Courageous living: if you’re like most people, you probably don’t think about that too often.
I didn’t either, until a few years ago when I discovered poet David Whyte’s essay on 10 Questions that Have No Right to Go Away.
Since then, I’ve returned to his questions many times. They’ve helped me reflect and write about my own personal life transitions; they’ve also inspired several clients to pause and ponder life’s deeper questions.
In fact, there are a few questions, in particular, that keep calling me back. Lately, this one has risen to the top:
Can I live a courageous life?
Whyte defines courageous living as “the measure of your heartfelt participation in the world.” (He notes that the root of courage is the French word couer, meaning “heart.”)
Here’s what Whyte says about courage…
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.
Whyte’s contention that courageous living automatically brings heartbreak reminds me that we can’t trace the arc of our lives going forward.
Nevertheless, we often think we should be able to or wish we could.
And of course we wish we could see into our futures! We’re constantly faced with pressures and expectations, from multiple influences, to know where we’re going and what we’re doing. If you listen closely you’ll hear the undercurrent: that you’re more likely to succeed (and bypass heartbreak) if you have a predetermined plan for your life or goals that are smart and focused.
Often, when a predetermined plan is the expectation, it feels more like confusion than courage. The result: angsting about what’s wrong with you and why things aren’t working out. (By the way, nothing is wrong with you but yes, we can be pretty hard on ourselves.)
No wonder we keep looking for ways to experience courageous living 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 in smaller, more personal ways.
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. Lately, however, 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 part that I think David Whyte left out:
Human beings are tremendously wise and resourceful.
Although the human way may be to hope that we can live with courage and without heartbreak, in the small quiet moments our deepest wisdom tells us otherwise. In fact we all possess the ability to be emotionally flexible, fully able to hold both/and.
And 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 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.
All this talk about courage and heartbreak 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, a bit sheepishly, that 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 believe 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 and sorrow that arrives before getting to the other side of failure? Ouch! Who wants to go through that again? Most of us don’t even want to think about it.
So our sense memories and protective defenses kick in, and 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.
And what we most need at that point is compassion, reassurance, and a reminder of who we are at our core.
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 with your courageous decision, but also discover something on the other side of it that is beautiful and unexpected?
Okay, 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 way we planned.
More likely, we regret not making the choice at all.
Still, 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 move through it to the other side.
Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.