Tag Archives: courage

Finding courage

Back in the summer I started asking questions about the nature of courage. I’ve struggled with fear, anxiety, terror and paralysis for years. I used to be a much bolder person, more willing to take risks and to trust my instincts, and I’d lost that part of myself.

Recent months have taught me some things about courage that it might be useful if I share.

It’s far easier to be brave when other people support you with their belief. When other people invest you with their trust, faith, confidence and things of that ilk, it’s easier to hold some sense of being worth that. It’s also easier to be brave for other people than as some kind of solitary project. Humans are communal creatures, and community can bring out the best in us. Being heroic for someone is considerably easier than just trying to generally speaking ‘be heroic’.

The other community aspect is that being brave on your own is exhausting. Being brave as part of a community means taking shifts, propping each other up, hauling each other through things and not having to be brave about bloody everything all of the time. Courage as a community project is way more sustainable because the courage can continue far beyond what any one person can manage or carry. If someone is able to be brave, there’s scope for everyone to keep moving, often. We can take it in turns to be bold for each other.

Courage is not of itself all about fear or challenge. You don’t have to be afraid first to be bold in meaningful ways. Courage is a state of readiness to act, to risk, to jump, and to be informed by your sense of honour. It takes courage to live with honour. Without courage to enable you to manifest what you believe through your actions, honour is just a nice set of ideas. Courage is more than a principled way of living, it’s part of what gives a person the willingness to be active in the world.

It is much easier to be courageous when you can see yourself moving towards something. Without vision, without a sense of direction, what is there to be courageous for? Granted, you can fight to keep going and fight to survive, but when that looks like more of the same, pointlessly for as long as you can bear to live, it is hard to keep courage alive in your heart. We can’t always be fighting against things, that leads to exhaustion and despair. For courage to thrive in your heart you have to have things you are fighting for. It is not enough simply to resist.

I’ve been re-building my courage in recent months. I’ve had help. There are things, people, possibilities and opportunities I want to move towards, and that’s meant changing how I act and how I relate to the world. There are people who definitely do need me to be stronger and more courageous for them, and that’s been a huge source of inspiration. There are people who will hold me when I don’t have it in me to be bold, and who help me get back on my feet when I lose my confidence. 

The more I look at these issues the more convinced I am that community is a key part of everything that I want to do differently. I’m my best self through my relationships with other people and I have most to offer when I don’t feel like I have to somehow be and do everything.


What is courage?

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately (previous post about courage). Often we define courage as feeling the fear but acting anyway. What troubles me about this approach is that it defines courage as something that only exists in opposition to something else.

One of the things I like about virtues is the idea of cultivating them, but if courage only exists in relation to fear, then you can only cultivate it by having things you are afraid of. You can only measure it in terms of that – so the person who develops courage so far that they overcome fear doesn’t really count as courageous any more. 

I’m interested in the idea of courage as an innate quality, not a reaction. It struck me that this would require the courage to be for something, rather than coming up in opposition to fearful experiences. What things are we invested in such that the idea of them gives us courage? It takes courage to act, to make changes, to stand up for things. It’s perhaps not so much about overcoming fear as overcoming apathy and disbelief. The courage of your convictions is a rejection of the idea that you can’t make a difference, or that the struggle itself is futile. It can take courage to try and to strive – not because the action is fearful, but because it takes a certain kind of boldness to assert meaning in this way in face of an often uncaring universe.

Thanks to some helpful facebook prompts, I’ve been thinking about lions and oak trees in relation to courage. Neither of these really suggests overcoming fear to me. They do however suggest ways of standing in your own power, with a kind of poise and awareness that makes action possible. 

I’m considering the idea that fear isn’t the opposite of courage – often fear and courage exist alongside each other. Apathy and defeatedness are the opposites of courage. It is apathy and a feeling of defeat and futility that stops people from acting – fear is often a spur to acting and creates necessity. Courage is the quality that keeps a person moving when it seems like all is lost, or the problem is too big to take on. Thus whether or not you are afraid may not be the best measure of whether or not you are courageous.


If I were king of the forest

Recently I’ve been contemplating courage – the role that quality has played in my life and the degree to which I’m not feeling it at the moment. I’m not feeling a lot of things; depression has me operating on a narrow bandwidth at the moment and I’m trying to find things I could change that would help with that.

Often people think about courage as a response to fear. Courage is what you call upon to square up to threatening situations. I assume I’ve still got it in me to show up for the things that must be done, but I’ve not been tested in a while on that score. I’m really happy not to be tested and am in no hurry to have to be brave about anything.

