Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that allows us to face danger, difficulty, pain, etc. without fear. Most of us first learned about courage (or the lack of it) from the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. As a child, I related deeply to the Cowardly Lion. I was one of those timid kids known as a scaredy-cat. I was afraid of crowds and even had difficulty in social settings. I was very afraid of creepy things that crawled (more commonly known as insects). My brothers could induce shrieks of terror by throwing a daddy long legs in my general direction. I was afraid of the water because I didn't know how to swim and did not enjoy the feeling of flailing about in water where I couldn't stand. I was really good at climbing trees but had a terrible time getting down because I was afraid of heights. The list goes on and on.
I had wonderful profiles in courage to observe, however, from my earliest recollections. There was Miss Jones, my kindergarten teacher. I began kindergarten in the fall of 1959 at Harry Hoffman school, and my teacher was a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life, probably in her mid-20s. She was seated at the teacher's desk when I walked into the room and took my desk. I remember thinking she looked like a Disney princess. It wasn't until class began, and we rose so that she could teach us and lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance that I noticed the heavy metal arm crutches she needed to rise from her chair and stand. The only other person I had personally known with those crutches was my cousin, Roberta, and I instantly knew that Miss Jones had had polio. There were approximately 20 children in my kindergarten class.
Miss Jones led us through our various subjects, recess, fire drills, air raid drills, bathroom breaks, and not once did we question her authority. A friend's mother, years later, asked me if we ever realized that if we wanted to challenge Miss Jones we would only have had to run faster and further than she could have managed on her crutches. It had never occurred to me. Miss Jones never once used her disability as an excuse to avoid control in the classroom. If she even so much as slightly raised her voice, we hung our heads in shame. We all wanted her to love us as much as we loved her. And, in middle school, most of us were privileged to attend her wedding.
Years later, in high school, our principal was Mr. Bradley. An imposing man of powerful physique, Mr. Bradley also commanded respect. In my senior year, 1971, my entire girls' physical education class had hit the showers after a rather strenuous workout. Barb Bradley, Mr. Bradley's daughter, was in one of the showers nearby. Barb was studious and well-liked, although I don't think I could say "popular," and we were all assured she would be our valedictorian. She felt as his daughter that she had something to prove, academically and beyond. None of us were prepared for what happened next. Unknown to us, Barb had a congenital heart defect which would have qualified her for a permanent pass from gym class. She wasn't going to play that card, knowing she would be targeted as having received some sort of special treatment as the principal's daughter. In reality, she just wanted to be like all of us - normal kids with no preferential treatment. She and her family knew the risks, but Barb's wishes were granted. That day, after our heavy workout, she collapsed in the shower. We called for our teacher, emergency services was called, but it was all to no avail. Barb had suffered a heart attack and was gone.
Barb Bradley's death was my first experience in losing a peer, and I was stunned and devastated. Mr. Bradley set the tone. A school assembly was called. He offered us consolation and explanation and helped us cope. He treated us as young adults and asked us to carry on, knowing that's what Barb would have wanted. We were dismissed to grieve that day, but the next day dawned and school resumed. The courage and leadership he showed on the day he lost his daughter has never dimmed in my mind. And on graduation day, when Barb should have been giving her valedictory speech, the senior class returned the respect he showed us that day. Barb's seat was vacant, but flowers were on her chair. Our salutatorian gave his speech, but there was no valedictory speech in 1971. Instead, there was a tribute to Barb Bradley, who traded her life so that she wouldn't be considered "special." She was special, and so was her father. They both demonstrated a courage I didn't know existed until that experience.
To be sure, I carry many more vignettes of courage in my mind. I wondered how one moves from being a scaredy cat to being a person of courage, and again, I'm no expert, but I must admit I live a life with less fear today. I've learned a lot through the examples of others. I have read countless books and articles. I don't know what might work for you, but I have learned things that are helpful to me. My prayer is that something here may be useful if you are struggling with fear.
While the manifestation of fear may be psychobiological (heightened anxiety, sweating, difficulty catching my breath, an impending feeling of doom), I've learned that fear is simply an accumulation of knowledge and understanding. The first step in overcoming any of my fears is awareness. Awareness allows me the freedom to admit that I am afraid and to realize that it is a feeling state, not necessarily a reality. I have a few trusted friends with whom I can discuss even my deepest or most irrational fears with confidence, knowing they will let me speak and not taunt, berate, or otherwise judge me.
Perhaps Franklin Roosevelt was right when he said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Fear creates an anxious feeling over some imagined or perceived event or experience. In a group I hang out with, we claim fear as false evidence appearing real. It has been helpful to recognize that shame, guilt, jealousy, envy, anger, embarrassment, bigotry and intolerance all have their root in fear. Karl Albrecht, Ph.D., explains there are only five fears:
- Extinction: annihilation, death, no longer being - as in when you stand upon the observation deck of a 100+ story building and look down and feel panicked.
