Monday, June 17, 2013

"Courage"

 "Courage"
by George Washington

"It all comes down to courage... If you have courage, then you're willing to face that really stinky mess in the garage and clean it up. You have faith you can clean it up, because you've cleaned up other really stinky messes, or seen other people do it. In other words, you have faith because you have experience of succeeding in the past.

Fat and Happy: We Americans have led a very pampered life for the past couple of decades. Sure, there has been inequality and exploitation, and some have had it a lot worse than others. But, other than stopping extreme forms of racism (Ku Klux Klan, etc.), we haven't had to defend our borders or our liberties.

Basically, we complain if our tv goes on the fritz, or our team loses the game, or we can't afford that new, nicer whatzit, or if our boss is mean. We think those are big, Earth-shattering, history-changing events. But they are quite small in the grand scheme of things. And even those of us who think of ourselves as brave heroes usually only act like that when we know it is within the bounds of safety, within the limits of what we can handle. "Tough guys" tend to turn into meek mice whenever they are really threatened.

So we're basically lazy and timid, but we don't know or admit it. We like to pretend we are like the Founding Fathers or John Wayne (at least the cowboys had to rough it a little). But we have no experience of successfully standing up to tyrants, so we have no faith that it can be done, and while the evidence is right before our noses that our current leaders are tyrants, we're so terrified that we have our knickers in a bunch.

What Would They Do? Even if you haven't experienced success in standing up to tyrants, remember that the Founding Fathers did just that. They were just men, not gods. Sure, they were too persistent and stubborn to give up, but that's because they CARED about something: freedom and the possibility of a better life. They may have lived hundreds of years before our time, but that doesn't matter - we can still learn from their experience as if it were happening now. Time is an illusion, since human nature is the same now as it was then. Just as many people of faith ask "what would Jesus do?", we can also ask "what would the founding fathers do?" If they could do it, we can do it.

Take Heart: There is a real misunderstanding of what it means to be courageous. In America, courage is often thought of as a testosterone-driven toughness. There's nothing the matter with testosterone. Masculinity is a great thing. But many American men secretly fear that they don't have sufficient testosterone to really be brave when the chips are down. As I said above, even those of us who think of ourselves as brave men usually only act like that when we know it is within the bounds of safety, within the limits of what we can handle.

We might jump in a bar room brawl to protect our buddy, but that's because we know we're only going to get knocked around a little bit - nothing but bruises that will go away in a little while. The stakes just aren't that high. But most American men secretly doubt whether they are macho enough to pull it off under fire. They may watch a lot of action movies, and talk tough, and stand up when its not really dangerous (or when they clearly outgun the other guy), but they are secretly terrified that they don't have quite enough backbone to pull it off against the big boys, such as tyrants.

I would argue that this view fundamentally misunderstands the nature of courage, and ensures that we will never have true courage when it counts. By way of analogy, the word "discipline" comes from "disciple". If you are a true "disciple" of an idea of a plan or a strategy or a religion, then you will stick to it and "have discipline" to reach your goal. It is not just a matter of willpower; it is also devotion to something bigger than ourselves.

Similarly, the word "courage" comes from the French "with heart". Why does it have this root meaning? Because it takes heart to act bravely. That's how my childhood Karate teacher used the word: when I was practicing with courage, power and focus, he would say "you have alot of heart today" (indeed, many old-school warriors use the phrase "fighting with heart" in that way). If courage is acting "with heart", we've lost heart. And without heart, we cannot face the truth. So how do we regain our heart? Well, let's start with what gets our hearts beating. Remember that the mother bear is one of the fiercest animals of all. Just get between a mother bear and her cub and you'll see what I mean. It is her love of her cub which gives her the heart to face any enemy when her cub is threatened. It is not her level of testosterone, but rather her love for her cub which makes her so fierce.

Just as discipline is more than just willpower, courage stems from something bigger than just cajones. In fact, the strongest courage comes from the love of something we care about, since our heart will sustain us even when the chips are really down and we are really up against a tyrant. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: "Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. " In addition, we're no longer living in the old west. Individualism is very important in numerous ways, but we can only win against the tyrants as a team, as a community, as a nation. And only by opening our hearts to what matters will we be able to work together, to fight for all of our kids, and all of our freedom. Only then will we be able to put the crooks and the looters and the tyrants back in the box.

Do we care about our kids, our significant others, our parents, our friends? Do we care about the freedom to choose what we want, instead of having our "great leader" choose for us? If not, what DO we care about? Because if that is where your heart is, that is what will give you courage. I care too much about my kids and their future to be afraid. I care enough about them that it gets my heart beating, connects me to something bigger than myself, and that gives me courage, even when the chips are down. Courage is an innate human quality. It is within each of us, waiting to reveal itself when we open our hearts. When we act with heart, by definition, we are courageous."

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