Courage: When What You Care About Is Bigger Than Fear
"Believe you can and you're halfway there." ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Writing the word 'courageous' makes me feel less afraid. As I hear myself say the word 'brave', I consider the potential I hold for physical and moral fortitude. But, am I courageous? Have I ever been brave? Do most of us use these words to describe who and what we are? Generally not.
When we think of bravery we imagine a young Joan of Arc, perched high in her truth on the broad, muscular back of her elegant horse, or the young man of 19 far from the safety of home, aiming his rifle as he rises from inside a muddy, rat infested hole in Belgium to take the life of another teenager he's been made to believe is his enemy. Courage is the 30-year old fireman leaving two giggling boys at the breakfast table to answer a familiar call, on this morning beckoning him to witness bodies falling from the windows of towers collapsing into the clearest, blue sky, or the young nurse whose promise to aid the suffering holds steady as she steps into a monstrous-looking suit of paper and plastic.
Bravery is the EMT with strong arms and soft voice stepping into the home of a feverish elderly man, reassuring him in a way he can't soothe himself, "Sir...you'll be o.k.", or the young woman of color marching in stagnant air tinged with the smell of gas, undeterred by those whose fear of losing a false and fading supremacy do all they can to scare this mother away from her mission to secure the destiny of her 4-year-old son.
While thousands die, if not by nature, then by human cruelty, we're asked to awaken to both the neglected miracle and common disregard for life. For us, the ones who watch, little is expected. "Could I do that?", we ask. "No, thank God, there are those who can." But, one day we all know a fear so great we wish or pray or beg for courage to carry us through. These are private stories, not headline-worthy, but no less profound.
I know the story of a young mother counting and keeping safe $40 saved out of grocery money, two-dollars at a time for twenty weeks, money for the bus she would board with her infant son, fleeing an abusive, threatening man who two years earlier promised to '...cherish 'till death do us part', now threatening death if she leaves. And, the story of an elderly woman who tells herself she cannot, will not, grow frail with no more than $10,000 in a 'retirement' account that can't protect her from the ugliness and loss of dignity promised those who grow old without means.
Years ago a 50-something man came to my office asking me to teach him how to read. He'd lived a life of pretense and grit, building a successful business in the competitive and educated city of New York, then with more courage than on any other day, revealed his life-long secret to a stranger with a Ph.D. I met a woman told by her parents 60 years earlier there would be no need for education for a girl who would marry, her longing to learn then dismissed by a husband who repeated the tale. At 75, freed by divorce, pushing aside embarrassment and humiliation, she signed on as a "freshman", challenging the stereotype of the "slow", "muddled" elderly. With feelings of privilege and gratitude, she entered the place for years held tight in dreams - the classroom.
To be courageous is not to be fearless. To be courageous is to endure suffering with no idea what's ahead, to move forward with trembling knees, to speak up in spite of the risk of rejection or judgment or loss. Courage comes when we care so much we have no choice but to act against our own terror - no matter the consequence.
Please know this. You don't have to save a life or go to battle or climb the highest mountain to prove your courage. You are courageous. You are brave. You've experienced chaos and grown in times of darkness. You were scared and took a step anyway. You were psychologically brave the time you walked into an unfamiliar setting with gripping obsessions you hoped no one could see and when you looked into the eyes of someone you knew you could not save. You were morally brave when you spoke up for something you believed in and when you stood by the abandoned man or discarded creature. You've endured the pain of physical decline, you held your breath as you sat alone waiting for the doctor's verdict. Yes, you were courageous. You may not have noticed - and if you did, you thought it was no big deal. It was.
If fear causes you to doubt your capacity for courage, soften your doubt by seeing the rightful place for every human emotion. Be wise enough to assess true danger and know the difference between real harm and the persistent threat created by the imagination in the words, "what if...?". Keep your mind and body as strong as you can for as long as you can.
Be in charge of the life you're given. Meditate, exercise, rest, eat simple foods and not too much. Practice seeing yourself as capable of handling what comes your way. Know what you stand for, know what matters. Be careful not to be overly influenced by what others think of you. Learn to "en"courage yourself when no one is there to do it for you, to "give heart" as a way to nurture the bravery within. You can do this. I know you can.
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