- Mutilation: loss of any part of our bodily structure (from a limb to tissue) and this is the one that breeds the fear of creepy crawly things
- Autonomy: fear of being paralyzed, smothered, restricted, imprisoned or otherwise controlled by circumstances (covers everything from claustrophobia to personal circumstances and relationships)
- Separation: fear of abandonment, becoming a non-person, rejection or loss of connectedness (a child given the silent treatment by a peer group can result in devastating psychological consequences)
- Ego-death: fear of humiliation, shame, guilt (most commonly expressed in our society as fear of public speaking)
When I process fear as information or understanding, instead of accepting the Freudian concept of it being evil welling up inside me, I have the chance to pause, ask myself (or a companion) if the fear is real, and then decide a course of action. Perhaps I am asked to speak in front of a large group of people. My immediate response might be "NO!" because my brain immediately recollects that the last time I did public speaking I overran my allotted time, blew my speech and humiliated myself. I have had to train myself to acknowledge that what happened yesterday can be different today. I give myself the chance to say "Yes," with a quiet confidence that by using tools I've been given, I can meet my speaking obligation today.
Yes, that's the rational side of my ability to face fear and do my best to overcome it. I've gained an awareness of what causes my fears, and how my reactions are pre-programmed through previous experiences. Honestly? It's helpful, but certainly it is not the best tool in my arsenal. What is? Faith.
Another thing we say frequently in my circle of friends is that "Courage is fear that has said its prayers." As a child, my faith was that of a child. Stories of floods, hellfire and brimstone, young men being put into fiery furnaces and swallowed by whales so overwhelmed me with fear that my thoughts of a Creator, a God of my understanding was itself undermined by fear. My childish lack of ability to embrace the full content of the story permeated my mind with the fear of God and all things related - from religion to literature.
Several years ago, upon having been blessed with a new pastor at my church, he and the Director of Christian Education at my church came up with a plan for all Sunday school classes to do a Bible study which would take us through the entire book in one year. I was very, very afraid but I committed along with my entire Sunday school class. What a blessing that turned out to be. As someone who had only understood part of the story as a child, working through the entire volume completely changed my perception of God. As I read through the stories that had incited so my fear in my heart, I was struck over and over at the tender mercies bestowed in every circumstance that I had misunderstood.
And when we got to 1 John, I found a couple of my favorite verses in Chapter 18: 17-18:
God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we're free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ's. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. (The Message)
In fact, for the first time, I fully got the message behind 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13 (so frequently read at weddings). Most people remember the "love is patient, love is kind" part. What hit me between the eyes were verses 11-13:
When I was an infant at my mother's breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, beloved Georgia native-son Alan Jackson wrote an amazing song, Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)? The events of that day, and the horror of the number of lives lost, had most Americans living in fear. There were terror alerts, blackouts on information and the general feeling was the closest my generation will ever feel to what gripped the nation after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The lyrics of Jackson's iconic tribute to the emotions we all felt in the aftermath are especially poignant when I realize he uses the same Scripture in his chorus to affirm what I've learned.
I'm just a singer of simple songs
I'm not a real political man
I watch CNN but I'm not sure I could
Tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love
My greatest weapons in my campaign against fear are faith, prayer and love. They are the spiritual opposites of fear, in every way. I begin each day, upon awakening, by asking my God to direct my path for that day. I ask Him to use me as He would to be a channel of blessings for others. I keep a written prayer list, with names of those I know to be sick, hurting, or otherwise struggling, along with leaders and servants to the Word, and as I review the names in my heart, I offer this prayer for each of them:
Dear Lord, Please take all these, your children, your leaders, your called servants, and bless them with whatever they need today. Give them strength, healing, courage, peace, the will to come to You and surrender – whatever it is they need, You know what it is and You can make it happen, if they are willing to listen to Your dictates. Please, dear Lord, be with Your servants today and each day until Your will is completed in them. Thank you and Praise YOU for your miraculous ways. Amen.
As I go through each day, as worry, fear, anger, etc. crop up, I pause when agitated, and I ask for guidance and end with "Thy will be done." I've found this to be a useful tool for keeping a great deal more serenity in my life. At the end of the day, I thank my Creator for my many blessings, ask Him to show me where I need to improve, and mentally review whether or not I've done any harm for which I need to make an apology. Once I've finished this, I end with a petition that He watch over and protect our world, and then I rest my head and sleep.
What I know to be true is that when I keep my proper perspective on my responsibilities in this world and relinquish the running and control of it to my God, I spend much less time in foolish worry and anxiety. The joke behind it all is that I never had control anyway. Ever! And now that I have that awareness firmly ingrained in my conscious mind, I face my days with courage. I have to admit, it is a much more faithful way to live and ever so much more filled with love.