The Courage to Face Our Inner Pain

A man looking in a mirror at a hazy image of himself - the courage to see ourselves clearly

What Is Courage?

It is human to long for greatness. As psychotherapist Edward Tick notes, we “hunger for heroism.” [1] We want to know that we, too, can be courageous. What better way to test our mettle than in battle?

Young men and women enlist in the armed forces for many reasons, but if we didn’t yearn to prove ourselves, war probably wouldn’t be possible. Governments might start wars for political or economic reasons, but if no one signs up to fight, there can be no battle. Therefore, the military has to convince the young that being a soldier – or a rebel or a terrorist – will make them a hero. According to Tick, war provides us “a path to fulfilling the mythic ideal of the warrior,” one who “is blessed by the Divine” with an honorable purpose. [2] Through war, rebellion, resistance, we learn to be brave.

Of course, this is a bravery based on power and strength. It is connected to our need to win. At the same time, however, the warrior must also accept the possibility of death. To rush blithely into the fray, certain of one’s victory, is not courage. Depending on the odds, it’s either foolishness or cruelty.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t rush in. There are righteous reasons to fight, times when it seems no other option is tenable. What makes a soldier a warrior is the ability to do what must be done even when one is afraid. As Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

When Courage Succeeds

Especially when one does not have a weapon, courage can be scary. In Naumburg, Germany, a legend is told of some children who showed bravery in the face of siege.

It was 1432. The formidable General Procop led the Hussite army to Naumburg to fight and win the town. Long before he arrived, however, the villagers noticed the trail of dust floating behind his army, so they fled to the castle and barred the gates.

Finding no one about, Procop laid siege to the complex. After a few months, it was clear the people within the walls would soon starve. Knowing they couldn’t hold out much longer, Procop sent them a message insisting they surrender right away. If they did, he would be lenient, but if they waited, he would destroy them.

Anxiously, they tried to decide what to do. Finally, a school teacher came up with a plan. Knowing that Procop, this violent and cruel person, secretly loved children, the teacher suggested that he and his charges should go to the general and beg him to leave the townspeople alone. Though some children were too scared to leave the safety of the castle, others said they would try the teacher’s plan. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t afraid as they were willing to do what they could to save themselves and the ones they loved.

According to the legend, they succeeded. General Procop had a great time with the young people. Together, they played games, told stories, and ate cherries. At the end of the day, when the children asked for lenience, Procop agreed. They had become friends, and he did not betray their trust.

The next day, he and his army went home. Thus did the children and their teacher use kindness to tame the mighty general. [3]

Who Is Most Brave?

These days, when militants kill girls simply for going to school, and when some people think it’s reasonable to lock up juveniles who cross the border into the United States, and when children continue to be abused and neglected in homes across our nation, it’s hard to give credence to such a sweet story. We can’t imagine a general stooping to playing games with little kids. We can’t believe an army would stand by as the youngsters filed from their sanctuary.

That, of course, is what makes their action so courageous. They feared they were going to their deaths.

Yet they survived, partly because they were brave, but also because the general found it in his heart to be brave, as well, perhaps for the first time in his life. After all, he was not known for his generosity and kindness of heart; he was known for his brutality. Even so, he defied all expectations and gave up his bloodthirsty efforts. Instead of proving the power of his weapons, he proved the generosity of his heart. To do this, he had to be able to open that heart. He had to be able to care. As the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield writes, “The courageous heart is the one that is unafraid to open to the world.” [4]

Of course, this doesn’t guarantee our success. Opening to the world doesn’t mean we will prevail over evil. Yet when we go into the world with our hearts open and our minds set on peace, it is at least possible we can make friends of our enemies. If we go in fighting, however, friendship and peace will be impossible.

Developing Courage

How do we become so brave that we can stand up to might, knowing we could die? How do we stare death in the face and not quaver?

It is hard to know what made some of those children brave, but not others. Perhaps their parents modeled courage, or maybe they were allowed to fail without being shamed. It could be that the courageous children had known hardship and survived. Their families may have encouraged them to help others, speak up for the voiceless, honor their commitments. Facing our fears, by climbing ladders even though we’re afraid of heights or exploring the crawlspace beneath the house though we’re scared of spiders, often makes those fears seem less ominous.

Regardless of their upbringing, it seems, as a study by Peter Murin indicates, that courageous youngsters tend to be extroverts and thrill seekers. [5] Anxious children, though still capable of courageous acts, tend to be timid.

Extroversion and introversion, along with our level of risk aversion or thrill seeking, are genetic traits. We can temper them, but basically we get what we get. Thrill seekers and extroverts are going to be happier standing up to a bully or skiing down the steepest slopes or wrestling with a scary animal than are risk-averse introverts. If that’s what makes us brave, then some of us are going to braver than others just because of who we are.

