what courage looks like

We don’t get to finish being courageous. We don’t take one brave leap, land with a gymnast’s flourish, and saunter impressively onward for the remainder of our days.

I’ve cognitively understood this reality for the better part of my life, yet I keep relearning it. It helps to watch the people I love.

Courage looks like my mom, who is working on not being such a mom. Since her twenties, she’s given the bulk of her energy to caring for family and friends. All that giving has taken a toll. How does she prioritize her own needs and dreams now? How does she disentangle herself from the assumptions of others and the expectations she’s put on herself? I look at her and marvel. This luminous woman – the person who brought me into the world – keeps growing. I hope to emulate that kind of courage.

Courage looks like many of my close friends.

Courage looks like Jade and Nick, who commit their lives to practice and building community within the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. It looks like Lindsay and Josh, who began crafting a new life in New Bedford just weeks before their wedding. It looks like Catherine and Gabe, who met a year ago, closed on their condo last week, and will get married two days after Thanksgiving.

Courage looks like Gina and also Jamee, who wrestle with questions of vocation: how to do what they love in situations that aren’t ideal. Jamee writes, I think my actual work is very satisfying. It’s the bureaucracy and the complications of how work is set up that I find endlessly frustrating. That will never end, I guess. It’s a balancing act between a lot of human ambitions and visions in one place, mixed up with fear about maintaining a livelihood. 

Courage looks like the friends who care for young children. I watch them juggle care-giving and play dates, sleepless nights and runny noses. I look at the slim margins of time they can afford to keep themselves reasonably well-tended. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I see the radiant flashes of aliveness that parenthood affords. I love basking in the light of children.

Still, for several years I watched the parents around me with a knot of dread in my belly. “I can’t do that,” I thought to myself. “I’m supposed to do that, but I just can’t.” Now I think, Perhaps I’m not supposed to do that. Parenthood is not a requirement of adulthood.

Bottom line: I can’t expect my courageous life to resemble anyone else’s. Right now, I’ve put aside full-time classroom teaching in favor of crafting a teaching/coaching business that doesn’t offer the security of guaranteed paychecks or health benefits.

This was one of the toughest choices I’ve made. Classroom teaching enlivened and sustained me for nearly two decades. Why shouldn’t I have enjoyed it indefinitely?

Alas, for the past few years my work felt frenzied at best, fraudulent at worst.

If people keep patting you on the back for the work you do, keeping it up seems like the most reasonable course of action. Here’s the thing: courage is not always reasonable. The word comes from the Latin cor, which means heart. Living courageously doesn’t require cognitive clarity. It requires tuning in to the heart’s cries. That doesn’t mean the mind is left out of the equation. I’ve found that each time I move forward according to the leading of my heart, my mind catches up and aids in the journey.

Living courageously feels like stepping out into open air without knowing if or when ground will arise beneath my feet. In this season, courage means days of more open time than “on” time. I earn some money teaching voice lessons, leading workshops, and teaching part-time classroom; I spend almost as much time meeting friends for coffee and gathering feedback on my new coaching business. I’ve gotten back to the novel I thought I couldn’t write. I take the time to breathe in the scent of autumn roses.

Rumi writes, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are hundreds of ways to be courageous. What does your current courage look like?