I went to a Solstice women’s circle in December dedicated to the energy of silence and waiting, and the pause of the darkest time of year. As part of the process, I drew a card from a deck of question cards meant to stimulate reflection and intuition. It read: “What is the brave action?” As soon as I saw it I laughed. I turned to a friend sitting in the circle and said, “Didn’t I ask you this same question yesterday? Didn’t we just talk about this for hours?”
When I’ve thought about courage lately, I’ve thought about it not on the large scale, but in the context of the small and seemingly insignificant interactions and choices that make up the ordinary moments of my life.
For many years, I tried to push myself to be more brave. This worked up to a point. It slowly gave me access to experiences that I hadn’t had before. In many ways, it stretched my sense of what was possible, in myself and in the world. But the perspective this left me with was that courage was all in one direction, always in the direction of more exposure, always dictated by an external standard.
And in many ways this didn’t seem like a new perspective. How many times through my life had I pushed myself to do things that weren’t comfortable, that were kind of agonizing, without feeling that the experience helped stretch my capacity any further but actually made me retreat? What was the type of risk that would actually help me grow in the ways that I wanted?
There are infinite numbers of small personal risks any of us can take to change our perceptions of our limits, to change our patterns and ways of being in the world. How do we choose where good boundaries are for ourselves in any given moment? How do we listen to what we actually want and need? How do we know what the situation warrants? How do we listen to the truth within ourselves?
I’ve been involved a number of times in recent years with group experiences that culminate in an evening of celebration and performance, with participants invited to share their passions and talents. I’m blown away at these moments by the range and depth of people’s talents, at what people are willing to share, at the vulnerability and creativity I see.
I have also been envious at the risks people are willing to take in performing, and of the applause that comes to them afterwards. After an evening of listening to people sing and recite around a campfire last summer, I came home and told my husband that I wished I could be more brave, that I wished I could more easily let my voice be heard.
Part of his response surprised me, and I thought about it a lot afterwards: “I’ve spent decades singing in choirs,” he said, “where the point is for my voice to blend in and, in a way, disappear, to become part of a sound that is much bigger than myself.” There is a different courage, I recognized then, in sometimes stepping back, in quieting one’s ego, in contributing one’s voice to a collective experience. There are different ways to be seen and heard.
At the end of the summer, I came up against an opportunity for performance again, in front of a large group at the end of an intense week of immersive nature experience and group process. I was prepared – kind of. I had started experimenting with writing poetry that summer in part because I felt that I should have something to share in these moments. Despite what my husband had said, I felt that it was the inevitable next step.
And yet I hesitated. I was tired. I had worked hard in some new roles that week. I had taken other risks, risks that had stretched me in exhilarating ways.
As well, I had been posting my writing on the internet for more than a year, in an act that felt scary every time. Writing my small bits of poetry and prose and sharing them publicly felt like a good way to express myself. It felt, in that moment, like enough. Did I need to get up on the stage just because it was there? What did performing actually have to do with me?
I posed this question in that moment to a small group of friends. One replied, “What if I say, ‘I don’t think you should do it. It’s been a challenging week for you. You’ve pushed yourself in different ways this week. You feel great right now. You don’t need to make yourself do anything else. How would that feel to you?”
I laughed, as I felt that sink in: “That would feel exactly right. Thank you.”
So I sat back and watched the rich feast of talent and was satisfied with that choice in that moment. Honouring that limit in myself without judgement felt like I was listening to my own truth in a way that stretched, instead of constraining, my sense of who I was.
In the conversation about courage the day before the Solstice circle, I had asked my friend some of these questions, in a particular but also in a general way: “Is it braver to step forward and speak, to initiate, to take action; or to step back, to know that I don’t have to control everything, to set quiet intentions, to wait and trust that things will play themselves out as they need to?”
In response, she told me a story, one that I have been thinking about a lot since. It was a story of her own experience of swimming on a lake towards a high ledge, a popular jumping-off point, with the clear goal of taking a big risk. In this story, she climbs up to the top of the ledge, trying to push herself to jump off, then thinks “why am I doing this?” climbs down and swims away.
“Ah!” I think, when she tells me, “that’s a good analogy.” I think I know where it is going.
But then comes another turn. She starts to swim away, thinks again, “No, this isn’t it either,” swims back and finds the smallest rock she can find. And jumps off that. Then the next rock, then the next one, then the next, until she is ready to take the big leap.
Which is a pretty great series of metaphors, I think, for all of the different ways that it’s possible to approach risk.
I think back on one of the biggest personal risks of my life: getting married in my early twenties. This felt very much to me at the time like taking a giant leap off a rocky ledge in the dark, in a way that I found impossible to articulate in the midst of the popular discourses of risk around me, which were very different from that one. I could have taken smaller jumps off smaller rocks, as people often do in their personal relationships, but I didn’t. Choosing to have children felt like the same kind of risk. I found it hard to find the right words for the risk of commitment until a friend spoke about her own marriage – albeit at a later age – as an experiment in “radical hope” in the face of cynicism, and I thought “Yes, that is exactly it.” Radical hope is what I want in my life.
Yet, the giant leap is not always the best choice. So often, those small jumps that test the water will better get us where we ultimately want to go without terrifying us into paralysis or retreat. And sometimes swimming away is exactly what we need to do.
As my rock-jumping friend also reminds me: “Timing is everything.”
As someone who seems to slide around a lot on the continuum between introvert and extrovert, I wonder if these are the challenges my introverted self poses to my extroverted self and to the larger extroverted world: “Can you sometimes take the risk of stepping back? Of watching and listening and waiting? Of not being seen? Can you continue to know that you are still contributing? That you are still loved? That you still exist?”
I am finding it useful to experiment with this continuum, in many different parts in my life. To sometimes lean forward and other times lean back. To sometimes speak and sometimes listen without speaking. And, above all, to recognize that it is all an experiment.
When I perceive opportunities for my own growth as acts of play, of creativity, of experimentation – instead of intensely imposed mandates for character-building and self-improvement – I awaken my curiosity instead of my resistance. I am less attached to the outcome of my actions. I keep my sense of humour, whilst accepting the full range of my other more intense or tender emotions. I am drawn to try new things, small things, so I can know what will happen next. To find out how the story will unfold. Or sometimes I choose instead to watch and listen and wait.
As I listen in each moment to what I need, I am reminded that it’s not ever possible to know what is a big risk or small risk – or what is a brave action – for someone else.