The Courage to be Me

Clarity and courage. Courage and clarity.

I don’t hear the word courage being thrown around much these days. As I wrote in a previous blog post, values like kindness and humility seem to be the high virtues of our time. And damn, those are some pretty good virtues. I seem to remember that there was a guy a couple thousand years ago who suggested they were worthwhile.

But courage. I think it’s really needed in our world right now. True, we can look up to the courageous among us, but often we will see them as different from us. They have something that we do not. Something we lack. That famous Steve Jobs quote always makes me want to raise my glass to them: Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

I love that. But being courageous doesn’t necessarily mean being a rebel or a troublemaker. In fact, you don’t even have to see things differently to be courageous. But you do have to see yourself differently. And that is courageous.

Courage is key in connecting our present here to our future there. Who I am and who I want to be. What I lack and what I want more of. How I feel and how I’d like to feel. Courage is what is required to take the first step to move in a new direction, to try something different. Courage is what is necessary to take action. Courage is essential to bind up our wounds and get us on our way. Courage allows us to move on and move forward. And our general lack of courage keeps us from healing ourselves and our world.

You are what you do, not what you say you do. — Carl Jung

I created a mind map on an oversized piece of paper about a month ago. There’s a little house in the lower left-hand corner, representing my current here and an elementary-school-style drawing of a sun in the upper right-hand corner, my future there. I wrote out a bunch of phrases to outline obstacles, values, fears, virtues and goals that keep my here and there separated and connected. Then I drew a very stark line across the middle of the map, between my house and my sun. The Threshold, I wrote next to it. I paused and took it all in. What was needed to help me cross that threshold? Forget the values and the goals for a minute. What was necessary to take that first step? Courage.

It’s courage that is needed to cut across the threshold. Every single time. Courage to stop and take a hard look at where I am at in life. Courage to dig deep—even if it is painful—to reveal my hidden challenges and potential gems. Courage to realize the stories I have been telling myself may not be all that useful anymore. Courage to take the first step, to find my way to my sun. The courage to be me.

Just prior to creating that mind map, I had been reading and reflecting on Ichiro Kishimi’s The Courage to be Disliked, so it’s no wonder that I came up with that particular word. It seemed right and good. In his book, the teacher-philosopher spends a good number of days waiting patiently for his student to wake up to a new sort of possibility. To wake up to a new reality.

I must be patient with myself as I strive to become. It can be easy for me to sleepwalk, resting on my laurels and living in a world so familiar to me. Most people call that their comfort zone. And it’s a wonderful place to rest from time to time. But sometimes we mistake our bed for our home, and we fantasize that life could always be so comfortable. No risk, no difficulty, no challenge. No further big steps needed from me. Coast, man, coast! I know who I am. Duh. Just do your duty, mind your own business, help out and everything will be fine. But live long enough, and you realize that is not how life always works.

Something will rouse you, given time. A request made by yourself or someone else. Something will expose an edge. And that rousing gives us the chance to check in. Don’t fight it. Go with it.

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Courage to Stop

My real self wanders elsewhere, far away, wanders on and on invisibly and has nothing to do with my life. — Hermann Hesse

The first thing required of us in this journey is to simply stop. This could seem counter-intuitive in our fast-paced world. “Do more. Make more. Get more. Be more!” is on repeat. Slowing to a stop can require some real effort and motivation. It may even be a muscle we have never really flexed before.

I mean, why should we stop? Doesn’t it seem contradictory to evolution, momentum and progress? Are we actually going to add something to our lives if we stop? What if we lose something instead? I mean, stopping comes at a price! A cost to ourselves, to those close to us and to our world.

Here’s the thing though: How else can we get some perspective?

Have you ever been on a hike and tried to take in the view while you’re still hiking? It’s disorienting. I may stumble as I’m multi-tasking. And I never get to really see the whole picture. Stopping to take in the view creates space for a stillness that allows small and quiet things to slowly come into view. This is where clarity comes into play.

Clarity and courage. Courage and clarity.

How can we take thoughtful, courageous steps without first having clarity about what we are stepping into? Sure, sure, courage for courage’s sake, but c’mon. That’s not terribly compelling. We must know where our sun is, what our future there is. Clarity also allows us to identify our threshold. And stopping gives us the time required to sharpen our clarity before taking our next courageous steps to becoming our full selves.

So we must first have the courage to stop. And stop we will. By choice or because of circumstance. Some of us won’t want to stop; instead, it will be a decision made for us. When life catches up, we may be halted dead in our tracks, unable to move, but not by choice. This is desperation. And there are others who may choose to stop because they realize they’d like to get more out of life. Maybe they heard something that compelled them to take control of their life. Maybe they have a dream and want it to become a reality. This is inspiration. According to inspirational guru Tony Robbins, you need one of these two motivators (desperation or inspiration) to actually stop the train from moving.

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Courage to Explore

In the tower above the earth, There is a view that reaches far. — Sufjan Stephens

Two thousand years ago, Paul of Tarsus came up against his own here and there divide when he wrote, “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.” I can relate. I can SO relate. But how can that be? What is coming into conflict here? Aren’t I the one that is in control of me? What is going on? Clarity, please?