The courage I’m missing is more of a state of being. I used to have more boldness, and a willingness to go open hearted into the world and throw myself fully into things. I’ve become cautious, wary, mistrustful. It’s not been an irrational or unreasonable process, not even slightly. It might even represent something like wisdom. However, I don’t like this version of me. I liked me better when I was a bit less sensible and a lot more open and available.

It’s not as simple as choosing differently. There’s an emotional exhaustion underpinning all of this. Experiences have taken a toll, and the prospect of pouring from an empty cup is unbearable. But perhaps that means the question is really about how to refill the empty cup. 

Part of the point of living with courage is to be fearless in face of uncertainty. To love without hesitation, unafraid of whatever does or does not result from that. To give, to care, to show up… That was easier to do when I felt that I made a difference and had things to offer. To find my courage again I need to find a sense of purpose and worth. I need to be able to imagine that showing up fearless and wholehearted is worth something in some way, and not just to me.

How many times can a person get this sort of thing wrong before they stop believing in it? I’ve got a lot of things wrong. I’ve messed up really badly with a number of people along the way – perhaps I chose the wrong people, but there’s an exhaustion that comes from having done the wholehearted thing and have everything I was trying to do fall apart in my hands, yet again. Love like you’ve never been hurt is a bloody difficult thing to aspire to, and nobody talks about what happens when the hurt level starts to compromise your underlying ability to love.

I don’t have answers at the moment, but it seems productive to frame the questions. I don’t want to be closed and anxious. I also don’t want to mess things up by being too intense (I got called weird and creepy a few years ago, that one still haunts me). 

I suspect that reclaiming my courage and my former way of being in the world is going to depend on finding spaces where that’s actually wanted and welcome. I may need help with this. I’m exploring that too, albeit cautiously at the moment.


What is courage?

Most often, courage and bravery are both defined in terms of overcoming fear. Apparently it isn’t courage if you weren’t afraid in the first place. It may be heroic idiocy, or naivety, impulsiveness or not thinking it through. I feel like we’re missing something here. I feel like reducing courage to what we do in the face of fear is less than helpful and my totally unsubstantiated personal gnosis is that this is not what ideas of courage meant to our Celtic ancestors. Also, they will have had a totally different language for all of this.

What if fear isn’t the most important thing? What if you can look at the dangers, weight them sensibly, but also not be overwhelmed by them. What if the dangers don’t tend to seem like the most important factors? What if courage, as a quality and as a virtue could have something joyful about it? An enthusiastic, life embracing, challenge meeting sort of feeling that leads a person to live life boldly, bring the best of what they have and do things as well as is possible. What if courage is the virtue of being really invested in how you do something and not overly focused on what you think the outcome will be? On the grounds that living well, with honour and authenticity will always be the right direction to go in, even if it doesn’t seem expedient right now.

Courage, thought about this way becomes the opposite of apathy. The odds don’t matter so much, the risks don’t matter so much, the real question is how much passionate integrity and wholeheartedness you can bring. It becomes a state of being, not a reaction to scary stuff.

At the moment, this is a largely aspirational line of thought for me. I’ve done a lot of trying to be brave in face of things that terrify me. It’s exhausting, and I don’t much like how it feels. I want to shift my relationship with the rest of reality, and I want to re-imagine myself and these are some of the terms on which I’m doing that at the moment.


The Unsound Practice of Silencing

In the aftermath of both Brexit and the US presidential elections, I’ve seen a lot of silencing. People with legitimate fears – about where they can work, live and study on the Brexit side, or about their safety on the US side, are told to shut up by too many people. You lost, get over it. I’ve seen the same pattern of response around other issues too, from the most personal to these wide social concerns.

People who express distress are labelled as whingers, fearmongers, special snowflakes, and other such derogatory terms designed to shame a person into silence. They are told they are making a fuss, and that no one wants to hear it.

So, turning this around, why do we do this? Why do we silence people? The most obvious answer is ‘because what they say makes us feel uncomfortable’. We put our comfort ahead of knowing the truth of how something impacts on someone else. It may be – and I feel certain this is true for a lot of people around Brexit – that many of us had no idea what the impact would be on others. To hear you’ve made a choice that really hurts someone you did not mean to hurt, is tough. No one enjoys that. If our egos are fragile, we may prefer to blame the victim rather than face our responsibilities.

Thinking about how we impact on other humans is not easy or comfortable territory. Nor is thinking about how we impact on animals, wildlife, or the planet. If we know where things come from, what they really cost, what died so we could have them, it can be distressing. We protect ourselves from knowing by silencing the people who are trying to tell us.

