We are besieged with messages about who we should be. In this excerpt from her recent book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown examines the drive for perfection and considers what truly connects us to the self we want to be.
Practicing courage, compassion, and connection in our daily lives is how we cultivate worthiness. The key work is practice. Mary Daly, a theologian, writes, "Courage is like-it's a habitus, a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts. It's like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging."
The root of the word courage is cor-the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant "To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." Over time, this definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we've lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we're feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today's world, that's pretty extraordinary.
When we pay attention, we see courage every day. I see it in my classroom when a student raises her hand and says, "I'm completely lost. I have no idea what you're talking about." Do you know how incredibly brave it is to say "I don't know" when you're pretty sure everyone around you gets it? Of course, in my twelve-plus years of teaching, I know that if one person can find the courage to say, "You've lost me," there are probably at least ten more students who feel the exact same way. They may not take the risk, but they certainly benefit from that one person's courage.
I saw courage in my daughter, Ellen, when she called me from a slumber party at 10:30 p.m. and said, "Mom, can you come get me?" When I picked her up, she got in the car and said, "I'm sorry. I just wasn't brave enough. I got homesick. It was so hard. Everyone was asleep, and I had to walk to Libby's mom's bedroom and wake her up."
I pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, and walked around to the backseat where Ellen was sitting. I scooted her over and sat next to her. I said, "Ellen, I think asking for what you need is one of the bravest things that you'll ever do. I suffered through a couple of really miserable sleepovers and slumber parties because I was too afraid to ask to go home. I'm proud of you."
The next morning during breakfast, Ellen said, "I thought about what you said. Can I be brave again and ask for something else?" I smiled. "I have another slumber party next weekend. Would you be willing to pick me up at bedtime? I'm just not ready." That's courage. The kind we could all use more of.
I also see courage in myself when I'm willing to risk being vulnerable and disappointed. For many years, if I really wanted something to happen-an invitation to speak at a special conference, a promotion, a radio interview-I pretended that it didn't matter that much. If a friend or colleague would ask, "Are you excited about that television interview?" I'd shrug it off and say, "I'm not sure. It's not that big of a deal." Of course, in reality, I was praying that it would happen.
It's only in the last few years that I've learned that playing down the exciting stuff doesn't' take the pain away when it doesn't happen. It also creates a lot of isolation. Once you've diminished the importance of something, your friends are not likely to call and say, "I'm sorry that didn't work out. I know you were excited about it."
Now when someone asks me about the potential opportunity that I'm excited about, I'm more likely to practice courage and say, "I'm so excited about the possibility. I'm trying to stay realistic, but I really hope it happens." When things haven't panned out, it's been comforting to be able to call a supportive friend and say, "Remember that event I told you about? It's not going to happen, and I'm so bummed."
I recently saw another example of ordinary courage at my son Charlie's preschool. Parents were invited to a holiday music presentation put on by the kids. You know the scene-twenty-five children singing with fifty-plus parents, grandparents, and siblings in the audience wielding thirty-nine video cameras. The parents were holding up cameras in the air and randomly snapping pictures while they scrambled to make sure that their kids knew they were there and on time.
In addition to all the commotion in the audience, one three-year-old girl, who was new to the class, cried her way through the entire performance because she couldn't see her mom from the makeshift stage. As it turns out, her mother was stuck in traffic and missed the performance. By the time her mother arrived, I was knelling by the classroom door telling Charlie good-bye. From my low vantage point, I watched the girl's mother burst through the door and immediately start scanning the room to find her daughter. Just as I was getting ready to stand up and point her toward the back of the classroom where a teacher was holding her daughter, another mother walked by us, looked straight at this stressed mom, shook her head, and rolled her eyes.
I stood up, took a deep breath, and tried to reason with the part of me that wanted to chase after the better-than-you eye-rolling mom and kick her perfectly punctual ass. Just then two more moms walked up to this now tearful mother and smiled. One of the mothers put her hand on top of the woman's shoulder and said, "We've all been there. I missed the last one. I wasn't just late. I completely forgot." I watched as the woman's face softened, and she wiped away a tear. The second woman looked at her and said, "My son was the only one who wasn't wearing pajamas on PJ Day-he still tells me it was the most rotten day ever. It will be okay. We are all in the same boat."
By the time this mother made it to the back of the room where the teacher was still comforting her daughter, she looked calm. Something that I'm sure came in handy when her daughter lunged for her from about six feet away. The moms who stopped and shared their stories of imperfection and vulnerability were practicing courage. They took the time to stop and say, "Here's my story. You're not alone." They didn't have to stop and share; they could have easily joined the perfect-parent parade and marched right by her.
As these stories illustrate, courage has a ripple effect. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little braver. And our world could stand to be a little kinder and braver.