Courageous Living Might Break Your Heart a Little

Santa Rosa therapist Patty Bechtold blogs about what Courageous Living means at

Courageous living: probably something you don’t think about too often. I didn’t either, until two years ago when I discovered poet David Whyte’s 10 Questions that Have No Right to Go Away.

Since then, I’ve returned to his questions to reflect and journal with them many times. And a few in particular keep pulling me back. Lately, it’s this one:

Can I live a courageous life?

Whyte defines courageous living as “the measure of your heartfelt participation in the world.” That’s because the root of courage is the French word couer, meaning “heart.”

Here’s what he says about it…

Human beings are constantly trying to take courageous paths in their lives: in their marriages, in their relationships, in their work and with themselves. But the human way is to hope that there’s a way to take that courageous step—without having one’s heart broken. And it’s my contention that there is no sincere path a human being can take without breaking his or her heart.

This reminds me that we humans can’t really trace the arc of our lives going forward.

Nevertheless, we often think we should be able to or wish we could.

No doubt, it’s a protective mechanism. Plus there’s added pressure from multiple influences, and the expectation that you are supposed to have a predetermined plan for how your life will go or goals that are smart and focused.

In many ways, when a predetermined plan is the expectation, it feels like the opposite of being courageous.

Still, what we expect or what is expected of us doesn’t always work out quite like we hoped it would.

Then we angst about what the heck is wrong with us. I mean, we humans can be pretty hard on ourselves, you know?

No wonder we keep looking for ways to live that won’t break our hearts.

Yet, when we allow ourselves to stop and look back on our lives with a bit more compassion and grace, we might see that our stories are filled with instances of being courageous.

We get a glimpse of our own heartfelt participation in the world.

I know this to be true, because I experience it every week with my therapy and coaching clients.

Still, I’m curious: do you think of yourself as being courageous?

I have to admit I don’t, but lately I’ve been reconsidering what courageous living means.

Especially in the aftermath of another round of evacuations and power outages, as well as another huge wildfire in Sonoma County, the second in three years.

In the center of all that, I’m noticing a lot of hearts are breaking a little out there. Mine included.

Without a doubt, things have happened in this beautiful place we’ve chosen to live that most of us probably never could have imagined.

Maybe that’s as good an example as any of courageous living and heartfelt participation.

But here’s the thing, and the part that I think David Whyte left out.

Human beings are tremendously wise and resourceful.

Even though our hearts may break in the midst of courageous living, we possess a powerful capacity to heal and make it through to the other side, where possibilities often arrive that we couldn’t see before.

In fact, right now, right beside the heartbreak, people are being courageous.

They’re having courageous conversations in Sonoma County.

Some may decide to leave, others might want to make sure they have a safe place to go to if it happens again. Still others may choose to downsize their lives and possessions in order to feel more resilient in the face of another natural disaster.

Or they’ll choose something else altogether.

But whatever they choose will be another opportunity for courageous living, with possibilities, beautiful and difficult, that they can’t yet foresee.

Which brings me back to an old question.

Throughout the years it’s been asked again and again by career counselors and life coaches.

I admit, I used to ask my clients this question too:

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Eventually I stopped asking it because I realized it wasn’t helping my clients. Now, years later, I think I finally understand why.

I’ve come to see that our deepest fears aren’t really about the failures themselves.

In fact, most of us have experienced and eventually gotten beyond some kind of failure. And then it’s easier to accept that life won’t necessarily be one success after another.

But the pain that comes before getting to the other side of failure? I mean, who wants to go through that again, right? Most of us don’t even want to think about it.

So of course we resist being courageous and making courageous choices.

It makes perfect sense that we might not be able to imagine how we’ll make it through another experience of disappointment and heartbreak when we set out towards the unknown.

So perhaps the better question to ask is this…

What would you do if you knew you could not only heal from the heartbreak and pain that may come your way, but also discover something on the other side of it that is beautiful and unexpected?

I know, it might be a hard sell to convince you of this!

So here’s one more nugget to consider: at the end of our lives we don’t usually regret the courageous choices we made that didn’t go the the way we planned.

More likely, we regret not making the choice at all.

But courageous living isn’t only about the big choices.

Being courageous is about day-to-day living too.

So is there an invitation here for you to enhance your own heartfelt participation in the world?

Maybe there’s a…

  • boundary you want to set
  • request you want to make
  • moment to speak your truth
  • decision to put your needs first more often

Whatever it is, know that it’s an act of courageous living to take that step into the unknown.

And if being courageous doesn’t quite go as planned? Know that you have the capacity to make it through to the other side of any heartbreak you encounter.


…questions that can make or unmake a life, questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.
-David Whyte