COURAGE to CHANGE
Reading: Osho, Courage: the Joy of Living Dangerously:
You cannot be truthful if you are not courageous.
You cannot be loving if you are not courageous.
You cannot be trusting if you are not courageous.
You cannot inquire into reality if you are not courageous.
Hence courage comes first and everything else follows.
It is only the new, accepted deeply and totally, can transform you. You cannot bring the new in your life; the new comes. You can either accept it or reject it. If you reject it you remain a stone, closed and dead. If you receive it you become a flower; you start opening… and in that opening is celebration… God is always the new… I know you are afraid. In spite of the fear, go with the new, and your life will become richer and richer and you will be able one day to release your imprisoned splendor.”
What do you think is the most characteristic virtue of Unitarians and Universalists? There is little doubt in my mind. The most striking and pervasive virtue in our tradition through its history is courage. Of course, there have been courageous men and women in all great religious traditions. They have risked persecution and even death when their core beliefs and faith were threatened. Yet I think courage has a more central, everyday place among us. Yes, like many others, we are committed to living our beliefs and values as fully as possible.
The additional challenge, as I see it, is that we are achingly aware that we might possibly be wrong! That’s what courage is about. It’s not about being fearless. Although my dictionary tried to tell me that, I don’t buy it. Courage is about what we do with our fear. Its about our capacity to move ahead in spite of despair, in the face of fear, plagued by doubt.
As Neitzsche put it, courage is the “Power of Life to affirm itself in the face of ambiguity.” That is what’s different about us -- we are committed to facing that ambiguity and are often more curious than intimidated by the unknown. Some faiths claim the truth is absolute and there is no ambiguity for true believers. Such faiths may motivate people to risk their lives for what they believe. But are they listening to the story of the garden of Gethsemane? The story goes that even Jesus, faced with probable capture and death, struggled all night with doubt and fear so powerful sweat poured from his brow. That story speaks to me more than any other in the Christian scriptures.
Unitarianism has a deep respect for truth. Not necessarily Truth with a capital “T.” Rather truth as complex and ever unfolding. Truth as something we understand only imperfectly, and which therefore makes us humble. We are, at least in theory, willing to be wrong in order to find a deeper level of understanding. Living with such a complex, uncertain, ambiguous reality, we need to affirm and nurture courage as a necessary spiritual quality.
Courage, then, is not simply a virtue among others, like love or honesty. It is, according to psychologist Rollo May, the “foundation which underlies and gives reality to all other virtues and personal values.” Without courage, love withers to dependence, fidelity is merely conformism, and honesty cannot be incarnate in our lives.
The word courage comes from the French “coeur,” meaning “heart.” A person with courage has a “heart-filled” or “large-hearted” life. The juice of courage brings to life all our other values and virtues the way the heart, by pumping blood, gives life to all other organs in the body. It is said that a human being is an animal that makes choices. Humans can choose to affirm life in the face of ambiguity. We can choose to embrace the new, rather than stay in familiar but stifling ruts and routines. This is one of our most distinguishing characteristics as Unitarians. That is precisely what courage is all about.
It is also true that many of us have another characteristic that stands in tension with our courage. More than the average bear, we Unitarians don’t like to fail. A great many of us are perfectionists. Sometimes this motivates us to accomplishment; sometimes it undermines our courage. I like George Bernard Shaw’s perspective: “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable -- but more useful than a life spent daring nothing.” For many of us, our potential for living with courage is compromised by our fear of making mistakes or being judged by others. Yet on the other hand, we Unitarians are known as risk-takers, pioneers, darers to be different, “Heaven stormers” – Heretics. As many of you know, the word “heretic” means “choice makers.” Our faith requires of us a great many conscious choices -- and every time we choose, we could be wrong! Or others could give us grief for our choices. Which brings us back to the core Unitarian commitment: “We need not think alike to love alike.”
Courage comes in many forms. Let’s look at three aspects relevant to our spiritual integrity. These are moral, social and creative courage.
Moral courage is central to our religious covenant as Unitarians. This kind of courage involves a willingness to risk naming perceived wrongs. Our social action agenda involves protesting against injustice and cruelty wherever we encounter it, albeit with respect for the worth and dignity of those who see life differently. Going out into the world to act upon our moral convictions can be risky. This was brought home to me vividly some years ago when I led memorial services for four people shot to death as a result of their commitment to work in clinics supporting women’s right to choice.
