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 about two years ago when I came upon 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 even though we can’t trace the arc of our lives going forward, we often think we should be able to or wish it was so.

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

And then, when it doesn’t work out quite like we expected, 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 a way 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 can often see that our stories are filled with many courageous instances of 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 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. And the second huge wildfire that’s knocked on Santa Rosa’s door in two years (but luckily didn’t get in this time).

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.

And maybe that’s as good an example as any of courageous living and heartfelt participation in the world.

But here’s the thing, and the piece 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 may arrive that we couldn’t see before.

In fact, right now, right beside the heartbreak, people in Sonoma County are having these conversations.

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.

All this brings me back to an ancient question that’s been asked again and again by career counselors and life coaches throughout the years. It goes like this…

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

I stopped asking it long ago because it wasn’t particularly helpful for my clients. And now, years later, I think I finally understand why.

I’ve come to believe our deepest fears aren’t really about failure. More likely they’re about how we’ll make it through those experiences of disappointment and heartbreak when we set out towards the unknown.

So perhaps the better question to ask is…

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

And 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 in life; it’s about day-to-day living too.

So with the holidays upon us, 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 you have the capacity to make it through to the other side.


…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