Sometimes, it’s easy to see courage. Someone runs into a burning building to rescue people who are trapped. Someone stands up to an abuser or a bully, either to protect himself or to protect others. Someone stands on a street corner to protest against what they perceive as a great injustice. Or, maybe, they yell out in support of what they believe is right. Either way: courage. “Hey, that guy (or gal) is courageous,” we might say. It’s pretty easy to agree on this.
Often, especially in my own life, I think courage is easy to miss. It’s in the small things that get a bit lost amid the distractions and sparkles of our daily life. Courage can be a quiet sort of thing. Perhaps we don’t think of it that way because of the 24/7, in-your-face, screaming media culture we inhabit, but courage doesn’t always toot its own horn. It doesn’t have to, after all. It’s courage. It doesn’t need to be anything else.
I struggle with many things in my life. Where I am going … Who I am supposed to be … What I should do with my life … All of these things remain a mystery to me. Maybe I’m not unusual in that respect, but there are times when these things are a heavy and painful burden. I find my mind spinning around and around these questions — the nervous dog perpetually chasing its tail. All I find are more questions. It’s frustrating, and usually leaves me feeling trapped and hopeless.
The other day, I realized I’ve never thought about who I am. I’ve never come to terms with the person that is “me”. I read articles or posts by people — all of whom are amazingly talented — who say they are comfortable with who they are. “I’m comfortable in my own skin,” is the typical refrain. I feel so in awe and jealous of this, because it’s something that is completely foreign to me.
I grew up believing I wasn’t good enough. It’s not that my parents were cruel. They were not. I believe they tried their hardest to be supportive. They just weren’t any good at it. They are human and, as such, they are flawed. We all are. It’s unavoidable. And so, I don’t say this out of anger. I love and respect my parents, and I admire their strength and courage in the way they took the bad things life handed them and made the best they could out of all of it. The truth beneath all of that, though, is that my parents were controlling and afraid. They were terrified by the possibility I might make a mistake that would lead me into the same types of experiences they had lived through. They had very specific expectations of who and what I was supposed to be, and I tried, for a long time, to order my life accordingly.
While my parents said all the right and positive and supportive things, their actions told a different story. I had the misfortune of being a perceptive child, which meant I tended to read the subtext of my interactions with them, instead of taking their words at face value. It’s impossible to live one’s life according to the wishes of another person, no matter how much you love them. No matter how much you want to be and do everything that person expects. I wanted to hand my parents this perfect pearl of a life so that I could say to them, “Look! I’ve done it all. I’ve succeeded and become exactly what you wanted. I’ve become everything you ever wished to be but didn’t achieve.” Why was this so important? I don’t know. Honestly, I never thought about it. It was the reality of my existence, and that was all there was to it.
In doing this, I failed before I ever started. In my quest to be what others wanted, I denied the hopes and dreams that lived inside my own soul. I did more than that: I actively squashed them, thinking that, if I failed to feed them, they would wither away and die. Those hopes and dreams did wither, but they didn’t die. They stayed there, hidden down deep in some dark part of me, making me feel miserable and out of place inside the life I told myself I wanted. I was the octagonal peg, forever stuffing myself into triangular holes and wondering why I didn’t fit. I felt like a liar and a traitor. I felt like the biggest, fattest, stupidest failure ever to walk to Earth. And so, I slid into my middle adulthood feeling things in my life were terribly broken, but not understanding how to fix them. Heck, I didn’t even know where to start!
I think it takes true courage to be the person you were born to be … to be true to yourself and your hopes and dreams. Perhaps that’s one reason I love animals so much: because what you see is what you get. They are always exactly who and what they are, without all the bumbling around and getting caught up in what others expect of or want from them. I might dye my dog purple and pretend he’s a lilac bush, but he is always going to know he’s a dog. It’s more than that, though: he won’t ever want to be anything other than a dog.
It takes courage to look at a life and realize it doesn’t fit. It takes courage to pull out withered hopes and dreams so that you can nurse them back to life. It takes courage to look at the people you love the most and say, “You don’t know what’s best for me, and I’m going to go my own way now.” But, most of all, it takes courage to love those people, anyhow — not because of everything you’ve been through together, but in spite of it.
This isn’t the kind of courage that will be splashed across the front page of the newspaper. It won’t headline the evening news. It probably won’t even manage to go viral on the Internet, unless someone can figure out how to attach it to a cute cat picture.
But it’s the kind of courage I would like for myself. It’s the kind of courage I pray my own daughter will have, each and every day. Sometimes, the little things really are the big things, after all.