Learning to Be Brave

Though that’s not really a problem, for we don’t all need to pit ourselves against the elements or fight villains, it is also true that courage is more than fighting for our freedom or doing the “right” thing even when we’re scared. Indeed, some thinkers suggest that braving the dark recesses of our own minds is one of the hardest things we can do and thus, the most brave.

In her novel, A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny writes about this. One of her characters, the detective Beauvoir, describes his ex-boss, retired inspector Gamache, as the best and bravest “because he was willing to go into his own head alone and open all the doors there,” looking around in the dark cellars and the rooms stuffed with painful memories. Not only did he go and look, but he made friends with the scary things he found. [6]

If this is true, then courage isn’t about being strong, about making bold moves or waging wars, but about being vulnerable, about offering our unprotected chest to our enemy. Courage, then, would be the ability to learn from the hardships and suffering life brings us, to discover who we really are when everything we believe about ourselves is shattered.

Making the Choice to Live

Some years ago, I met a man who, before developing a chronic illness that left him unable to work, had thought courage meant being the toughest and meanest person around. He won all his fights and laughed at those who lost. After he got sick, he could no longer do this. He didn’t know who he was, nor what he believed.

At that point, he could have found someone to blame, something that would allow him to shame others rather than himself. He didn’t do that. Instead, he looked honestly at himself and his values. He faced the truth of who he’d been and admitted his ignorance. He realized that control and intimidation do not come from strength, but from fear and weakness. To see this truth took courage, and it changed him, and change is not something most of us want. The man gained something powerful by looking into the cellars of his mind and by searching the memories he’d accumulated. He learned what really matters. In the process, he discovered within his spirit a powerful tenderness, and within his heart, the capacity to love.

Sometimes life blesses us with a suffering that does not kill us. They say that what does not kill us makes us stronger, but strength is not the true blessing that comes from hardship. The true blessing is that we might come to know, and accept, our vulnerability.

In my work as a chaplain, I frequently come across suffering. That’s often why people ask to see a chaplain in the first place, because they hurt. They’re anxious or sad or tormented. Their bodies or minds aches so badly they can stand it anymore. They want to die. Yet they don’t. They choose to live, and that choice, by itself, is courageous.

Befriending Mary

Craig Rennebohm, a United Church of Christ minister who works with the homeless, tells the story of a woman named Mary. She was, he writes, “a survivor.” [7] After emigrating to the United States, which takes courage enough, Mary found work as a housekeeper. The job served her well for a long time, until she developed symptoms of mental illness. Exactly how she ended up living on the streets, Rennebohm didn’t say, but by the time he found her, she’d withdrawn into herself, unable to trust the world around her.

He describes how she would perch behind the garbage bags she stuffed with her belongings, peering out timidly at the commuters and shoppers. When people drew near, she scuttled aside, turning away greetings, handouts, offers of help. She couldn’t trust them. Making your home on the sidewalk is frightening.

Yet every day, Mary woke up. She found food, shelter from the elements, protection from judgmental and cruel individuals. Somehow she managed to stay alive. That took fortitude.

The Courage of Faith

It may be that Mary’s faith gave her strength.

For months, Rennebohm tells us, he showed himself to her, wandering past her perch of the day, cautiously edging near. After a while, he greeted her, nodding his head, saying hello, finally engaging in a few short conversations.

As he did this, he became aware that she often clutched, and sometimes read, an old, dog-eared Bible. He started talking to her about the verses she was reading, which may have been when he truly gained Mary’s trust. Regardless, shortly after that, he managed to get her into an apartment of her own.

One day, weeks later, he visited her there. She sat at a table, reading her Bible. When he asked what she was reading, she showed him Psalm 139. As we learned a few weeks ago, that psalm that reminds us that God, or the life force, or the Isness, or whatever is holy other and holy self, is always present, always with us.

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Psalm 139:7-10 NRSV

Rennebohm comments that “God is present in our every moment.” Apparently Mary believed that, as well. Though “driven to the margins of our community,” distant, afraid, unable to communicate, though she erected barriers to keep others out, still, she had God, and God gave her the courage to keep going. [8]

Mindfulness and Faith

Faith helps all of us. We might not believe in a Christian god, nor in a god of any kind. Maybe we have faith in nature, in the ancestors, in that small voice within, in mindfulness itself. When we sit in meditation, for instance, when we wander through our day watching without judgment as our emotions and thoughts swirl through us, we are doing something sacred. We are allowing a part of our self to be quiet, to see and hear and know. Instead of doing, we are being. No matter how actively we move, nor how engaged we are in the life of the world, mindfulness allows us to breathe stillness into all we do.