It takes courage to do differently – simply. It takes courage to let another human being speak their truth when that truth makes you uncomfortable. It takes guts to recognise that your discomfort in hearing something might not be as important as the problem the other person needs to talk about. It takes a willingness to face your own privileges and not let a sense of entitlement to ease rule your choices. In matters of US politics right now, one person’s minor discomfort is another person’s death sentence.

Honour people when they speak their truth, and do what you can to support that, even when you don’t like what they need to say. Perhaps especially then. Don’t stand by in complicit silence if you see people being told to shut up, or denigrated for their anxieties. Take a moment to think about it – because if someone is afraid that their lives will be destroyed, they probably need taking seriously. Too often, we support the people who feel mildly inconvenienced at the expense of the people who truly need our help, and we all need to work on changing this.


Courage, delusion and the Prince of Fools

Courage was considered a virtue by the heroic cultures many modern Pagans look back to for inspiration. However, once you start prodding it in earnest, courage turns out to be a rather complicated thing.

I’ve spent the last few days reading Mark Lawrence’s novel ‘Prince of Fools’. Book one of a dark fantasy trilogy, running in parallel time-wise with his Thorns trilogy. I really like Mark as an author. He can do plot and action, he balances light and dark superbly so you’re always in your toes, but sometimes giggling, his craftsmanship with words is superb, and there are layers. Start digging around in what holds the plot together, and there are weighty concepts about what it means to be human. These are qualities I very much appreciate in a book. He’s also a lovely person.

After some deliberation, I feel that the key themes in Prince of Fools, for me were cowardice/courage and self-delusion. The interplay between the two in the narrative is also fascinating. The first person narrator ‘hero’ self-identifies as a coward. Jalan prefers running away to fighting and getting out of things tends to appeal to him more than sorting them out or facing responsibility. Much of this is held together by a total refusal to think too much about anything – a form of protective self-deluding there, which keeps him from the consequences of what he does, and does not do. His companion, Snorri, seems brave, he’s certainly driven, but there is no small amount of refusing to think making that apparent bravery possible, too.

The theory that Mark puts forward, through Jalan, is that everyone is afraid. Everyone is in the business of running away, it’s just a case of what you fear most. The person who fears dishonour more than death will run towards a fight, not away from it, quite simply. They may be no less afraid, it’s just a different fear. I note for myself that I can be careless of my own pain and physical damage, but fear causing discomfort – even minor emotional discomfort – to others. Which has interesting influences on my choices.

Without fear in the mix, it’s very hard to call anything brave. It may just be stupid, unimaginative, misguided. To be brave, you have to know what there is to be afraid of. It’s an interesting question as to whether, having identified the biggest fear, you can then bravely run away from it towards something that also offers challenges. I am inclined to think that the naming and owning of the fear might well be the bravest part of the whole process. To know what frightens you most is to know yourself, and to be honest about your fear is to be more authentic.

However, Mark doesn’t leave it there, because the theme of not being honest with yourself about fear runs through the book. It takes a certain amount of dishonesty to keep going when the things to be afraid of are big enough to easily break you. It takes a certain kind of deliberate forgetting and denying to stay sane in the face of horror and trauma.  A person with PTSD needs to forget – because it is the remembering that takes you apart. What do we lay down of past and self in order to face the future? What lies do we have to tell ourselves in order to be able to act? When failure seems inevitable, the heroic path may depend entirely on your ability to believe otherwise. To die for a cause is to be able to believe it’s worth it right up until the last breath, despite all evidence to the contrary.

We tend to hold honesty as a virtue, but it is also worth considering what the little lies and bigger ones we tell ourselves allow us to do, for well or woe.

(More about the book here – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18693743-prince-of-fools)


Courage

Of all the virtues a person might cultivate, courage is one of the ones I find most important. Honour is the primary virtue cherished by Druids, but honour without courage doesn’t amount to much. If you can only be honourable when it is safe and easy, you won’t get very far.

Fear is a very destructive and damaging force in my life, and I know I am not alone in this. There are days when the fear is so bad that I simply want to shut down and refuse to engage with the world. To do so, would be to bring about personal disaster, there are no two ways about it. To be halted by fear, is to fail. So much of what I do depends on getting out there and doing it… if I let the fear overwhelm me, I am finished. It means that often, any kind of movement at all is far better than quitting would be.

For some, courage and bravery seem like an absence of fear. From the outside they tend to look that way. Conventional wisdom has it that courage is not freedom from fear, but the ability to overcome the fear that you have. Undoubtedly this is a useful thing, but it means living with the fear.

