The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark. – Michelangelo
Ordinary acts of courage are worth acknowledging. This post tells the story of two people who displayed the superpower of courage; and one who when presented with an opportunity to act courageously or cower, chose the later. Everyday living requires courage if life is to be lived consciously and bring real happiness. The people who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses in this world.
Courage is a Superpower – Fear is Kryptonite
Fear does what fear does best – it immobilizes. Courage, on the other hand, is the choice and willingness to face difficulty, sit in uncertainty, confront danger or pain in spite of fear. The quality of courage is neither intellectual nor can it be taught. It is gained through multiple small decisions made every day. Courage, like a muscle, can only be strengthened and developed through consistent training.
I have been thinking about courage for the last year. Not the grandiose demonstrations of courage such as Winston Churchill defying the Nazi threat as much of Europe collapsed. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a segregated bus, thereby launching the Civil Rights Movement. Desmond Doss, a non-combatant field medic in Okinawa who, when the Japanese attacked his unit on top of a cliff, rescued 75 men, one at a time, while under fire. Or, the countless men and women police officers, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, and civilians who ran towards the carnage at the twin towers on 9/11. These decisions to act in conscious defiance of the status quo, or the others, who found themselves in the right place at the wrong time and acted courageously on behalf of others, are inspiring and humbling. However, my thoughts about courage have been focused on the other ninety-nine percent of courageous acts. Those that make ordinary people bold, fearless and authentic in their daily lives. My journey to examine courage was incited by personal witness to several demonstrations of courage and an obvious absence thereof.
There Are No Small Acts of Courage
As courage goes, there are no small acts. Each one is intensely personal and can not be quantified or measured against another. The courage it takes to battle cancer cannot be measured against the courage it takes to leave the security of an unfulfilling 30-year marriage to pursue personal happiness; both are acts of courage. You can’t compare the courage it takes to start a business with the courage it takes to raise a physically or mentally challenged child; both are incredible feats. You can’t compare the courage it takes to rebuild your life after the death of a spouse, to that of a six-year-old child who consistently stands up to a bully; both acts are heroic. In each instance, these acts of courage are a testament to showing up and living an authentic life. Dr. Brené Brown in her book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable, Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead says,
Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology put forward ideas which were important to the development of modern personality theory. Among them, he asserted that to find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed. Jung said, “who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung
What an incredibly powerful statement. I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become. The reality is, sometimes you can’t fix it, you can just be there for it and respond with courage.
Over the last year, I have received lessons in courage. As I stand witness to two incredible demonstrations of courage; it changed everything for me… and took me on a journey of self-discovery. Following are two ordinary stories of courage and an example of a failure to rise to the occasion.
Facing Cancer with Courage
September 29, 2017, a close family friend was diagnosed with cancer. What started as a cough and some back pain, ended with the diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer that spread to her spine. Most recently to her brain. She is only 40. A wife, mother of two young children, sister, daughter, friend, and an amazing woman. Next week, September 29 will be her one-year Cancerversary. In spite of the circumstances, she responded with courage. Courage, that inspires everyone around her. Courage, that makes the world a little braver. Courage to make a difference. Following is an excerpt from an update to friends and family.
On September 29th, it will be my one-year cancerversary. I am well aware that I am on borrowed time and very lucky to have the ALK mutation that is keeping me alive with targeted chemo pills. It has been such an emotional year, but I truly lived life this year instead of just getting through the days. I’m grateful for that and feeling well enough to do it. We took so many amazing trips and made family memories for a lifetime. I hope for more of that this coming year.”
Uncertainty is a fact of life. We only know what is happening in the present moment. She has embraced an unknown future and moved past the paralyzing fear of uncertainty. By doing this, she has avoided what Psychologist Albert Ellis termed “awfulizing”. She has replaced an “awful” story with a story of hope and life. She is using the stress of this situation to prepare for the challenge and connect with others. As a result, she has been able to think logically and act constructively. By facing what is ambiguous and unknown, she is standing in courage and most importantly she is living her life. I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”
– Kelly McGonigal, “How to Make Stress Your Friend” (TED talk)
Facing Personal Growth with Courage
On January 16, 2018, my son entered a residential treatment school for substance abuse. Subsequently, we identified other issues he was navigating including anxiety, ADHD and attachment issues. For the last nine months, he has been courageously working to define his identity and self-worth. Eli’s story of courage starts here. Once upon a time, there was a little boy who lived in Russia. He was alone without a mother or father to nurture and care for him. As a result, he was placed in a baby home, where every day he was brave, self-sufficient and independent. One day, at 3 years old, he was adopted. From then on he was loved and cherished by his mother, father, sister, grandparents and extended family. As an American, Eli lived a life surrounded by love, comfort, security, and privilege. He grew and matured as an adolescent does; however, his first 2 years without safety and a loving parent to affirm how special he was, caused him to struggle to love himself and know his self-worth. Until finally, in middle school, social pressures and a lack of a strong, positive identity took its toll. Eli didn’t have the tools to navigate – and steer clear – of harmful relationships, attitudes, and behaviors. Eli began to soothe his insecurity and discomfort with substances. For the last nine months, Eli has been bravely and courageously, learning how to redefine his identity. There is no court or judge of law more degrading than the judgments he makes about himself. In spite of his personal judgments, he is courageously self-reflecting, owning thoughts and behavior – learning to alter the cycle. Eli is demonstrating intention and courage, learning to love and accept himself. I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
Choosing Comfort Over Courage
Conversely, I loved an exceptional man who was unable to muster courage. He was talented, intelligent, curious, successful, kind, loving and full of life. Yet, he suffered from the law of life inertia: “The tendency of people, having once established a life trajectory, to continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force. At a defining moment, he retracted to the known; incapacitated by the belief that he must remain responsible for the decisions he made as a young man and sacrifice, compromise, feel unhappy for the sake of not destroying the happiness of others. He chose this path knowing that he was risking potentially the last chance he had to truly be happy. On reflection, he was aware that he awfulized.
You are correct that I have become paralyzed by fear. I find it sadly ironic, that as a person that has made a successful career out of taking and managing risk and making tough decisions, I am frozen when faced with the one decision that could make me truly successful. “
The question that intrigues me is, why do some people lack courage?
Most of us have ideas we’re too nervous to share, opportunities we’d like to pursue and things we’d really love to say or change… if only we were more courageous or guaranteed a successful outcome. Some avoid making courageous decisions because they fear their choice may make them look bad in the eyes of peers and external critics. Others avoid courageous decisions because they fear failure. Without an emotionally safe environment, an environment where it is safe to open your heart, reach out, take risks and speak truths, the fear of failure can be paralyzing.
It’s one of the biggest ironies in life, that many of us live our lives doing things we don’t really want to do and only at the end of our lives do we reflect and wish we had done it differently. This phenomenon has been studied by scientists. According to a study by Neal J. Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Mike Morrison, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
Regrets of omission and lost opportunity linger in our memory longer.”
FDR once defined courage as “not the absence of fear, but the realization that something else is more important.”
As I reflect on the lessons on courage I was gifted with this year, my takeaway is that courage is a function of radical truth – to yourself and others. As I move forward, my mission in life is to do so with courage. I will not only survive, but thrive; and to do so with passion, compassion, humor, and some style.
You get from this life what you have the courage to ask for.’” – Oprah Winfrey