“You’re a hard worker and you’re not afraid to show up to the challenges you have to face,” said the teacher, motioning to boot on my foot that I had to wear after having foot surgery. “That takes courage.”
I was a senior in high school, and that was the first time anyone had affirmed me like that. I’d been used to living life actively looking for caution tape, or reasons not to do things; don’t swim where you can’t touch the bottom because it’s over your head and you’re going to sink. Don’t cross the street alone because you can’t always see the cars coming, nor can they see you. Don’t go out for the track or basketball team because it’s going to be too hard. Don’t…
For from the age of ten up until my early twenties, my brain was a sponge: I absorbed and observed everything, allowing the voices and thoughts around me to become the voices in my head. One voice in particular told me that people would like me if I projected a certain image and acted a certain way. I was an impressionable teenager, but I also carried a grown-ups know best mentality. It would take years to realize that they was speaking from their own insecurities, and sadly, projecting them onto me.
There was a bit of subconscious shift when I decided to go to Iowa, and that continued through my college years. I slowly began to open myself up to the possibilities that came with vulnerability, sharing my story of living with Cerebral Palsy, and what I wanted despite my supposed limitations. I went into therapy a little over a year later because I was tired of being bogged down by depression and anxiety. And after giving myself enough time to process what had happened, I began to speak up regarding my experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Back then I really didn’t believe I was being brave, mostly because I was shaking on the inside. I was scared of not only being rejected, but feeling responsible for that rejection. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It became a formula of Say this. Do that. Calculate. Overthink. And repeat.
I’ve redefined the word over the years as I’ve gone through different phases and transitions. There has been a lot of debate in the public sphere over such a word, where different groups get pitted against one another and ignorance has come out in full force. I’d like to think that courage is not a singular definition, but a collection:
Courage is not without fear, but putting fear into perspective. If I wasn’t somewhat afraid to do something, than I would always take opportunities for granted.
Courage is being myself, along with speaking up when someone tries to convince me that I’m not enough.
Courage is pursuing something because I want to, rather than justifying whether or not I deserve it.
Courage is an act of surrender; not giving up entirely, but giving the need to have complete control over the outcome. Show up and show them who you are, and the rest will take care of itself.
Yet we forget that we cannot live these practices out loud without the help of others. I love Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton for pioneering the fact that if you’re out there and getting your ass kicked, then you’re doing something right. I love it when people are messy and unafraid to invite others into their mess. It’s much easier to connect and relate to someone who’s willing to admit that they don’t have it all together, and that they can’t do it alone.
Oh, but heartbreak! No one actually wants to get hurt, but what other choice is there? It’s one thing when a certain path has taken you down rabbit hole, or if a person has already shown that they’re not good for you. But when you’re just basing what might or might not happen on what the world says, then of course it’s going to be painful. Yet I’ve found that pain is not a sign of foolishness, but a sign of a well-lived life. I would rather experience pain in the deep end than joy because I stayed in the shallow end.
It’s not easy, but I’ve found that a good starting point is naming whatever is currently making me feel insecure and/or afraid. When I name them, be it in a face-to-face conversation, writing in a journal, or writing a letter that I’ll never send, it gives them a lot less negativity and power. There are times where I hate sharing the details with anybody because I don’t want to take them on a roller-coaster ride, nor do I want numerous differing opinions clouding my thought process. I prefer to have at least one or two people in my corner who will let me get stuff on my chest, and then I usually receive clarity on my own.
It can seem like a fluffy and sugary platitude, one thing to discuss and something else entirely to live out. We’re all human here, and we all have stories that are often times complex and take time to come to terms with. I made the mistake of believing that courage was constant, a quick fix that enabled me to do whatever I set my mind to. And then when it didn’t work, I’d be tempted to close myself off because I felt like a failure.
Courage ebbs and flows. You take a risk, take a stand, and when you get knocked down, you allow yourself to feel the pain. Ultimately, you get back up. Keep dreaming. Keep chasing. Keeping going. And remember, there are many paths to one destination.