I admit it. I’m a Coward. Yet thanks to the work I have been doing with Caroline Myss http://www.myss.com/CMED/home/ in her yearlong Sacred Contracts Course (or Scared Contracts), I have some new tools for facing my fears. I’d like to explore the archetype of the Coward and share my own experience.
First, let’s define the word. My trusty Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the term coward as “one who lacks courage or is shamefully afraid.” The word comes from the Latin cauda, or tail. The coward would be the one who “turns tail” to flee rather than face danger.
Many archetypes face personal danger. Some examples are the Hero, the Martyr, the Warrior, and the Knight, to name a few. Each of these stands out because of its unique goal or prize. Thus, the Hero conquers the ego, the Warrior vanquishes the enemy, the Knight wins the lady’s hand by facing dangerous tasks and the Martyr takes a stand against injustice or immorality.
But the Coward, alone, has his primary relationship with the Fear rather than the goal. He faces his fear and choosing to act or not, he learns about himself. As primarily action archetypes, the others–Hero, Warrior, Knight–undoubtedly experience fear, they just don’t give it a second thought. Therefore I would argue that the Coward is primarily an archetype of the mystic or wisdom family. While he might accomplish great tasks in the process of facing fear, he primarily wrestles with his own thinking. As William Shakespeare put it, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
The Coward, therefore, has much to teach us about facing our fears. Two well-known American figures, one real, one fiction illustrate the archetype well: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and The Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz.
While FDR is best known for single handedly pulling our nation out of the Great Depression, his most famous quote, uttered in the first paragraph of his inaugural speech in early 1933, marks him as a Coward:
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
It is interesting that FDR used the word “paralyzes,” as he himself, a paraplegic polio victim, never allowed the press to photograph him in his wheel chair. Indeed, he must have faced many fears during the illness that robbed him of his mobility and that could easily have killed him. A staunch introvert, FDR was known to be adept at keeping people at a distance. Although very charming and engaging in person, very few people claim to have known him well, and perhaps this is another manifestation of the Coward archetype.
FDR held back in other ways, as well. His political campaign against Herbert Hoover in 1932 during the lowest point of the Great Depression was most notable for its lack of concrete solutions to the nation’s financial problems. His inaugural address, with its spiritual tone, speaks of the nation’s “common difficulties” concerning “only material things.” Clearly FDR recognized that we would never solve our practical problems without first healing the spiritual crisis. (You can listen to this inspirational speech online at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/) In classic Coward style, he challenged himself and the nation to face our fears, our own negativity. Rather than bully his opponents, FDR transformed his Coward through spiritual honesty, integrity and will, while accomplishing national political reforms that stand to this day. The transformational energy of the Sacred Coward comes through very clearly in his speech.
The Cowardly Lion
On the lighter side, most of us are familiar with the Cowardly Lion from the book and movie The Wizard of Oz. The lion represents the companion archetype to the Coward, the Bully. For every Coward who does not successfully transform, bullies himself or others as the Lion bullies Dorothy and her other companions on the Yellow Brick Road. His famous lament, “If I only had a heart!” of course refers to courage — from the Latin cor meaning heart — the elusive quality the Coward covets for himself.
During the journey to Oz, the Lion repeatedly encounters the dangers perpetrated by the evil witch and each time he must conquer the urge to run. At one point, startled by his own tail, the Cowardly Lion begins to see his fear as illusion, his tail signifying the internal and personal nature of the struggle. Only after he understands that it is his own fear, not the outside world, that undermines his power, is the Lion fully initiated. The Wizard then confers the medal of valor and we see that lovely moment when the adorable Lion owns his rightful place as a tenderhearted soul.
Every Coward must ultimately uncover his own fears as unjustified or remain forever the Bully, acting out his unconscious desires for real power against himself or others.
In my own Sacred Contracts Archetypal Chart of Origin, I have the Coward in my First House, the house of the ego, the personality, the identity. In the next installment of this article I will elaborate on my own experience of facing fear. Stay tuned!