Courage is a word that I hear infrequently but when I do, I am struck in two ways every time. The first is that I have no idea what it really means. When I summon the powers within to provide a definition of sorts, my mind goes blank – I try to let the dictionary definition come out of my mouth. Meanwhile, however, a paralysis seeps inside me as black ink spreading across some unknown abyss. Then, gratefully, I am struck in the second way before I'm swallowed up: a remembering of courage that involves gentleness, kindness, relinquishment, and trust. I then get a glimmer of how I am having the courage to change every single day.
In this inaugural issue, I share a story that helped me to understand courage more and see it as a force (a real one!). I also provide a few other avenues to discover this strength. As this Wintry season progresses in 2015, returning readers will see the resumption of (a) my (never-ending) book review on Tamar E. Adler’s wonderful essay An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace and (b) regular entries, sometimes diary-style. This first editorial is a special one to kick-off this subject.
In our modern day, when we begin to realize the effects of technology on our personal life, I wonder if a new kind of definition of courage will emerge: one of personal encounter with the Holy Creator and Mystery of Life. Such an encounter requires openness, vulnerability and trust, and will result in sustenance and true freedom. In short, this editorial is about how to have courage in the midst of adversity and our own struggles. Make your favorite tea and enjoy this first issue of Bird & Babe's new chapter.
Courage as Light
Last fall, I took a personal retreat to one of my favorite places in the world. I've been going to this house of rest for a full ten years now, sometimes routinely and sometimes when I can snag a chance. I live in San Francisco and it's up in the greater Vancouver area on an island. Not the easiest place to get to, but then again, I wouldn't want it to be. Every time, my pilgrimage to the house echoes the kind of everyday pilgrimage I am facing in that season of my life.
This time, I went there to process some deeply personal things and had a mere two days of silence to do that (I've grown accustomed to five days). While that main storyline was taking place, another one was developing right under my nose. One morning, I decided to head down the hill to the local grocery store to make sure I had the correct Canadian cash on me to pay for my stay. Instead of taking the logging road that zigzagged down the hill, I decided to take a shortcut that a dear friend once told me about. This friend was the one who introduced me to this serene lodge back in 2004 with these instructions to find it: walk off the ferry, keep going up the main road till it narrows, then look for a little path along the road in the side of the hill just past the first intersection, then walk up it, find your way and it'll cut into a residential area for a short time, walk through it and follow the road up the hill. (At the time, there were no iPhones and the little silver Samsung flip-phone I did have was stowed away and off.) So when I was ready to make the jaunt down the hill to the store, I remembered her words, and this path I've occasionally taken.
This particular time, upon coming down the landing on the side of the hill, where it meets the road near the intersection, I heard the exciting screams from the children nearby, playing during late-afternoon recess. I also noticed an interesting chap crossing the road with a subtle limp and a scrawny, travel-esque dog. The guy stood out to me since he seemed young yet incredibly weathered. I had this immediate sense of danger (but then again, I also have a heightened sense of fear!) and decided to remain calm. This came right after acknowledging I had a fear problem in prayer ten minutes before in my little room with a window of light. Breathing, I decided to keep walking while my heart thought, "Not here, on my precious island where I'm retreating." As I walked, I sensed a presence. Of course, while my mind was beginning to flip, my other mind - my mind of renewal - was breathing. The guy said some words about how he was going to "take me to the tops of those mountains yonder" (some of my favorite mountains by the way), and instead of hyperventilating, I said a quick prayer and leaned further into my "SF coolness." In other words, kept walking and acted like I was ignoring the dude.
Yet, when he told me to look at the mountains again, and I was near the grocery store, I booked it around the corner as I later heard from behind me, "You have issues." Whether I was in real danger or not, I couldn't quite tell. I knew my heart was racing and my nerves wracking. I felt like a little girl. As time went on I continued to feel that fear as the adrenaline pumped. I told the local grocer (a male) who said he would "keep an eye out" (even when I told him those children may be in danger!). I then went over to the local post office and told the (female) post officer my story. She had the brilliant idea of reporting it to the Canadian cops. So, I headed literally across the street to the Canadian Mounted Police station which had a large, carved, wooden statue of an officer outside its front stoop.
I knocked on the door and glanced at the daily open hours. I couldn't quite tell what time it was since I didn't have my phone or watch with me. So, I did what any good American would do: I barged (but with timidity) right in. I gave a couple of "hellos" before I heard a response. A kind officer all of a sudden came out of nowhere and began asking me questions. He jotted down my words in a stereotypical little notepad - the kind that flips over the top and is held snug in the hand - and then asked a question or two to see if it aligned with a previous report. After all the little notes were scribbled, and I shared about how there were children close by who might have been in danger (thinking that surely, this little detail would cause my report to be taken more seriously), I left, hearing the swinging screen door ricochet behind me. I still felt simultaneously like a little girl and like the grown woman taking care of her.
I finally made the trek back up the hill, making the pilgrimage a second time in my stay. While walking, I could feel the effects of the adrenaline: my mind racing to figure out how I could lock myself in a pretend bubble and feel safe. My renewed mind wasn't able to totally combat this irrational, hallway-of-mirrors feeling, so I did what any good American would do: I told the res coordinators at the retreat lodge that we needed to lock our doors, that there's a weirdo on the loose!
