How to Develop Heart Courage

Autumn is our 15 year old Sheltie. She is one of the most faithful companion dogs I have ever had, and I have had some very good ones. She has outlived many other dogs, a couple cockatiels and several cats, has been a regular travel partner to the North woods, is terribly afraid of lakes and when she was young, her superpower was alerting me every time a leaf blew through the yard. 

Today, after a very full life, she has slowed down. Gray outlines her face (I can relate to that), her gait is slower (again….). Cataracts have taken most of her eyesight, and she is nearly deaf, but she gets around amazingly well and from what we can tell, has a good quality of life. She even can make it outside and back by herself – least most of the time. There are times she takes a left instead of a right and wanders toward the road instead of toward the house, which is why we keep a close eye on her. While hearing and sight are no longer adequate, I notice she uses smell and touch. She feels the ground: is she on grass, or gravel or the stone path? She monitors everything with the senses that remain in order to navigate the darkness. On occasion I will notice her not able to find her way. She will stop, lift her nose to the breeze and hope she recognizes a familiar scent. It is in these moments of vulnerability, when it hard for her to do it alone, I lift her up in my arms and carry her home. 

Courage is what I think about when my little 20 pound companion finds her way from her bed, down the hall to the front door, lowers herself a couple of stairs to the driveway and out to the grass. She goes out into her darkness and navigates her way through the unknowing hoping to find the opening that will allow her to go where she needs to go. For me, she exemplifies a canine version of courage. 

Over this last year, I have noted a lot of human version courage. A generosity of heart, of spirit… I have watched doctors and nurses don inadequate PPE and vulnerably go into a room to tend to a patient with COVID. I have then watched Environmental Services partners go in and clean those rooms – each one nervous they might bring the virus home to family. I have talked with brave husbands, wives, children who could not see their loved one due to restrictions, gather outside the hospital in hope and in prayer. I have watched people take to the streets in order to bring about change, not only for themselves, but for their neighbors; cleaning streets, washing windows, collecting food for people who lost everything. If we were to create a list of people who show us courage, we might easily add firefighters, or EMTs, police…but we know about bus drivers, teachers, grocery cashiers… we have learned this year that there are all sorts of workers that are essential.

Not long ago shame researcher Brene Brown was in conversation about courage with the Navy SEALS. As we know, Navy SEALs are named after the environment in which they operate, the Sea, Air, and Land, and are the foundation of Naval Special Forces. They are called into situations that for most of us would seem like a nightmare. She asked them if they had seen courage through their time with the SEALS. Of course everyone nodded yes. She then asked if there was every a time where they saw courageous actions when there was nothing to fear. When I think about the SEALS, I think courage, not fear. However, here is what the SEALS told Brene. If there is nothing to be fearful of, there is no reason to be courageous. There is no need for courage without a fearful situation. 

Wow. Courage only exists in the presence of vulnerability.

The word Courage comes from the Latin word for “heart.” When we speak of courage, we are referring to our emotional heart. The heart that understands the risk, and chooses to walk forward. Even in the midst of fear. Even in the darkness. In vulnerability. 

I usually don’t want to hear that in order to be considered courageous, I must first be willing to be vulnerable. I’d rather just be courageous. Yet, it is true: courage is only needed in the midst of vulnerability.

Every day in the ICU I talk to families for whom the world has turned upside down. One of my top recommendations for family is this: go home, let the dog out, wipe off the kitchen counter, get the mail, clean the bathroom eat something and go to bed. Why? Because these simple everyday elements of life can help us feel normal in a time where nothing feels normal for them. It does not mean that doing those actions will help change the healthcare outcome of the person they love, but it might be able to help them stabilize themselves so that can perceive what is going on, be present with the patient and allow them to make thoughtful decisions. We can use these sorts of coping skills to help us bridge the gap between certainty and uncertainty. They are meant to be a bridge to healing, not something we continue to use to bypass the hard work of tending to the uncomfortable emotions of life. This is the generous spirit of the heart that we develop as we look deeply into ourselves so that we might be healed. 

We experience darkness everyday and it can feel overwhelming. We may feel vulnerable because we might not know what to do in light of the darkness we see. We have losses from the last year, jobs, loved ones, relationships, security, some we are only beginning to grieve. While the pandemic feels a bit lighter at the moment, we wait to see if the variant raises its head again. We have mid term elections looming, we wonder what will happen with Israel and Palestine and close to home, we wait and wonder and hope and pray that somehow we will be able to learn to live in harmony right here in our neighborhoods. 

We are in the middle of PRIDE month, and in a world that does not always honor or respect our QUEER brothers and sisters we wonder how best to show our love. Juneteenth is upon us, and since many of us never learned about this in school, it might feel vulnerable to admit our unfamiliarity. Some days it can feel easier to close our eyes and disengage than to discover and uncover our vulnerability, our not knowing. We may want certainty, but instead are invited into vulnerability. Vulnerability is the pathway to courage of the heart.

Why would a shame researcher ask the Navy SEALS about courage and fear? The connector is shame. Shame, is the fear of disconnection, the loss of relationship. We all have shame – it is universal. It is the sense that if you really knew everything about me, you wouldn’t hang out with me, or be friends with me: I wouldn’t belong. So, we hide: because of this universal shame. We have all constructed ways to live so we do not face being disconnected. We fear we won’t belong. And as long as we hide, we will never really sure we belong. Courage only exists in the presence of a fearful situation. 

Courage of the heart is telling the story of who we are, deeply. It is allowing ourselves to be seen – fully seen. It is the ability to be compassionate with ourselves first – with authenticity. We are invited into vulnerability when we are in need of help. We are invited into vulnerability when our health changes and we can’t do what we used to, when we have challenges with our kids, or our aging parents. We are invited into vulnerability when we worry about being laid off, or when we have to lay someone off. There are the cultural vulnerabilities of learning about and discussing race, politics or world events. Secrets we hold invite us into being vulnerable. As we are called into this place of uncertainty, where we are fearful of disconnection, this is where courage lives.

Courage of the heart is to be who we are with a whole heart. It is to tell the story of our need, of our excess. The story of our not knowing what to do next, or not understanding the experience of the other, the things we hold in the light, and those that are in the shadows. It is allowing ourselves to be seen, fully, by those we love. It is hard. And it is scary. And not one of us has to do it alone. 

Opportunities for vulnerability meet us at every corner; which also means this is where we develop the generosity of Heart Courage. Heart Courage teaches us to be compassionate with our own story, which increases our ability to be compassionate with the stories of others. Heart Courage is the willingness to stand in a vulnerable spot, to be who we have been created to be, to allow ourselves to be seen, in light and shadow, the parts we want to shine, and the parts we are tempted to hide. And you know what? We can create a spacious place for each other as we practice vulnerability as the pathway to Heart Courage.

Poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer talks about hope and hope as we know, is a cousin of courage. I often think that on some days it takes courage to hope. 

In her poem, Hope….

Hope has holes

In its pockets. 

It leaves little 

Crumb trails

So that we, 

When anxious, 

Can follow it. 

Hope’s secret:

It doesn’t know

The destination – 

It knows only

That all roads

Begin with one

Foot in front 

Of the other.

Fear leads to vulnerability which invites us onto courage and hope. This is the journey of generosity of the heart.

What is the vulnerable action your soul asks of you? How do you put one foot in front of the other? Maybe it is a conversation you need to have, or a commitment you feel you should make, a change of job, a call to a friend or a therapist; whatever it looks like, it comes dressed as courage…which shifts us from fear of vulnerability into living from our courageous heart. 

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