Sunday, March 13, 2011

Learning to be brave

I have always wished to be brave, and known ruefully that I am not. I can do things that look brave to some people: I am not particularly afraid of strangers, public speaking, heartfelt disagreements, or life without a salary or retirement plan. But in the handful of situations when I’ve actually thought I was in physical danger--interpersonal, canine or automotive--I’ve panicked; said and done things that confused and prolonged the conflict; tried to run away from the dog; shut my eyes after slamming the brakes. So there is a large and sometimes painful gap between the real and fictional heroes about whom I read, and with whom I identify, and my real life. I know it’s not just a matter of things looking better in books. I’ve seen my mother face down a snarling dog (while gripping my arm behind her so I couldn’t bolt and get chewed on), and talk down a person who was threatening. I have seen a few other real live people stand still and strong and clear in frightening situations. I’m tempted to tell myself that they were just born that way and I wasn’t, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I have groused and grieved about this for a good long time. It’s just in the last couple of months that I’ve started to grope my way toward a solution.

I set out to work on my other recurring problem, which is carelessness: lost objects, tasks partially completed and then forgotten. I have told myself dutifully that I need to be more responsible. I have agreed with myself but haven’t felt particularly eager to be responsible, to be a real grown-up. When I sat down with my journal to figure things out, I realized that I don’t want to deal with the mess in the back of the closet or look back at tasks I may not have finished, because I don’t like to admit having made the mess or forgotten the task in the first place. In fact, I feel almost afraid of admitting these things.

Aha, I told myself. This is your chance to practice being brave.

It helped. I wanted to be brave much more actively and passionately than I wanted to be responsible. As I cleared out the messes and dealt with the back-work I could feel myself regaining the energy that I had spent avoiding thinking about them. I still have work to do (!), but now I am much more apt to catch myself as I first flinch away from noticing a problem. I hope that next time a really frightening situation comes along I will have more mental energy and better habits and I will be able to stand firm.

I think of this process now when I hear fellow Quakers (I’m sure others do it too, but it’s mostly Quakers I hear) talking about the heroic struggles Friends undertook in the past and wondering why we aren’t doing something more together today. I’ve been part of groups earnestly listening for a call to greater things. I look around my neighborhood, I listen to news from around the world, and great things seem called for. But I wonder if there aren’t small and obvious things that we--personally, maybe even collectively--are willfully overlooking, and if dealing with those things might not give us the strength and integrity for the next steps.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days.