What picture comes to mind when you think of courage? For me the word has always conjured images of heroics on battlefields, and boxers who refuse to go down and so win the final round.
Last year I had an operation on my leg that took me to the brink emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. Lying on the sofa, completely drained, those images of courage offered little solace or encouragement. I felt fearful, guilty, exhausted, helpless and lonely. I had a strong urge to withdraw and hide; I didn't want people to see me like that. I didn't feel like I could relate to the notions of courage I once had. Instead, I found a far greater connection with these words from Mary Anne Radmacher: "Courage does not always roar. Sometimes it's the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, I will try again tomorrow."
I was also inspired by the work of Brené Brown, a researcher who has spent more than ten years studying vulnerability and courage. I started to realise that courage is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable. As she puts it, "courage is showing up and letting ourselves be seen". She helped me understand the real meaning of the word courage.
In 'I Thought It Was Just Me' (Penguin, 2007), Brown writes: "Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant 'To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.'... Today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences - good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as 'ordinary courage.'"
Most of us want to be seen as strong, confident and capable; often it's only when everything falls apart that we're willing to admit we might be just as vulnerable as everyone else.
My operation meant that I went from being very independent and holding myself to impossibly high standards, to realising I had to let others help me. For the first few weeks I needed assistance with even the most simple of tasks and I found it incredibly frustrating. I would regularly burst into tears, seemingly for no reason. A large part of it was that I couldn't stand not feeling useful. My whole identity was being shaken. The days of having back-to-back meetings at work, looking after the kids after school, and then rushing out to an event in the evening had vanished; instead my goals became much simpler. I would set myself tiny tasks such as walking to the first tree near our house.
I didn't feel courageous; I felt weak and small. But even though part of me wanted to hide away I knew I needed to share what I was going through, so I began to blog about my journey. The messages I received in response made me realise I was far from alone. People shared of their struggles with leukemia, seeing a parent succumb to dementia, dealing with the loss of a loved one. It taught me an important lesson: we share a common humanity.
Every single one of us has times of feeling weak, fearful, confused, ashamed, miserable, anxious or angry, and it's often as we share those feelings that others feel they can connect with us. No one has it all together all of the time and we don't need to pretend to be perfect so that others will approve of us. The messages I received in response to my blog inspired me with their courage and dignity.
It's so easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you're the only one going through something painful and to think that no one else will understand. But when we're honest and show our weakness and vulnerability we give people permission to be honest too. Together we realize we are part of a community that doesn't have all the answers but can take hold of each others' hands and say, "Let's try again tomorrow."