I am a word nerd. Loud and proud. If I had grown up in another part of the world, I would have been the spelling bee champion or the Spelling Queen Bee, or whatever they call those lexicographically-gifted children. When I was about three years old, I would regale visiting adults with the spelling of the word “restaurant”, which I had picked up from the sign on the Double Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant in our local neighborhood. I was unreasonably excited at the publication of the punctuation bible, Eats Shoots and Leaves, and I had to acknowledge the brilliance of the gift when my family bought me a t-shirt that says “Silently correcting
you’re your grammar”.
I’m not sure whether it was my tendency to be a language prude or my desire to be authentic that caused me to abandon the version of “good night” that had been customary in our house for 12 years. When my daughters were small and prone to waking us up at 4:30 in the morning, we began to say “see you in the morning when the sun comes up” as our way of ending the day while subtly suggesting that we hoped we would not be seeing them while it was still dark. After I lost my sight, I began responding to their ”see you in the morning when the sun comes up” by saying that I’d be there, and it always pained me just a little that I was deprived of the pleasure of taking part in this small ritual.
Then, one night, it occurred to me that seeing someone doesn’t have to mean looking at them – “I see” is just as often an acknowledgment of something said or an expression of understanding. To “see” someone can be about appreciating their intrinsic worth and, in that sense, I did not need functional optic nerves to see my daughters in the morning when the sun came up.
An early version of my website was titled “Seeing Not Looking” until I came upon other websites and publications with the same name, proving that, just because something was a revelation to me does not mean it was entirely original.
When I was a kid, my family had a prized set of World Book encyclopedias that had been purchased at great expense. They were beautiful books, quarto-sized, bound in deep maroon leather with gold details embossed on the covers. They were lined up on the bookcase in our family lounge room. Bibliographies I appended to every project I did in primary school and a good portion of the work I did in high school contained reference to these pre-internet collections of human learning. Given that I left school more than a quarter-century ago, it is a sad reflection of how reliant I was on them that I know without checking that they were published in 1978. In addition to the encyclopedias, the set included a two-volume dictionary. If ever I or my siblings asked what a word meant, we were directed to look it up.
My parents still battle each other in Scrabble and no word is allowed on the board if it doesn’t appear in these 42-year-old American books. There is no evolution of the English language going on at their house, thank you very much.
I thought I would check out what this quintessential family dictionary had to say about courage:
courage, applies to moral strength that makes a person face any danger, trouble or pain steadily and without showing fear.
Bravery applies to a kind of courage that is shown by bold, fearless, daring action in the presence of danger.
It is interesting to observe that, while the definition of bravery refers to fearlessness, courage is not defined by the absence of fear but rather the capacity of the courageous person to act steadily in its presence.
In her book, “Big Magic”, Liz Gilbert writes about fear and the creative process. She puts it beautifully but a more prosaic version of the advice has become a treasured tool in the equipment I use to cultivate courage in my life. Essentially, the advice is to accept that fear is going to be present along the road to any creative endeavour. You say to fear, ”I know you are here and that you will be coming on this trip with me but, please, take your seat at the back of the bus. You are not welcome to have any input to where this journey is headed and, under no circumstances, will you touch the steering wheel.“
I have some experience facing danger, trouble and pain. Try waking up blind and unable to move around independently. Try falling so heavily you literally crack your spine because you are left alone in an unfamiliar bathroom to do your business. Try putting yourself out there to rehabilitate into a job formerly reliant on seeing, reading and synthesizing complex information visually. Try travelling to new places where your ability to assess the terrain and the other occupants is almost nil. Try attempting to communicate with sassy teenagers when you can’t see their faces to determine whether they are joking when they say something outrageous.
Most days, I have done a pretty good job of keeping on keeping on, in spite of the fear that clouds the back of my mind and sets my stomach churning when I linger on the magnitude of the danger and trouble I face.
I have committed myself to all sorts of strategies that strengthen my mind (mindfulness meditation, prayer and working with a neuropsychologist) and my body (indoor cycling, personal training, rehabilitation with a physiotherapist, long walks with friends, yoga and pilates). I have curated the travelling companions who will be on that bus ride with me, so that I am surrounded by voices telling me useful, honest, authentic things that help me to believe in myself.
Because here is the trick: say it however you like, you must be physically fit, mentally strong, and have a good support crew to move forward steadily without giving into the fear of danger, pain and failure (which is sort of the same thing) that will be present on any challenging journey.
Either you prepare yourself to go hard, or you stay home, which is no fun at all. Much better to breathe deeply and take bold, fearless, daring action , laughing scornfully in the face of the danger that will always be there. Its eternal presence is the very reason we cultivate courage in the first place.
Remember that , while the definition of bravery refers to fearlessness, courage is not defined by the absence of fear but rather the wherewithal of the courageous person to act steadily in its presence.
Have you had to send fear to the back of the bus to take a courageous journey? What did you do to strengthen your mind, body and support crew? Please leave your comments below or just like what I have written (if you do).