Few would question that we live in times where we want and need to find courage. The question is where and how do we find it, recognizing that courage can take different forms and can be demonstrated by individuals or groups or even companies. Courage isn’t just sitting there awaiting our partaking of it. We need to develop courage. We need to summon it into action.
Those living in the midst of national disasters need courage – whether that is in Texas or Houston or Puerto Rico or Mexico. While we get initial news coverage of these horrific events, the true need for courage comes after the cameras leave and the people are left with the difficulty of recovery of their property, their neighborhoods, their sense of peace and tranquility.
Those with illnesses – both short term, long term and chronic – need courage. They need it to overcome pain and anxiety and uncertainty. They need courage for themselves to be sure but they also may need it for their spouse or partners, their children, their grandchildren. And, our medical system often does not help us or teach us where to find courage; we are left to our own devices to find it.
Those who serve in war torn nations and see injury and death repeatedly, those who have lost a parent or a child or a spouse or life partner, and those who have been abandoned by those whom they thought loved them all need courage. Since loss and death are separations, these events require courage to move forward, to find hope in the future, to cultivate a new life that has meaning and is fulfilling.
Those who participate in at sports or those who work in businesses (new and established) or across the pre-k –adult educational landscape struggle with finding success and need courage. We are prone to like winners in this nation and if people are not winning at life’s game, then we leave them to pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps until they start to win, or as the case may be, continue to fail.
We need courage if we want change; we need courage if we want to speak up and out about what is eroding our values or happening in our nation; we need courage to speak the truth in the workplace or in government or with ones loved ones, some of whom may struggle with addictions or other mental illnesses. We need courage to understand and act on what makes us happy and fulfilled, even if that makes for hard choices like leaving one’s job or one’s marriage.
I suspect that the need for and difficulty of summoning courage is why television shows like Survivor have such appeal. We want to see if people can demonstrate courage --- strangers. And then, we reflect, oft-times without knowing it, on whether we (the viewers) would have courage in similar situations. It is far easier to look at unknown others struggling to demonstrate courage than to summon it for oneself.
It is in this context that I recently went on a four-day deep wilderness camping trip with my relatively new partner. We canoed for 30 plus miles seeing only a handful of people along the journey. We lived in a tent we pitched while the rain poured down on it and inside it. We ate dehydrated food and did without electricity and cell phones and all other means of communication – except our voices or our silence. We fished and we read and we looked at the sky and the horizon and each other. We navigated with suboptimal maps in a fog and we pushed the canoe a myriad of times over rocks on which we got stuck. We lived without light, except that coming from the sky (hard in the rain) or a small headlamp. We had little with us – whether through ignorance or choice – no tarp, no ax, no weapons, no flare, no quality medical supplies.
For the record and to make the point clear, I would be the person least likely to be voted as a wilderness camper. I bathe two times a day and discard a towel when used once (even though I am clean when I dry myself off). I wear makeup and jewelry and high-heeled shoes. I wash my hair once a day and need a blow dryer. I change clothes several times a day (even when they are not dirty), and while I certainly cook and do dishes and laundry, I have never rinsed dishes in a stream or cleaned a fish or hung clothes to dry from trees. I had never been in, let alone slept in, a pitched tent.
Yet, deep in the woods, I found something I did not know I had or if I knew it, I certainly was not aware of its power, its capacities, its durability: Courage. And it manifested itself in a myriad of ways.
It took courage, I later realized, to even venture out six decades after I was born into a part of the world that Thoreau claimed was where he learned that nature wins over man every time. I literally moved away from civilization and all to and with which I was accustomed, to rely on instincts and be guided by sun and stars. Courage.
I had no idea I could be soaking wet for days and come to understand that once you are wet, more rain does not make it worse. One is – plainly – just wet. And complaining doesn’t help. Indeed, it makes no sense to complain when there is nothing one can do about a situation. It even starts to feel OK to be soaked to the core. And, there are lots of life situations like that where one cannot change reality; one has to learn to live with it. A spouse with Alzheimer’s is but one example. Courage.
Being with another person – with no escaping to another room let alone another location – isn’t easy. Sleeping, eating, bathing, carrying out bodily functions like peeing, are shared. Talking, debating, thinking, reflecting – together and alone – aren’t all that commonplace in our day-to-day life. In the woods, there were no distractions. There we were together – with each other. And, if you wanted to hear a human voice, you better figure out fast how to communicate. And if the canoe was stuck or headed in the wrong direction or tipping over or one was lost (whether really or just in perception), one better figure out fast how teamwork really works. Courage.
And finally, being in the silence of nature (which is actually not silent but filled with sounds of water and rain and animals and bugs and birds), leaves one with thoughts, those thoughts that are deeply buried and wriggling and wresting within one’s psyche and those closer to the surface. Some of those thoughts roar; others are quieter. But, in nature, they are all there within one, and one needs to address them overtly or through dreams or conversation because they won’t go away. And one learns a lot that way about oneself and one’s partner. Courage.
So, the answer to the complicated question of where to find courage is that it rests within us all, and we find it when we need it, when courage must show its face, when it is required. Courage is one of those things that is only imagined or fanciful until it is not. Kind of like childbirth or love: you can explain it all you want; you can watch it; but until you experience it, it remains unknowable deep within. Reality is what brings out courage.
And true, some people have more courage than others. Some perhaps have an abundance of it. Perhaps some have little or none at all. But here’s what is true and here’s what I learned: if one never has to exercise courage, one will never know if one has it, let alone know how much of it one can muster. And, in the real world, for better or worse, we are often and increasingly challenged to show courage.
Wilderness camping – away from all save my partner – was where I felt, saw, used and experienced courage despite a myriad of occasions in the past where I had exercised it – unknowingly in many instances. And, it showed me that I not only have it but I had it and used it on many occasions in the past. Courage rests in us and can be awakened.
Activating courage, embracing it even, also requires courage. True: We can’t send everyone camping in the deep dark woods of Northern Maine. We can’t structure things so that people in abusive relationships always get out. We can’t enable others to speak up and out when they experience or witness fraud or theft or bullying or harassment.
But, here’s what we can do: we can recognize courage in others and in ourselves. We can be proud when we exercise it and show it. We can laud its presence for others to see. We can applaud it in others, overtly. And we can realize that like some other qualities humans possess (like the capacity to love), courage can only be fully realized and felt when it is actually required and experienced.
My advice: put yourself in positions to be courageous. Only then will you see the power that rests within. And then, when you really need courage, you will know you have it – because you have seen it, felt it and used it before.
Note: A special thank-you to my partner MW who enabled me to experience courage in myself and to do something literally unimaginable 10 months ago. And, I owe him gratitude for recognizing the courage I have shown, not just in going camping but also in dealing with life’s exigencies and disequilibrium with decency, wisdom and fairness. Self-preservation is a form of courage too. He knew I had courage before I did – or at least before I could label some of my decisions as courageous. Yes, I have courage but I needed someone to show me how much I had had and still have. That’s a partner to cherish.