“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” Maya Angelou
Somehow in my thirties I became aware of how much of my life had been occupied and driven by fear and anxiety and I wanted that to change. A noticed a conversation about fear was rising to a public sphere (i.e. shows on Oprah). People who had been victims of violent crimes were often saying they had ignored their ‘instincts’ about a person or circumstance to their detriment. Similarly, others were describing moments when trusting their ‘instincts’ saved them from harm. Ultimately, the value of trusting one’s ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’ was increasing. As well, I came to see that that the way I approached God, Jesus and Christianity had hindered the very growth I longed for and expected from “being a Christian”. I was coming to see that I had been racked with fear my whole life, but just ignored it. Despite seeing myself as ‘emotionally intelligent’ and on the sensitive, artistic side of the spectrum, the fear was too scary to face. So, I spent a season intentionally asking people I admire about courage.
A number of people I knew appeared to have much more courage than I. I wanted to learn from them. When asked about courage, their responses were strangely ambiguous and similar – they didn’t really know where their courage came from or how to increase it. The dozen or so I asked whom I consider confident, successful, and courageous typically fumbled around answers which typically alluded to growing up and childhood and their fathers. At first, I was disappointed not to receive any particular insight. In fact, I briefly felt even less courageous, left with the possibility that one’s measure of courage is imbued in utero. Then I began to see it differently.
Courage is often described as the ability to act in spite of fear, not the absence of fear. Maya Angelou points to courage as the chief of virtues, noting that it takes courage to be virtuous; to be patient, diligent, charitable, and humble. Courage, however, is not something we feel. The feeling which accompanies courage is paradoxical: it is fear. By definition, courage is required only when we feel enough fear that we may not act virtuously, but rather in response to our fear. We “fight” or “flight”. Ironically, what we are repeatedly told is “don’t be afraid”. Telling someone to “not be afraid” is akin to telling them “don’t feel what you’re feeling”. Not exactly good advice.
Jesus repeatedly says, “Don’t be afraid,” throughout the Gospels. I think many people, myself included, have unknowingly operated on the unconscious conclusion that Jesus, in fact, saying, “Don’t feel what you are feeling”. We are brought up hearing these words and subtly receive the message that faithfulness requires being highly skeptical of our instincts and feelings, and like victims of violent crimes, we wonder if we could have avoided pain and injuries if we had only acted on our instincts, or simply paid more attention to our fear.
This dynamic can become acute and hurtful in communities. Rather than feel our fear, we fend it off with ‘beliefs’ – “I have nothing to fear because God will take care of me, God knows me, God loves me, ‘Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,’ ‘You are more than enough for me,’” etc. We rely on faith and community and God to shield us from the trauma of living in a world full of danger and violence. We invest heavily in creating a ‘safe place’ and end up with an illusion of safety by welcoming only those who are like us, those who comfort us, and avoid (even resent) conversations which cause us anxiety. People who join churches expect this because churches advertise it: “Join our [fill in the blank; caring, compassionate, courageous] community”. In other words, if I join this community, I will feel cared for and less afraid.” Furthermore, when a person or idea even indirectly suggests a different way of thinking or being, we are apt to want to lash out to protect what is so fragile – the accumulated and unprocessed feelings we have been shielded from actually acknowledging. We also have to give up the dream, that God/Jesus/church will meet my needs. Unfortunately, in the process, we never gain the ability to actually feel our fear and consequently gain the very courage we long for.
There is an alternative. The opportunity is to become increasingly aware of our fears – of rejection, of failure, and of growing older. In this way, our communities can consist of people who help us acknowledge, feel, and face our fears. A community like this hesitates to describe itself as ‘courageous’ (or friendly, caring, and inclusive) and instead dreams and works toward becoming a “courageous community”. In this way, Jesus, in saying, “Don’t be afraid,” is not telling us to shut down emotionally and get courageous, but is alerting us of our fear and our propensity to avoid discomfort at all costs.
Facing fears together is difficult and uncomfortable, but necessary. When we feel uncertain, we are confronted by uncomfortable questions: Am I still safe? Does anyone see what I need? Will I get what I need…ever? In short, what is revealed are our ‘attachments”, things and people and ways of being we have called upon to ease the discomfort of living. The benefit, however, the good news, is clear. We become more courageous.