I frankly find it challenging to invite argumentative phone calls, as I did in Saskatoon with an editorial on street prostitution sympathetic to prostitutes and critical of the Johns-- or to speak out at a meeting where religious bigots are trying to influence city council. Public confrontation may always be hard for me, and I shake in my shoes around voices raised in argument. Don’t get me wrong -- there are times when I know it is necessary, and times when I will do it. But I admire people to whom it comes more easily – who can stay calm but firm in the face of such reactivity.
So what is social courage? It means putting oneself at risk for meaningful intimacy – and often with people different than ourselves. Risk is inescapable in relationship. If we are genuinely open to encountering one another, we will be affected by the encounter. We cannot predict what that effect will be. Genuine relationship never repeats. If we are truly present with one another, something new and different is going to happen, and the experience is never fully under our control. I’m sure you’ve noticed --other folks have the annoying habit of not following our scripts!
Social courage means that we hold ourselves steady in the midst of the many pulls away from authentic, loving relationship. We acknowledge our fears -- but we do not let them dictate our actions.
Creative courage is the subject of Rollo May’s book, The Courage to Create. With creative courage, we are willing to immerse ourselves in life and let it shape us and the work of our hands and hearts. Embracing and wrestling with new possibilities creates resistance, whether in a family system or society. Mythologically, it has even been seen as triggering the jealousy of the Gods!
The myth of Prometheous, who stole fire from the gods, is a case in point.
In our lives and in our society, it takes courage to risk new ways of doing things, no matter how poorly the old ways have worked for us. Trying a new art form can be a way of stretching our creative courage -- and I personally recommend it! But every facet of our lives can be a place for creative courage. It means we are willing to challenge old habitual forms of living and interacting in the name of something new. It means we are even willing to make mistakes in order to learn what might work better for us. We are willing to let go of our natural defensiveness and compassionately own our own imperfections. The life each of us is co-creating is the most important work of art any of us will ever undertake.
So what can we do to strengthen our foundation of courage in the moral, relational, and creative dimensions of our lives?
To illustrate how powerfully our beliefs about ourselves control our experience of reality, I need a volunteer about my size -----
Please extend your arms at shoulder level, with your hands made into fists. I am going to try to push your arm down, and I want you to resist. Good. Now, bear with me. Please repeat ten times: “I am a weak and unworthy person.”..... O.K. Now put your arms out again, and resist my attempt to push you. Did that feel different? You see how easy it was to press your arm all the way down. Now, please repeat ten times: “I am a strong and worthy person.”...... Put your arms out. I can’t budge it, can I? I assure you, this is not a setup!
This experiment has been done under blind, controlled conditions, with the same result. What we think really does have a strong influence upon how strong we can be!
It seems obvious that if our own opinion impacts our strength so dramatically, so does the opinion of those we spend most time with! We need to associate with people who believe in us if we want to be more courageous. In religious community, one of the most important things we do is en-courage one another – it is important not to forget that when we find ourselves more inclined to focus upon perceived flaws or “mistakes.”
Connection to something larger than ourselves is also a source of courage for many of us. Values, relationships, country, a sense of purpose or underlying meaningfulness in life, a sense of the holy or God.
A commitment to growth is a commitment to an expansive reality rather than a contracting or closed one. It is a commitment to choose hope over fear, letting go over holding on, openness over control, giving generously over holding back. It is an active state of mind, punctuated by moments when love really does cast out fear.
So, according to my dictionary, “courage” is the absence of fear in situations of difficulty or danger? I don’t agree. Jeffers states categorically that “fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow.” At the same time, most of us find feeling helpless more scary than pushing through our fears and expanding our comfort zone.
While it is important to take action to free ourselves from paralysis and helplessness, it is also important to honor our own pace. We can comfort our scared inner child by taking small steps. Expanding our comfort zones may be the simplest thing each of us can do. How about taking one risk a day? Rearranging the furniture? Taking a walk along a different route? Paying someone a compliment? Telling someone something we are not sure they will be able to accept? What feels risky to each of us is different.
The important thing is to be moving, not stalled. Isn’t it true that practicing our values in the small moments of life is what gives us the foundation upon which to build courage when the major challenges hit?
Taking risks involves making choices and prioritizing our values. What is important enough to be worth facing our fears? What is so valuable that we are willing to risk failing? Personal wholeness and integrity? Authentic relationship? Service to the world? What injustice move us deeply enough to take action in the face of fear?
I don’t know about you, but my greatest fear is of what Gestalt psychologists call “unlived life” -- the shadowy area between my lived boundaries and the potential I have not yet had courage enough to claim. May we find the courage in this new year to be more fully alive to the values, relationships and creative newness that bless our lives with richness and vitality. May we find the courage for what Life calls us to be. And may we support one another in the risk-taking this requires.