Redefining the Courage Within & Mapping Mindful Resilience

In my journey as a student-practitioner with Whole Heart, I’ve been thinking, reading & talking about courage a lot lately – and not the kind that would prompt our favorite timid Panthera Leo to mend his ways along that yellow brick road. Rather, I am speaking about those ordinary and everyday choices which form the maps of our own individual  paths, as well as  where they intersect with others.

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I think it’s fair to say that we are conditioned to view courage as moments of bravery; that is, occasions of above-and-beyond effort that feel so significant or beyond expectation that they stand out. Think #Winning. A trophy triumph – in sports, the markets, on the screen, or within the page. That epic part of the hero’s journey (which can minimize all of the hard work that it takes to reach that point). As the saying goes, we know it when we see it. But to me, that’s not the whole story.

I am here to share with you a simple truth which has impacted my work, personal, and creative lives –  the most meaningful & resilient  form of courage is often of the garden variety. Ordinary. Everyday. 

As a lifelong introvert, real-life Hufflepuff (sans JKR), and a professional helper – I am on intimate terms with indecision and never seem to tire of finding new ways to become the smallest person in the room. And even if I was none of those things, I am also a writer – which means I care as deeply about why we say something (and what it means) as how we say it.

COVID-19 has changed everything – and one year on, has transformed much of our “new normal” and sense of time, cycles, and seasons into something that perhaps feels more like an enduring present. The call to ‘pivot’ has become all-too-common, and the unfortunate consequence of so many turns is that you can find yourself back in the same place again. How can we bravely respond, when it seems so much is lost? The answer may be simpler than you think.

Parker J. Palmer’s meditation on my favorite Leonard Cohen lyrics (bells/cracks/lights) has served as a recent guidebook and touchstone for these explorations: 

“…there is a particular kind of courage in the willingness to make one’s small, imperfect offering — saying, in effect, ‘I don’t have much to give, but I give it gladly as a contribution to the common good.’ When we have that kind of courage, we encourage each other. And as more and more people make their small offerings, the cumulative effect can become something big.’” He also reminds us that to practice authentic courage is to encourage others.

Courage can – and should be – something incredible to witness. Think of all our barrier breakers, essential workers, and those who serve something greater than themselves. However, for all the incredible wonder of those moments, our capacity to be brave & good is simply not limited only to the extra-ordinary.

Our call to action is ‘everyday courage’ – those common moments which feel limited in size and scope – yet which also have the mighty capacity to fill hearts and minds with what they need most.

When we cultivate empathy and patience, when we foster connectivity (even while apart), and when we acknowledge a shared human experience – that is magic. And each of us has the ability to cast those particular spells out into the world, in ways both large and small…and all meaningful. Here are three suggestions for growing this practice in your own life:

  1. Identify or intentionally place a small act of courage in your day (ex: pay forward a cup of coffee, sew a mask, explain why you love or are grateful to someone in casual conversation or a brief note)
  2. Don’t forget to be radically brave for your own needs as well (important: this means more than superficial self-care)…how might compassion and empathy for yourself take root?
  3. Find a way to remember & reflect (ex: keep a one-sentence journal, write on a post-it note in your day-planner, text yourself, record a voice memo, draw/craft  a map)…how is this a part of your being and how you choose to be with yourself and the world around you?

The (secret)  fourth step to success? Repeat.  Keep in mind that ‘everyday’ is not the same as ‘every day.’ This is not about achievement, but rather gentle accumulation. As we navigate this pandemic, it is especially important to practice the courage of kindness and to find resilience in prioritizing what keeps you safe.

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Courage is rooted in hope, and the desire for positive change. It’s a lighthouse beacon for the life we want to live, and at the same time is a handheld lantern to guide our steps along the path. Courage is not something you are waiting to do, rather it’s something you have already experienced or are living now. We’re simply finding those new words together – which will bring your bravery into focus as you chart a course for what’s next.

Alex Lehning, MA is a mental health nonprofit leader, writer, historian & advocate. He also practices with the Vermont Courage Cohort at Whole Heart. 

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