There is something so wonderful about the indomitable and ever-evolving nature of the human spirit. Down through the generations, we recall and retell the inspiring stories of those who came before us pioneering a pathway for progress. Memorable historical figures spring to mind such as Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks. In our personal lives we are deeply inspired by our immigrant ancestors, our tireless teachers and role models, and by the many, unsung community heroes we watched who dedicated their lives to ensuring the rights of others.
The brave women and men of these stories share three powerful traits that can provide us with a healing template for continuing our own learning, growth, and self-care. Because of their courage, curiosity and commitment, they were able to keep forging ahead in spite of the odds.
The root of the word courage is cor, the Latin word for heart. Although in modern times courage is synonymous with being heroic or brave, the original use of the word meant attending to one's innermost feelings. In his book, Finding Inner Courage, Mark Nepo similarly defines courage as "standing by one's core." He writes, "This is a striking concept that reinforces the belief found in almost all traditions that living from the Center is what enables us to face whatever life has to offer."
The courage to meet and greet each new day is seldom bombastic and brimming with confidence and bravado. More often than not, courage is that still, small voice at our core that says, "Yes, I am willing to keep trying. Although I am afraid, I am by no means finished. I will not quit. I have come too far to turn back. I will let go of the familiar in order to brave the unknown." This impulse to rise up and keep going under difficult conditions is what Hemingway meant when he coined the phrase "grace under pressure."
It takes courage to confront life-long patterns that continue to drain us and diminish our well-being. It's courage that compels us to move on from the past instead of hiding there in the familiar but self-destructive comforts of the status quo.
Courage isn't something we are born with. It's something we choose to practice. Twenty six-year-old Lizzie Velasquez has learned how to put feet to courage. She has a rare medical condition that prevents her from gaining weight. She has never weighed more than 64 pounds. It also causes early aging and has left her blind in one eye. When she was in high school, she discovered an 8-second video of herself on YouTube that dubbed her the "World's Ugliest Woman." Shockingly, it had already garnered 4 million views. She was devastated. The cruel comments were unbearable.
However, with the love and support of her family, she worked on developing the courage to channel the bullying and rejection she faced into the motivation and determination needed to rise above it. And rise she did.
Her 2013 TEDx talk in Austin Texas, titled "How Do You Define Yourself?" went viral. Her autobiographical presentation is charming, funny, touching and thought-provoking. Above all else, it is a call to action. She concluded her talk with these courageous and inspiring words: "My life is in my hands. I can make it good or bad. It's up to me. The same is true for you. Just remember ... brave starts here."
Lizzie has already realized several of her dreams. She graduated from college, has written three books and is now a sought after motivational speaker. Her TED video has been viewed over 9 million times.
Courage opens the door and invites curiosity. When we have the courage to ask, "What if..." our curiosity becomes ignited. Exploring this curiosity can prove to be so stimulating and encouraging that it contributes to effectively softening our fears of uncertainty and the discomfort of facing the unknown.
In a study in the journal Neuron researchers from UC Davis Center for Neuroscience found that the brain's chemistry changes when we become curious. Because of these changes we are able to learn more, as well as retain and utilize information more effectively. Giving ourselves permission to honor and explore our questions is the key to unlocking the learning, creativity, and healing that leads to growth.
In her book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown asks, "How do we come to aha moments if we're not willing to explore and ask questions? New information won't transform our thinking, much less our lives, if it simply lands at our feet. For experiences and information to be integrated into our lives as true awareness, they have to be received with open hands, inquisitive minds and wondering hearts."
In the past, research has focused predominantly on intelligence and effort as the core determinants of learning and development. New research is expanding on these traditional predictors by adding curiosity as a powerful contributor. In a study published in Psychological Science , researchers from the UK and Switzerland gathered data from over 200 studies with a total of 50,000 students. They found that curiosity has a large, positive effect on academic performance. When coupled with a high level of conscientiousness (willingness to work hard), curiosity had as big an effect on performance as intelligence, resulting in engaged, independent learners.
Exploring and fostering our curiosity regarding our lifestyle choices will invite us to step outside of our comfort zone to try something new. This could include joining a gym, signing up for a restorative yoga class, rekindling a past relationship or inviting a new friend to lunch. To be curious is to be open to seeing the world with new eyes, new hope, and new possibilities.
When it comes to healing, there is no neutral place in our experience. We are either integrating healthful elements necessary for growth, or we are, by our inaction or unhealthy choices, contributing to the disintegration of our well-being.
In addition to our ongoing practice of courage and curiosity, what keeps us centered in our responsibility for our personal evolution is our commitment to stay the course, no matter what. This commitment is not a clichéd hard line of steely fortitude. Rather, it involves a steady, reliable effort on our part to practice consistent care for our body, mind, and spirit. This commitment is based in a tender yet determined promise to make choices every day that create more love and connection in every aspect of our being.
In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen tells a moving story that illustrates not only the power but also the beauty of personal commitment. One of her patients was a young man who was separated from his ski party and spent three days in freezing temperatures but somehow had miraculously survived. Because of frostbite and progressing gangrene surgeons wanted to amputate his foot. The young man refused and became sicker and sicker. Overwhelmed by the possibility of losing him, his desperate fiancé took off her engagement ring and thrust it onto the swollen toe of his blackened foot and cried, "I hate this damned foot. If you want this foot so much why you don't marry it? You're going to have to choose, you can't have us both." The young man opted for surgery on the following day. On a visit with him as he was recovering, Dr. Remen asked him what had changed his mind. He answered that seeing that ring on his foot had shocked him. He realized that he had been more committed to keeping his foot than he was committed to saving his life and their life together. He was powerfully reminded that what had in fact enabled him to survive those three desperate days in the life-threatening cold was the commitment he had made to his fiancé' and the promise of their life together.
Dr. Remen writes, "Commitment, though it may sometimes feel constricting, will ultimately lead to greater degrees of freedom. Commitment is a conscious choice, to align ourselves with our most genuine values and our sense of purpose."
This life can be so very tough when we find ourselves facing a health crisis, unemployment, divorce and other personally devastating challenges. But what knocks us to the ground is often the very thing that jumpstarts a renewed passion for living. Like the young man in Dr. Remen's story, it's the indomitable love within us and between us that summons our courage, spikes our curiosity and galvanizes our commitment to not just survive, but to thrive. Diarist Anais Nin said it this way: "And the day came when the risk of staying tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to blossom."
What acts of courage have inspired you toward healing and growth?
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