Courage, Dear Heart
presented April 8th, 2018
I have a little enamel pin on my desk at home. It is a tiny badger. The pin is stuck on a card, and the badger is on top of a hill, wearing a blue backpack and waving a red flag.
It is a badger of courage.
I like this tiny badger of courage, up on his hill, wearing his backpack, waving his flag, just going along.Small but mighty, trundling along, hill after hill. The everyday courage of determination, of keeping going and waving your flag.
This little badger is dear to me. He’s helped me re-consider what it means to be courageous.
Courage for me always seemed to be for the physically brave and fearless. It also seemed to involve car chases and fighting and guns. Or light sabres.
But definitely a lot of shooting.
Courage was for Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker, taking incredible physical risks to save the world or the galaxy.
And while I certainly wanted to be Indiana Jones, it was more for the archeology and travel, not so much the fighting.
In real life, courage is for firefighters and soldiers and police officers, putting their lives on the line for others. So I grew up thinking that courage was for other people, and not necessary or important in my white middle class life of security and privilege.
But the word courage does come from the French word Coeur, or heart.
Poet David Whyte calls courage “the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work, a future. To be courageous, is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.”
To be courageous is to make conscious those things we feel deeply and live in the vulnerability of doing so.
Courage is to make conscious those things we feel deeply and to live with the consequences.
Now I think of courage and think of Emma Gonzalez.
Many of you will have heard Emma’s name or seen her face.
She is the young woman with the shaved head who lived through the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland Florida. 17 of her classmates died on Valentine’s Day. Emma is one of the strongest, clearest voices of the gun control movement.
Four days after the shooting, she was at a gun control rally in Florida, with her parents at her side.
Tears rolling down her cheeks, her voice breaking with passion, she calls BS on the politicians who claim gun control laws have no effect on mass shootings.
The speech went viral.
Emma has continued to call BS in interviews, debates, and speeches.
At every opportunity.
At March for Our Lives Rally in Washington DC three weeks ago, Emma delivers yet another powerful speech.
In this speech, she names every student who died and then stands in silence. Emma holds the silence until 6 minutes and 20 seconds were up. That was how long it took the shooter to kill 17 people with an automatic weapon.
Imagine standing silent in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
One political analyst called it “the loudest silence in the history of US social protest.”
To be courageous is to make conscious those things we feel deeply.
And to live in the vulnerability of doing this.
This is Emma’s courage.
Researcher Brene Brown, who writes about shame and vulnerability, says that all courage is born of vulnerability.
We pretend that courage is about light sabres and fearlessness, and claim that vulnerability is weakness and fragility so that we don’t have to be vulnerable.
But courage actually requires vulnerability.
Emma is willing to be vulnerable. She stands up, with tears in her eyes, her heart on display, showing just how deeply she feels about living in a world where school shootings are normal. Every video I’ve seen of her, she is wiping tears from eyes. Even with Ellen DeGeneres!
Courage and vulnerability go together.
Now vulnerability on its own is not courage. We can be vulnerable due to our own foolishness, ignoring our circumstances, out of impulsive desires for drama or adventure.
Sometimes we are vulnerable due to our social position, vulnerable because of poverty, health challenges, because we are beholden to someone else’s power.
Vulnerability is not the same as courage.
Courage is one way we can respond to our vulnerability.
Courage is the acknowledgement – not denial – of our vulnerabilities – whether they be internal fears or social oppressions – and to root our moral choices there.
As a bi-sexual young woman of Cuban descent with a shaved head, Emma has been the target of bigoted hate speech.
She has more twitter followers than the National Rifle Association, and receives an endless stream of nasty comments.
Emma says that coming out as bi-sexual a few years earlier helped her take on this activism. She says “If I wasn’t so open about who I was, I never would’ve been able to do this.”
In learning about who she was and speaking her truth, Emma is grounded in her vulnerability, instead of denying it. And that makes her powerful.
Rooted in her feelings, willing to stand in her vulnerability, and speak fiercely, Emma Gonzalez is now committed to making the Parkland tragedy the last mass shooting in the United States.
And I’m hopeful, in a way I haven’t been since the Sandy Hook shootings of small children failed to stop the gun lobby’s domination, that there may actually be improvements in U.S. gun control laws.
Vulnerability and courage are a powerful combination.
Emma’s courage is being expressed on a global stage, but this kind of courage happens in ordinary life as well.
