I always used to think courage was something you needed at times of great danger, or in order to carry out very difficult acts. Like being ready to dive into wild, murky waters to save someone, or to confront a gangster with a gun, or going off to disease-ridden tropical areas to do something useful. Big things.
But it also takes courage to try squid ‘in su tinta’ (eating black food is challenging), or belly dancing, or public speaking, or reading controversial books on the bus. Even though the difficulty in these situations probably arises more from a fear of humiliation than physical danger. The images we have of ourselves that we have accumulated over time tend to get in the way of allowing ourselves to be seen for who we really are.
So what exactly is courage? I no longer believe that it means having to do things I neither want to do, nor have the skills for. Is it about expressing my ideas and doing things that may turn out to be mistaken, or incomplete, or just different, without taking that to mean that there’s something wrong with me? And if so, what does that all mean for me on an everyday, ordinary basis?
I think many of us grew up in a system that claimed ‘excellence’ as a fixed standard of perfection, attainable only by the few. But ‘zero defects’ is not only an unattainable goal in any context, it is based on an idea that deviations from the norm are undesirable. Which, when you think about it, is contradictory, because they could actually mean radical innovation. They are potentially unique, and could be excitingly creative. So when we’re afraid of making ‘mistakes’, or working very hard to avoid them, we could be shooting ourselves in the foot, i.e., getting in the way of realizing our own heart’s desire. To quote a friend of mine: “Accidents offer the opportunity to kick-start your own evolution.” [http://www.juxtaposition.nl/newsletter/]
Of course there may be historical reasons for hesitating to reveal what matters most to us – teasing and even bullying are ubiquitous hazards of childhood. And while comparative judgement can be useful in assessing the relative usefulness or feasibility of expressing our passion, or going for our heart’s desire, it can be experienced as an attack – which takes courage to refute. It takes courage to be openly passionate about something. Because that means allowing for longing for what may seem – or may turn out to be – out of reach. It means admitting the possibility of being mistaken – and doing it anyway. It’s not the passion – or love, or interest – that’s the problem, it’s allowing it to be seen and heard. It takes courage, I find, to take my heart in my hand, and let it be seen.
Photo: Stained-glass window by Folon, St Paul de Vence, France
Jean-Paul Folon was a versatile artist; born in Belgium and resident of France for many years. He left behind a treasure-trove of paintings and murals, sculptures and drawings, even stained-glass windows (illustration on left). An altar, mural, and birdbath are in the same chapel-gallery dedicated to his work in the medieval town of St. Paul de Vence, in the French Provence, close to the French Riviera and not too far from Monaco, where Folon lived out the last years of his life.