I am courageous. It’s not an easy thing to say because the word carries tremendous weight, especially when I think of those heroes who have risked their physical lives to save others. I have not done this precisely but I have climbed out on many a limb to rescue people hanging on the end. There are, after all, many dimensions to saving lives.
Since I left formal ministry in the midst of a serious recession to find a new life many people have remarked about how courageous I am. From my perspective all I’ve done is to honor my deeply-held value for personal honesty and integrity. I have done this most of my life, ever since I realized that I didn’t quite “fit into” society’s norms. Living as my own person must include reaching out to alleviate needless suffering by using my gifts of instinct, empathy, analysis, and counsel.
While growing up, television offered lots of examples of courage in films and adventure series. I liked the Lone Ranger and Tonto for being cool under pressure but the Rifleman was my ideal paradigm of courage. He was the truly courageous but reluctant hero who showed restraint until and if he was forced to use his considerable marksmanship to make peace or resolve conflict.
Bert Lahr played the quintessential paradigm of human courage under fire. As the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz his demeanor at first made me feel uncomfortable and uneasy. I eventually realized he was just being vulnerable about his fears. In the end, his badge of courage celebrated his true accomplishments of fortitude. Ironically it was the Wizard who showed the most cowardice.
So I’m kind of a combination of the Rifleman and the Cowardly Lion. I wouldn’t know how to throw a punch if I had to but I do rise to the occasion when necessary. My instinct kicks in when I need to marshal the strength I need to take risks that will enhance the lives of others.
I’m not sure where I got my courage, especially since in my head I have a lot of annoying fears. In my day both boys and girls did not often receive support to discover their personal courage. Both genders were, and still are, dealt nasty hands at the poker table of life.
Most boys need physical symbols and rituals to discover their limitless boundaries. They need appropriate challenges especially from men to complement the feminine energy they are usually receiving from mothers and teachers. In ancient civilizations boys would come of age through elaborate and risky rituals, often drawing blood, scarring, or worse. Today we need new rituals, a renewed call to heroism (starting with good manners), and a clear identification when children exhibit courageous behavior.
Looking back I realize how much my father instilled in me a quiet courage. I bonded with him at an early age. He used to call me Buddy, a name that is still precious to me. I could count on him to go to work and come home every day at the same time. There was always a jubilant moment when we heard my mother yell, Daddy’s home! (unless she had threatened to tell him about our bad behavior). He purchased next to nothing for himself and made every decision with my mother based on what was best for the family.
A few times he brought me to his workplace. He showed me the machinery he fixed, introduced me to the people with whom he worked, and enabled me to catch a glimpse of his otherwise hidden life. Despite my numerous questions he welcomed me to watch him as he worked in our basement, teaching me the names and uses of the tools in his big metal box.
As an adolescent our relationship seemed to unravel. I became withdrawn and introspective due to difficulties in school with peers. I liked to garden, watched the French Chef and British drama series, and didn’t enjoy sports. I felt something was wrong with me because I had no desire to date. I sensed then that he couldn’t figure me out and feared that I might be “queer.” He distanced himself from me. My uncle recently told me that my father thought I was “neuter.” That was the way he settled the matter to his satisfaction without having to confront me.
Throughout my years as a priest I went to bat for the unfortunate people struggling with life, codependence, and addictions. Many times I cut the red tape, intervened with bill collectors, and took personal interest in their plight, making whatever phone calls that might help them. I felt it was simply a part of my job.
When it came to matters such as the liturgy and the proper celebration of the sacraments I also went out on a limb. I refused to cave into momentary musical and ritual fashions for their own sake, either hyper-traditional or ultra-modern. Because I believed that the sacraments belonged to all the people and not just me, I would not ascribe to them whatever meaning I chose but tried to stay true to the meaning given them by the church community. I also fought against those who required more from people than the church required in order to celebrate the sacraments, get an annulment, or resolve a marital situation.
I think of my blog posts as exercises in courage. I think I show a lot of vulnerability in writing about stuff that most people keep private. My parents trained us kids never to reveal information that others could use against us. But long term I have little to hide. What most of the time we call scandal really isn’t and much of what we accept as normal can be truly scandalous! My personal journey might be of help to others and so I take the risk. I discovered long ago that when we attach shame to our experiences we diminish our human potential.
In the end words can only shine a light on the meaning of personal courage: simple, practical, steady, reliable, creative, competent, authentic, honest, focused, and compassionate. Only action can dissipate fear and embody personal courage. I am able to move forward with purpose, honesty, and integrity, and know in my heart that I am on the right track. This ultimately is courage for me. What is it for you?
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