Preface (or Finding Oneself up Against a Major Barrier that Prevents Forward Movement)
A few weeks ago, one of my instructors charged me with writing something about courage. You see, the epic struggle between courage and its antithesis, cowardice, has been a running theme in my life (with the latter frequently prevailing). After the interaction with my instructor, I took a few days to think about how I would approach the topic, and I’ve actually sat down to write several times. Writing, abandoning the approach, changing gears, writing again. Really having trouble. Could it be I lack the courage to talk about what courage means to me?
Possibly. In addition, I think, from lack of courage, I continue voluntarily putting myself into Kafkaesque work and living situations where my ability to determine what constitutes a reasonable situation becomes impaired. I’m in one of those situations right now, and on top of it, I’m now unable to leave it as I have a fractured ankle that won’t heal – over three months of being unable to walk. So I feel both mentally and physically paralyzed, imprisoned, dejected in spirit. Not good, so it is especially important that I actually try to write this piece on courage.
The Problem (or What is this Thing Called ‘Courage’, Anyway?)
For a handful of years now, I’ve told myself and others that I’m a coward – i.e., lacking in courage. But what does that mean? I get puzzled reactions from people if I say that, so it is clear that the word ‘courage’ means different things to different people.
Since time began, courage has been defined by men and has usually meant patriotism and picking up weapons to kill people you don’t have the first clue about, but think you do. It is usually cloaked as a defence of that which is important to your group – these days, at least on the Western end of things, it’s ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ – and it is seldom the real reason for these displays of supposed courage (it’s usually about ‘getting stuff’ and eradicating religious and ethnic groups). Anyhow, that is not courage. To me.
Courage is also often seen as ‘heading out into the unknown’, and as I typically don’t walk around killing the faceless enemy with a sense of self-righteousness, but I do frequently do the former, people just don’t get my proclamations of cowardice. There is this idea that staying at home and making a life is not brave, while living in places such as China where foreigners are still considered a threat is an act of courage. Courage is more complicated than that, though. I do think that avoiding the unknown (which doesn’t have to be the physical unknown) and thus choosing to remain ignorant is a big part of cowardice. For the Buddhists – and I’ll write about The Three Poisons another time – ignorance is the root of all human suffering. I think it is the root of cowardice as well. But for the sake of the current discussion, let me turn this around. What if continually heading out into the unknown is actually just remaining in a comfort zone of cycling ignorance that prevents one from moving onward and upward? Hmmm.
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
- Anaïs Nin
Despite what anyone says, I feel my life is small, so much smaller than it could be. ‘Small’ is a relative term, and I use it to describe the feeling that I’m not where I’m supposed to be, and I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m not being effective like I think I should be. All for lack of courage. Courage to do what? To try, fail, and then try again. To understand one’s needs, and then articulate them and not accept less. To know one’s beliefs, and then not be silent regardless of what others think. I’m really bad at those italics… those italics are courage, to me. The patterns of behaviour that result from not being courageous have become boring and predictable. And, I have a shrunken life as a result.
Framing Courage (or Looking for Heroes)
Before setting out on a courageous path, though, one needs to decide what it means to have this quality and to live a life in accordance with it. Luckily (?), as I am completely laid up – which I normally would have spent writing and being productive, but have not – I’ve been watching a lot of lectures and videos. The critic in my head whispers that I’m just lazy, but I think what I’ve been doing is searching for those who embody courage. Heroes, if you will. I didn’t realize I was doing that, but when I look at what my viewing choices have been, I suppose I could call it ‘research’. At least that sounds a hell of a lot better than wasting time doing nothing.
I’ve had a significant lack of heroes in my life. My parents were bullies and hypocrites, and my teachers were mostly uninspiring and unprovocative in the brains department. Lies and beat downs leading not towards freethinking and outspokenness, but towards inner turmoil, identitylessness, and a feeling of impotence. Even being the product of a cowardly country such as Canada – unable to break free of Britain and constantly sucking up to the US while at the same time staunchly proclaiming “We are not American!” – hasn’t helped in the personal courage development department. Heroes or role models are necessary to identity development, goal setting, and yes, courage.
The people I’m drawn to, I’ve found, have most to all of the following qualities essential to how I see courage:
- a belief in both personal and collective freedom
- a belief in equality and human rights for all (women, gays, races, etc.)
- a respect for facts and evidence, rather than faith or authority, as the building blocks of truth
- a willingness to speak out in defense of their beliefs despite loss of support (at best), ridicule and insult, and even threats of bodily harm or death (at worst)
- a feeling of duty to challenge the sacrosanct, the ‘untouchable’ issues held dear by our societies.
These models of courage, despite whether I agree with everything they think and do, inspire me to aspire to be and do what most people can’t imagine being or doing without being forced . They have existed throughout time. They are the ones who change the world for the better. And many of them have paid dearly in a number of ways only to be supported much later in time.
[As a sidebar, I hadn't originally intended to touch on the topic of heroes or role models, but things evolve as they do. I've also just recalled that I wrote a post over a year ago on Chinese heroines that came out of a class I taught to a bunch of Chinese teens a few summers ago.]
I want to stop here. This essay feels unfinished, but I feel there is a risk of ending on a cheesy, “I can do it! You can do it! We can do it!” inspirational quote/saying note that would take away from what motivated this in the first place. (Congratulate me on not inserting the famous Rosie the Riveter poster here.) I also never meant this to be an advice post. Further, I hate the words ‘musings’, ‘rant’, and ‘ramblings’, so this isn’t any of those either. I think I need to leave this unfinished because I’m not finished – perhaps just starting. I’ve been growing more uncomfortable with the complacency and ‘oh well, not my problem’ attitudes as well as the ‘turn that frown upside down’ Cult of Happiness that are growing in the Western world and I feel I’ve been a part of the non-doing. Grumbling among peers is not action any more than is choosing to remain ignorant.
To be continued…