What is courage, as a state of being? Firstly it requires a capacity for hope. You have to believe it is possible for things to be better and that taking action will help. Without that fundamental belief, there is no courage. An absence of despair, or at least not very much of it, are necessary pre-requisites for courage. Even if you are heading out to face certain death, you have to believe that doing so means something, or you’ll just pull the duvet over your head and wait for certain doom to come to you, instead. It doesn’t need to be more than a fine thread of hope, a tiny belief that some small thing could be made better. However, that dash of optimism makes all the difference. Without it, courage seems futile.

Courage requires a degree of belief in your own power. If you don’t believe that you, personally, can make a difference by acting or doing your best, you will not find the courage to stand up and try. So for there to be courage, there must be a world view that embraces the potential of the lone crusader, or that sees how many little actions contribute to changing the tide. Gloomy acceptance does not foster courage.

Then you need to have a vision of something better, so that you know which direction to move in. It might be vague, it might simply be the idea that if you act honourably you will move towards those better ways of being, but there needs to be something. Courage without honour has no idea what to be doing, and can easily turn into something else.

Courage is not merely the business of overcoming fear. Determination can do that. Fear itself can make us overcome the paralysis of fear for fear of what might be worse should we fail to act. Courage is an inner condition that says ‘I can try and there is a point’. When you have that, you can see all the things it is reasonable, and less reasonable to be afraid of, but you have the means to challenge them. You have a perspective that makes it possible to stand up and act. That kind of courage is not bombastic or sabre rattling, but it has a great deal of power.

I do not think that courage as a virtue is simply a measure of overcoming fear. It is a state of being that is not dependent on how much fear you are feeling. It is a habit of mind and a cultivation of belief that enables action regardless of fear. One can therefore have courage without feeling afraid, or with it; the measure is not the terror overcome, but a particular inner quality that enables action.


End of an era

Today is the last day of primary school. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was buying his first uniform items and sewing in the name tags. Now he’s a remarkably grown up young fellow, poised to turn into a teenager sometime soon. I remember my own reluctance to give up childhood, soon replaced by a desperate desire to be properly grown up.

The boy has had an unusual sort of childhood, not least thanks to having spent 2 years living on a narrowboat. He’s experienced challenge and betrayal, and learned to negotiate some complex relationships with adults. There were times spent in places where he was an unhappy misfit, unwilling to compromise himself to fit in. And then, the joy of being in a place where his difference is embraced and nurtured. A school where teachers take pride in him, rather than wanting him to change. Accepted and supported he’s become more confident and relaxed, still very much the boy he always was, but now fearless about sharing it. Those deep, philosophical thoughts that he used only to share with me, he can now offer to his peers when the opportunity arises in class. He trusts them not to mock him, he trusts the adults around him to respect him, and to honour his choices and preferences. It’s made a world of difference, resulting in a far happier and far less anxious sort of boy.

I hope, when he’s older, that the last few years will colour his memories of childhood. He’s forgotten much of his early life, which may be as well. I hope he remembers sunny days on the towpath, with his cat. Garden rampages with local friends. Bowling and castles, epic train journeys, piloting the narrowboat and feeding the ducklings. The Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust has given him a glorious range of experiences and opportunities, and a very keen sense of what he wants to be as an adult. He’s handled salamanders, dismantled owl pellets, seen rare wild birds, and learned to tell one kind of duck from another.

In the last few years, the boy has become very tolerant of difference and diversity, conscious that he never knows what other people might have to deal with, or what secrets they might carry. He’s intolerant of bullying and cruelty, a firm believer in equality, and someone who wants fairness but also has a sense of how sadly short of it we are. He’s learned to be a fighter, a crusader, brave, bold and willing to take a stance for justice, be that around badger culls, the Canal & River Trust, or the environmental impact of cars. He stops to get caterpillars, and beetles out of the road, when it’s safe to do so.

And so we come to the end of primary school. The amazing year group he’s been part of will go to four different schools, inevitably losing touch to a degree. They are wild, courageous and extraordinary kids, and it has been a joy to get to know them a bit, and share in their triumphs. They give me hope. We’ve made a lot of friends here, some of whom we should be able to keep. And of course we will be back in the winter, to see the swans.

The end of an era also means the beginning of something new. We know the shape of it a bit, but the details remain mysterious, only to be discovered through living them. We stayed here, and lived on the boat so that the boy could stay in school. I have no doubt that was the right choice. It’s been a challenging way of life, but it has given us so much. We’ve been through some things, recovered from some things, and now it is time to gather up what we learned, and move forward. I have a few more reflective thoughts to work through over the coming days, and there is chaos to come.