Is that not a kind of faith, this connection with self and universe? If we are to look deep into ourselves, enter those cellars, engage our painful memories, we at least need to have faith in the process, in the rightness of change. We need to believe that the spiritual journey has some value. After all, why else would we sit and watch as fear, anger, and sorrow tremble through our bodies and play across our minds? In Bringing Home the Dharma, Kornfield notes that it takes patience as well as courage to “sit firmly on the earth and sense the contraction and trembling of [our] bodies without running away.” [9]

If we can find no faith at all, we might as well get into a fight, numb our hurt with alcohol, yell at our neighbor, climb the tallest mountain, and call it courage. From the outside, our behavior might look more like running away than being brave, but unless we do some inner soul-searching, we’ll remain blissfully unaware of our ignorance.

The Limits of Courage

Yet how much pain can we face at one time? Must we feel everything?

Recently, I met with a woman whose husband had died about six months ago. Now her mother was dying. When she told me about this dual loss, her face twisted in pain. Though her eyes glistened, no tears fell. Soon, as if draping dignity around her shoulders, she straightened her back, smoothed her face, and recited to me the things she was doing to take care of herself: counseling, grief groups, exercise.

I could have prodded, tugged at the threads of her sorrow. Perhaps I could have made her weep. But she didn’t want that. She wasn’t looking for counseling or processing. For the moment, she wanted to feel as if she had control. We can’t float aimlessly forever. Sometimes we need a break. Bravery might mean facing our pain and dealing with our fears, but must we be brave all the time?

Lately I’ve been meeting with a lot of people in chronic, physical pain. They all have emotional and psychic pain, as well. Some have suffered intense trauma; others have an anxiety disorder. This makes it hard to endure the physical agony they’re experiencing. Their suffering is worse because of it.

Yet physical pain is real, and coping with it can be exhausting, and sometimes we just want a few hours rest. Is this wrong?

Of course not, but fate gives us what it chooses. We can’t change that. Sure, our choices affect what happens to us, but lots of people do stupid things and suffer no consequences, while others follow all the rules and still encounter one tragedy after another. Our life can change in an instant. It takes great courage to accept how little power we have to control that.

A man looking in a mirror at a hazy image of himself - the courage to see ourselves clearly
Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider

Facing Our Deaths

The thing we can least control is the reality that one day we will die. Facing this doesn’t have to be grim or frightening. Indeed, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, a nun with the Daughters of St. Paul, believes that thinking every day of our death will make us happier. Most of us, though, don’t want to do this. “We naturally tend to think of our lives as kind of continuing and continuing,” she told the journalist, Ruth Graham. However, she explains, “it’s actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them.” [10]

So there’s good reason to remember we are finite. Still, facing that which makes us uncomfortable, such as illness, shame, rejection, failure, resentment, sorrow, death, is hard. We might think the brave are those soldiers who run into battle and jump from airplanes, and certainly, in their way, they are. Yet as Kornfield tells us, looking at our inner frustrations, at the wounds of our soul, at our loneliness and incompetence and helplessness, is harder than “sitting in the dark forest with its tigers and snakes.” [11]

Facing our demons, our suffering, our death takes great courage. Sometimes, it hurts. Yet the rewards are just as great. Those rewards won’t be material, and they won’t make our pain go away, but facing the truth of life, looking deeply into our own nature, “keeps us,” as Sister Aletheia put it, “awake, focused, and ready for whatever might happen – both the excruciatingly difficult and the breathtakingly beautiful.’” [12]

The rewards of courage are a faith that sustains us, internal peace, a capacity for joy, and an appreciation of beauty. Hard work doesn’t always pay off, but in this case, it does.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Tick, Edward, War and the Soul, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2005, 175.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Fahs, Sophia Lyon, From Long Ago and Many Lands, 2nd ed., Boston: Skinner House, 1948, 46-52 and “Naumberg,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naumburg, accessed 5/14/21.
  4. Kornfield, Jack, The Wise Heart, Louisville: Sounds True, 2008, ebook.
  5. Muris, Peter, “Fear and Courage in Children: Two Sides of the Same Coin?,” J Child Fam Stud 2009 Aug; 18(4): 486-490, published online March 26, 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2694915/, accessed 5/15/21.
  6. Penny, Louise, A Fatal Grace, Macmillan Audio, 2019, Part 3 – Chapter 9, 2:27:15-2:27:47.
  7. Rennebohm, Craig and David Paul, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the search for Home and Healing on the Streets, Boston: Beacon Press, 2008, 52.
  8. Ibid 51.
  9. Kornfield, Jack, Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are, New York: Shambhala, 2011, 36.
  10. Graham, Ruth, “A Nun’s Words of Comfort: ‘You Are Going to Die,’” The New York Times, May 15, 2021, A1 and A15, A1.
  11. Kornfield Bringing Home 38.
  12. Graham A15.

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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