It would be easy to say that people are complicated animals, unaware of why they do what they do. But is that satisfying to you? It certainly doesn’t settle it for me.

It is courageous enough to simply stop. And sometimes that is all that is required. A quick reset can be powerful. Disruption helps us see things in new ways. But sometimes we must go further. Once we have stopped, we can take that down-time to explore. Exploration of our baselines and of our automatic processes may help us in the quest for clarity.

Okay, so, auto-piloting can be awesome. I don’t mean on an airplane (although that’s pretty cool); I mean in life. I know what it’s like to go to the fridge and grab a beer. I know what it’s like to drive the same freeway every day. I know what it’s like to walk my dog to the park. I know what clothes I’m going to wear on any given day. I know that at the end of the day, I’ll most likely curl up on the couch with my wife. These soft regimens we create in our lives give us a sense of comfort and predictability. And that is okay. Nothing wrong with that! But auto-piloting does have its shadow side. And that shadow is usually one of the first things to rise to the surface when we finally do stop.

Why did I respond that way?

How did I end up here?

Did I really just say that?

Why do I keep doing that?

Dude, where’s my car?

Auto-piloting can give a false sense of security or identity. It’s what I’ve always done is a familiar refrain, but what does it mean? Is that who I am? Or is that how I’ve learned to be? Those are two very different starting places. And it could be worthwhile to assign the labels essential and learned to each of these questions we ask about who we are. Are these aspects essential to who we are or have we learned along the way as a way to cope, fit in or feel useful?

Taking time to explore requires courage. Courage to lift the stones out of the river of our life and discover what’s hidden beneath. Courage to pick those things up and hold them. Courage to stay with it even when we are scared. Fuck, what if I discover something that I don’t want to see? Hey, that’s real. It’s really real. There may be some stuff deep inside us that we don’t want to come to terms with. That’s okay. Trust me, it’s okay. Sometimes it is enough to simply hold those things in your hands.

How else can we courageously become our true selves if we do not shine a little light on our shadow? And how can we shine that light without recognizing our own subjective view of things? I don’t think the goal is necessary to become more objective, but rather to become more aware of our own subjectivity and auto-piloting.

We cannot alter objective facts. But subjective interpretations can be altered as much as one likes. And we are inhabitants of a subjective world. — Ichiro Kishimi

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Courage to Decide

We can change our lives. We can do, have and be exactly what we wish. — Tony Robbins

So here we are. With our whole selves and our revealed automatic processes. Our shadows and our light. Our subjective reality.

Clarity and courage. Courage and clarity.

The courage now required to move from here to there is summed up in a single word: Decision.

Decision. To move. To act. To get off the fence. To pick something up or let something go. To say yes or to say no. To become. To choose a direction.

We make decisions on a daily basis. Nothing new there. But taking decision-making off of auto-pilot-mode requires presence. To become fully responsible for our lives can be scary. It’d be so much easier to lean back on excuses about our circumstances, what was asked of me, things I didn’t intend to do, whatever.

Let’s go back to those two aspects I suggested labeling as essential and learned. The first is that which is truly me—the me at age seven—the not-yet-socialized me. The latter is the me that has figured out how to fit in, how to bring value to others, how to get along without getting hurt, how to not stand out. These learned aspects are valuable; they have helped us survive and potentially thrive. Gratitude to these learned behaviors seems fitting. Some may be worth holding on to. But to some of these learned aspects, it may be time to say, “Thank you and farewell. You are not needed for this next chapter.”

And what are those aspects you consider essential? Can you call them by name?

Deep breath…now is the time to decide. Time to make a decision about what to keep and what to let go of. Essential and learned. And perhaps it’s time to try something new.

This is the real threshold. Stopping and exploring is so important. But even more important is deciding. This is the real threshold. And this is the threshold that requires the most courage.

To not make a decision is a decision. You’ve heard it. You know it. And you know that non-decision is a valid option here. Sometimes it seems like too much to take a step toward your sun. Sometimes it feels like your whole world could collapse. Or the sun could burn you. Or that you could lose all that you have built and gathered. Can I get any assurances here? Can I bring anything with me? Of course you can! You can bring YOU with you. That’s what we’re talking about here, right? The courage to be you.

But in order to bring you with you, you must courageously clarify you. Otherwise, you’re bringing your auto-pilot program into your new reality.

Listen, it is entirely possible that we will always rely on some sort of auto-piloting from time to time. That’s okay! But isn’t it good to disrupt things from time to time to make sure that auto-pilot is routed to the destination that you seek? I mean, auto-pilot is useless if it’s not pointing you in the right direction! That could lead to a lot of heartache and backtracking. Auto-piloting is not necessarily an enemy. But it can be suspect.

So stop. Explore. And decide. In fits and starts. Regularly and irregularly. Allow your auto-piloting to be disrupted. And then take in the view.

You may find someone inside that you’d like to get more acquainted with. You may find a kid who’s been asking for a fun adventure. You may realize that you’re an introvert parading as an extrovert (how tiring!). You may realize that all that you want, you already have. You may draw a line between your childhood and adulthood as a maker or a fun friend or a leader or an innovator or a rule-follower. You may just find you. And I cannot imagine any finding more worthwhile than finding you.