I invite you to think of people in your own life that have shared their truth and been able to act with courage.
Who do you know that has been made bolder by owning their deepest feelings, deepest sense of self?
Is it you? When in your life have you owned your truth, been vulnerable and gained courage?
Courage has never been high on my list of values, largely because for much of my life I did not identify as a courageous person. As I said before, courage was for people in uniforms or on spaceships. Indeed, if you asked me for my role model of courage, I would have said the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz.
The Cowardly Lion looks strong and brave but is full of fear. He joins Dorothy on her journey to the Wizard so that he can ask for courage.
Like the lion, I knew I had a brain and a heart, but I have always thought I have needed courage. Like the Cowardly Lion, I have spent much of my life in fear, thinking courage was something other people did.
But it’s normal to be afraid, to feel anxiety, to feel stress, when vulnerable. We are all a little bit Cowardly Lion, pretending to be strong, actually feeling really scared, and truly being brave in our actions.
Like Samantha Fuentes, another Parkland survivor, who stood on stage at the March for our Lives Rally, and had to pause mid-talk to throw up.
Despite often crippling social anxiety, I went to university half a country away from my family.
In my twenties, struggling with life and work, I moved to Waterloo, without knowing anyone there.
I wouldn’t have said they were brave acts, because I was filled with fear. There were lots of tears and anxiety in each of these transitions.
I was not as poised as Samantha who, after being sick, straightened up and said “I just threw up on international television! And it feels great!”
Now that is owning your vulnerability.
And there are other times in my life where fear got the best of me. When I did not find the courage to act. When I got stuck in the fear.
Those, of course, are the times I remember best.
But considering courage this month, I am remembering all those ordinary acts of courage that we all perform just getting through life.
When we face our fears, and accept them, we can act while being afraid. We don’t make fear the problem, or the obstacle, or hide from it.
Meditation teacher Tara Brach tells a story of a man named Jack is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Jack’s a buddhist and gives talks on the dharma.
He is going to speak to a gathering of 100 or so meditation students. Jack arrives feeling alert and ready. Jack gets on the stage, looks out at the rows of faces and suddenly doesn’t know what he is supposed to do. He doesn’t know where he is or why.
With his heart pounding and his mind spinning, Jack sat there and began to name his feelings.
“Afraid, embarrassed, confused.”
Jack sits there, with his palms together and head bowed, naming his experience.
“Feeling like I’m failing, powerless, shaking, sinking, lost.”
Eventually, his body begins to relax, his mind calms. He names this too.
After several minutes, Jack lifts his head, and looks around at everyone. He knows where he is and why. He apologizes. Many of the meditation students are in tears, and tell Jack he has given them a great gift.
Jack was able to simply sit with his experience and accept it. He didn’t make fear and confusion an obstacle or a problem or a shame. He didn’t hide it or walk away.
It takes courage – and a lot of practice in mindfulness meditation – to sit with such painful and frightening feelings.
Jack lived with his vulnerability and found his courage.
This is the quiet kind of courage we all have. To live with our fear and act anyway.
And I think this kind of courage needs not just vulnerability, but love. Whether it is loving ourselves, or the love of others, it is the warmth of love that allows us to face pain.
Jack says that he is at peace with the Alzheimers. He feels grief at times, and fear, but he says it doesn’t feel like anything is wrong. That it is just real life.
I have not yet practiced enough mindful meditation to be quite that accepting of my experiences, but it is something to aspire to.
What if we all accepted fear, anxiety, grief as part of real life? Just like love and courage?
This seems to me a Unitarian Universalist way of living. That the good and the dark go together.
That courage is here.
Love is here.
We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be professional and project an image of success.
We don’t even need to aspire to be our best selves, always loving, always kind, always brave and ready to fight for what is right.
We just need to be open to ourselves as we are.
To know who we are, to experience our feelings, to know our passions, and act in alignment.
Emma’s truth leads her to speak fiercely for gun control on the national stage.
Jack’s truth leads him to speak quietly about his struggle in front of a few people.
This what we are called to do as people of the chalice: to be ourselves, name our fear, speak our truth, and just be present as we are.
And we can find our courage to do this when we have love, whether that is the love of ourselves, or the love of our family, or the love of this community.
My hope is always that UCM is a caring community, one that allows each of us to be vulnerable, to show up as ourselves and find our courage.
So Say We All.