. Not wholeness remembered. This definition of cowardice is about protecting the status quo, about hierarchy and the maintenance of order; it’s about making sure that even if perhaps you did push the boundaries of your world you still get to be a part of it because being alone and on the outside is deemed worse than all other options. In this vein, people fail to take risks, push envelopes, remain unwilling to risk pain or struggle not necessarily to protect something they truly believe is worth protecting. They stay a theoretically easy course, or submit to it even when they have tried to fight it, because the idea of being alone and God-knows-where without that path and place is terrifying.

And maybe it should be. There are dark things in those woods after all. The edge of the map is covered in dragons.

So all the stories say.

But so many forms of protection are an illusion. They really are. The straight facts underneath all the other layers are that entropy takes everything and turns it back into something else and that – barring the real-life manifestation of so many science fiction stories – there is no known way to avoid entropy.

So many forms of protection are also just different kinds of containment.

Containment and control.

And yet I would never spurn the idea of finding, and trying to honour, our “pack” in the sense that we do truly need connection in our time on this earth. Nor do I wish to be derisive of humility and contrition when we’ve behaved badly, perhaps harmed others… with malice… with well-intentioned rebellion… But humility and contrition just to avoid suffering is truly not what I have in mind when I support humility and contrition as practices. This type of “tail between legs” behaviour honestly just feels like its own form of cowardice which – as it turns out – is the connection I found between the etymology and the contemporary definitions.

If the only reason you are/I am submissive to norms (not taking risks, avoiding struggle etc.) is to hold on to an illusion of being protected by them, then you are/I am a coward.

This, I can work with.

But, honestly, it just supports my righteous, mean-spirited (smacks-of-a-bitterness-I-can’t-quite-trace-or-don’t-want-to-face), inner voices who’ve been hurling that word at others without even the courage to actually say it to them for years now; who’ve been hurling it at me right inside my own body and spirit and mind…

And this burns too.

Because, not for the first time, I realize that the things I am a coward about right now – the things I’m trying to protect myself from losing – don’t exist. Some have simply been lost, surrendered, taken from me. Some maybe never existed. I’m already – and have long been in my own ways – on the outside of a lot of “groups” and the first reality of that “outsider” position is that there are always people out there with you. So many sometimes that I’m not sure “outside” is ever a thing. So I’ve essentially been protecting the ghosts of illusions that make me feel terrible and I have no excuses left.

No reasons to be submissive or to sublimate anything that feels right to me.
No reasons to hide.

More than a decade ago now I looked at myself in a mirror after a particularly terrible haircut in a particularly terrible time and thought “I don’t look like me, I don’t look like me, I don’t look like me” over and over until another voice chimed in and said “You didn’t like you anyway so who cares if you don’t look like her.”

And my whole life changed.
I let go of the thing I was protecting, mourning as I stared in that mirror .
I just let go.

And it was hard.
Devastatingly hard.
And it hurt.
So, so much.

Which means I was not a coward.
Because I did it anyway.
I dove into that pain and struggle, ugly haircut first.

I did years of work and made hard, painful decisions and my life got better.

This means I know how to do whatever it is that will come next because I’ve done some version of it before. A few times really.

It means I should stop judging others for their cowardice no matter how often the cowardice of others has hurt me and will likely continue to do so as I walk my particular entropic path the way I choose to walk it.

But even the fact that I own two etymological dictionaries just so I can ‘complicate’ things for myself and unhinge the status quo of commonly understood words says a lot, doesn’t it?

Maybe I have a right to call some people cowards.
Maybe they are.

And maybe there is also sanity in wanting things to be a bit easier, to hurt a bit less.

Maybe “not wanting to be a coward” is just another form of containment?
Submission to a different status quo.

Yet another form of cowardice.

I dunno.
I’m so tired.
So, maybe – for now – I’ll just tuck my tail between my legs and go to bed.

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