I also shared my story with a woman who was able to listen and nod gently before simply stating that they don't lock their doors as a matter of theological principle and practice. She went on to tell me stories about how when people respond from a place of fear, they are playing into the dynamic aspect of fear that feeds it, rather than breaking the cycle of it. This woman, who I quickly could tell was a trained therapeutic counselor, expressed how everyone who is an aggressor is really deeply needing something underneath and her logic went like this: if you can see what they need, such as love, kindness, patience, gentleness, then they usually calm down and go on their way.
Sitting there, thinking I was at the cross roads of my own anger and openness (was I being heard? was this little girl feeling comforted and taken seriously? hearing that this little girl needed something and so do the aggressors), I decided to continue to listen even though I felt I stumbled upon a therapy session I hadn't signed up for. I was actually a little proud of myself for the courage it took to stay rather than just walk away. While my mind was half listening and half negotiating my plan of escape, I asked, "So does this really work? Does simply asking them how you can help them really work?" She went on to say that it really does.
After telling me about a story where a woman deranged had wandered in and was treated with dignity, kindness and openness, culminating in a cup of tea and listening before going on her merry, comforted way (assured that her "husband" Bill Gates was not living at the lodge), I heard her own personal stories about working on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (a neighborhood I'm familiar with from when I lived in that city in the past. In sum, it's the poorest postal code in Canada, very condensed and, as I used to describe to others back home, "replace the guns on the South Side of Chicago with needles" and you have this neighbourhood.
One of her Downtown Eastside stories struck me. I heard about how she ran after a thief when being told that a man had just walked out with an item of hers. Instead of slugging him (like I've imagined doing) she simply said with open hands and a genuine spirit, "Sir, you can't have my bells, I need them. I'm about to start a service and I can't start it without my bells...I need them, could you please give them back?" This known robber in the 'hood actually returned and placed them in her waiting, open hands. I think this woman could tell I was becoming unarmed from my own defenses.
At this point, she told me I had courage inside me. I told her I didn't, and then we continued to have a mini ping-pong match for a minute or so. I was beginning to feel the irritation return. It's one thing not to lock the doors, it's another to be told what's inside me from a stranger.
"What do you mean, courage?" I retorted.
In her calm, serene, unwavering voice she reiterated herself, "You have courage within you. It's a force."
"It's a force?"
"Yes. It's like light. It shines forth and penetrates and is real."
I can't recall if she then said the word "three-dimensional" or if I did, but either way, we were tracking: she in truth and me in disbelief, but together we were tracking.
"When you respond to the aggressor outside of the fear response, there is this amazing little window of openness where - just for a split second - there is a choice for this person to act differently. They are usually stunned by the response as opposed to a reaction that's congruent with the fear, and just for a split second - Light penetrates and there is a choice for that person to encounter the Creator. That person may not end up choosing Light, but there is a jarring disorientation from responding in kindness that shifts things around and allows for a different reality to enter in."
"And," she said, "When I feel I am in a dangerous situation where someone is making threats, like someone did to you today, I also say, 'Are you really desiring to hurt me? Because you can. You can hurt me, but I don't think you really want to. What can I help you with?'"
While, of course, at first I thought she was saying it in a posture of consent, she actually wasn't. This woman was actually just acknowledging the brilliant truth that she really could be harmed. (It was here that I also made a connection to some reading I had been doing on the development of the modern West, our brains, and mental illness. How the left brain is about control and yet deceives itself into thinking it can have total domination and how the right brain or hemisphere is about living into the openness and light, acknowledging imperfection and mystery. Usually, the two are at odds with each other as the left "hijacks" the right from a posture of fear.) After hearing her point and connecting it to what I had read from a neuroscientific, philosophical and theological position, I could make that literal leap of faith to trust and remain open: choosing openness and acknowledging the risk of death rather than choosing control and remaining in shiny hall of mirrors named denial.
I believe in that moment, I had the small opportunity to change. I had expected her to react in fear, and she responded in kindness, meeting a strange need I didn't realise I had (and one I'm still processing). That jarring moment was enough for me to catch a glimmer of Light and Openness, things I truly only believe come from the God of Love but also from our own participation in that relationship, creating a strange, disruptive Third Way of existence: not dominance and not cowering in fear. Acting out of grounded, centered Love that flows forth because it is couched in Trust and lightly suspended there like a gymnast in the air with zero gravity.
I thanked her for her time (and thanked myself and God that I had my own courage to stay) and went up to my room with the window of light to pray.
Books exploring concepts of courage
Courage always reflects a theological orientation, no matter if we are in touch with the "Real Deal" or not. Here are a few books written out of a theological posture of non-violence.
1. Peace is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation edited by Walter Wink
Taken directly from his website, here is a description about the book:
"These sixty original and classic essays cover the theory, practice, and spirituality of nonviolence, as well as document the struggle for racial justice and the cause of reconciliation. Together they offer a comprehensive and inspiring chronicle of the global movement for peace."
2. The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium by Walter Wink
3. Seek the Silences with Thomas Merton: Reflections on Identity, Community, and Transformative Action by Charles R. Ringma
From these pages are absolutely wonderful nuggets on identity and one's relationship with people or instutional powers as a result. They are brief, deep reflections on the inner life.
4. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
While The Wrinkle in Time series is geared towards children, I initially read them as an adult, and they are, quite possibly, some of my favorite books.