Courage is crafted from the raw material that we experience as fear. That is not to say that fear necessarily generates courage; quite the contrary. Fear is the seed from which any number of varied circumstances may grow: from paralysis to passivity to violence. It is only through conscious and deliberate action that we may transmute fear into courage and act in accordance with the ethical human standards to which we hold ourselves and others. It provides the resistance we can use to become stronger.
So, why do we have to become any stronger? What's the point? Isn't it good enough to be exactly as we are? Haven't we been through enough difficulty already? Perhaps we have. But, nestled among these questions is the moment where courage becomes possible. We can absolutely choose to be stopped, to stay as we are and to accept that "this is as good as it gets." More to the point, "this is as good as I get." We can also choose to explore beyond prior experience and the perspective it has generated. It is possible, believe it or not, to learn more. Always.
"The Great I-Don't-Know," as I like to call it is the key to growth and personal evolution. The idea that we "already know" anything effectively limits our ability to move forward. However, we are facing a mighty opponent in our efforts to "not know."
Enter: Fear. It is not an evil thing, in and of itself. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, we are hardwired to respond to all unknown things with caution, trepidation ... the fight-or-flight response. Fear helped us (and continues to help us) stay alive in a hostile environment full of saber-toothed tigers. In a contemporary context, physical survival is, relatively speaking, less urgent a matter than it was when we were cave people. It is, however, no less frightening to deal with the Unfamiliar, only now it seems to affect us on a more subjective, emotional level. Where it has become a less urgent matter to protect and sustain the material self on a day-to-day basis, it has become far more urgent to protect the SENSE of self: the ego.
In the presence of a threat to identity and emotional equilibrium, we are capable of responding in astoundingly ineffective ways. In some cases we can shut down entirely and avoid emotional involvement altogether. Or we can be as rabid in our defense as a cornered, bleeding animal. It is even possible to do both at once! I know. I have.
But, there is another way. Instead of defaulting to a fight-or-flight response, one can stop, see the fear and keep looking directly at it. Upon doing so, the true cause unveils itself. If we remain steadfast, patient and compassionate with ourselves, we may come to recognize the root cause and call it by its true name. Then, like a fairytale goblin, it becomes insubstantial like smoke. It disappears before our eyes. It is gone.
And all that remains is a certain, quiet humility ... perhaps even a slight sense of shame at having thought the creature so very formidable once upon a time. This is a moment where it helps to have a sense of humor about one's self. Personal development comes not amid victorious fanfare, but quietly and with gentle grace. We must be open, willing to receive. That means being able to stop fighting and say, "oh ... I didn't know, that."
(Originally published on March 9, 2010 on NuiCobalt.com)
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