Courage? Hands up who instantly had an image of a battle or confrontation of some sort. That’s what we associate with courage: Being willing and able to fight for or against. Daring to stand up for or against. Fearlessly confronting danger, possibly for the greater good. Or maybe it’s an image of someone bravely facing an illness, a loss, a hardship. But etymology tells us that courage isn’t really about fearlessly charging at whatever bugs us: the word is derived from the Latin cor “heart”.
I’ve faced a few hairy situations in my life, and I did whatever had to be done to survive. I don’t think of that as courage. I think that courage is not about survival; it involves a choice.
When my mum died, something fundamentally changed for me : my heart cracked wide open. And I chose not to “fix” it but to let whatever would come unfold. Grief rolled over me in great waves, it still does now, some 20 months later, though less often. I remember that, when my dad died unexpectedly decades ago, I thrashed about in my grief like a drowning person. I had no concept, no means of understanding what was happening. In my raw despair I both clung to anything that came my way and lashed out indiscriminately, often at myself. Later, I became quite proficient at burying my feelings of grief under layers and layers of busy-ness, and eventually established a kind of livable compromise based largely on avoidance. But that didn’t really work, either: any funeral, any death, any farewell would turn me inside-out. I was hysterical at the funeral of a friend’s father whom I’d never even met, in floods of tears saying good-bye to my beloved who would be back in two weeks’ time, sobbing when someone told me about their dog who had died years and years ago. Grief will not be buried, it will not go away. It needs to be acknowledged, honoured and given space. And that requires courage.
The healing that grief brings takes time. Grief has scoured my heart, it has seeped through all the patched-up fissures and half-mended wounds, reopened old scars and cleared out the flotsam and jetsam of decades of “coping”. So now, when I feel a wave of grief approaching, I don’t try to outrun it or force it back or contain it in any way. I simply allow it to wash over me. What I’ve learned about my own concept of courage during those past months is this: It’s not just about how I now deal with grief. It’s a willingness to live with an open heart. It’s a willingness to look at what-is without quickly covering it up with “stuff”, to acknowledge the joys as well as the suffering, and to approach it all with my heart wide open.
It’s a willingness to be scared and vulnerable and still not slam shut. A shuttered heart will only get you so far. A shuttered heart will approach love fearfully: I have to act a certain way towards you because otherwise you will stop loving me, and I certainly will drop you if you don’t behave a certain way towards me, so that I won’t get hurt. An open heart will approach love courageously: I am my authentic self and I love you with all my heart, regardless of what you do – you and/or your actions towards me do not dictate how I feel. We call this unconditional love. We may choose to step away from hurtful or pointless situations but our hearts remain open.
I don’t quite know how to wrap this up – maybe just by saying that I’ve lived with a shuttered heart and with an open heart and, scary as it may be at times, it feels so much better to live with an open heart. May we have the courage to throw our arms wide open and welcome life unconditionally, with all our loving, brave, vulnerable, joyful heart.