This has been a reoccurring theme this week, which usually means it needs to be addressed. I think it started when I was listening to Brene Brown. It came up again the next day listening to Tony Robbins, then yesterday during a conversation with an old friend, and again this morning hearing a heartfelt conversation between to older men. It revealed itself from two different angles: our tendency to neglect the story of ‘the other’ and the way in which we interpret our own.
Concerning the other, it is almost unavoidable to react to and judge others when they don’t act in accordance with what we deem normal, kind, and rational. I personally, take pretty much everything ‘personally’. Someone is short with me, I said something to annoy him. Someone is in a bad mood, I pissed her off. You didn’t respond to my text in a timely fashion…like in less than 3 minutes without an explanation, I will spend at least two of them wondering what I might have said to upset you. And this could be with anyone- the woman behind the register or a text exchange with my neighbor. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but not much.
The more probable and far less self-absorbed scenario is that someone’s mood, tone, word selection, and number of cigarettes smoked most likely has nothing to do with me. I can usually read people pretty well and am clearly sensitive to a fault. So it is the rare exception that I have pissed someone off or hurt someone without knowing it. Yes, it happens, but most often their actions or reactions have nothing to do with me.
They are simply playing out their story, their individual story that has been unfolding even before they were born. Stories that have layer upon layer of heartbreak, filled in with deep pockets of empty promises, and lined with scars of false truths and imposed inadequacies so entrenched they can no longer be seen. But they are felt, daily, until we numb them, intensify them, or expose them.
The latter is the only way to heal them. And the latter is what we seldom do.
Our story is also laced with all things beautiful, with moments of sheer bliss, of laughter and innocence, dreams and fearlessness, bold leaps and soft landings. Our first win, first true friend, first kiss, first love. These, too, define us. They steer our tendency to trust, our willingness to take risks, and our capacity to love.
But it seems to me that the amount of exposure we had to either end of the spectrum dictates in what direction we will go. For those of us who spent more time in the dark spaces, it is mostly our attempts to circumvent that darkness that determines our course. Operating from a place of fear, mistrust, and shame becomes our modus operandi.
We let our story define us instead of defining our story.
Owning the darkness of our story is terrifying. It means owning our crazy, our ugly, and our pain. No one wants to do this and few people do. Owning these necessitates exposing them…and this is not for the faint of heart. It means admitting we are weak, vulnerable, and yes, damaged.
But damaged, to me, is beautiful. It is truth. It is part of what makes us unique and cultivates our defining characteristics. It is courage manifest because it did not break us. It is inspiring because it transformed us… if we have the courage to transform it.
I can think of so many examples of the ways in which my friends and family, heroes and adversaries, have interpreted their stories. If I take the time to step out of my own interpretation and try to imagine why they are standing where they stand, it amazes me or it breaks my heart.
So herein lies the lesson or message or whatever you want to take away from this.
Our story is what shapes us, not what defines us. We instead, define our story.
Every milestone and every scar will always be there, but it is how we interpret them, how we use them, that empowers or enslaves. It’s the ‘I am’, right? If you interpret ‘damaged’ as fucked up, as your cross to bear, then you will most likely claim this as your worth. And this is what will command every aspect of your life.
If ‘damaged’ is your gift, you phoenix, then you transcend, and you rise.
I am slowly learning that my story is who I am, but more importantly, it is how I choose to live. I might not have been able to control how the first few chapters unfolded, but it is now mine to write. I can fixate on my scars and use them as a scapegoat. Or I can honor them as a testament to my courage and strength, and to that of others. I am the protagonist, after all. I have my dragon, but I also have my weapons, some wisdom, and my happy ending. Or not… my choice.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela
I was listening to the Tim Ferriss Show (which I cannot recommend highly enough) while he was interviewing Brene Brown, an extraordinary woman who was addressing what she believes courage to be.
It got me thinking about what courage really is, exactly, what its components are, why it seems to be inherent in some and so difficult for others, and why it seems to be inseparable from a life fully lived.
Think of your heroes or those whom you admire, for example. Did they get where they are because their lives were comfortable? Were there no obstacles that they had to overcome? Didn’t these obstacles build the strength, character, and courage needed to rise above them? My heroes definitely had to overcome obstacles. My heroes were fighters and warriors, audacious and unyielding. I admire them precisely because they had the courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges in their lives. They took risks. They followed their passion. They fought for it. They fell hard. And they got back up and they kicked ass. Our heroes are our heroes because they were courageous.
Brown realized that she was holding herself back. She was scared- of what people would think, of failing, of exposing herself, of admitting her weaknesses, of making herself vulnerable. For most of her life, she sat safely on the sidelines, looking down into the arena, waiting- waiting for her chance to fight the battle, to conquer what was staring at her from below. She did this until she couldn’t do it anymore. Her comfort was killing her soul. She wanted to immerse herself in her fear so she had no other choice but to conquer it. So she leaped. And she conquered. And she is often uncomfortable.
Most of you have heard this; it is not that the courageous don’t feel fear. They just decide that it is worth risking whatever it takes to overcome that fear. They can no longer endure watching from above, paralyzed by it, or worse, complacent and comfortable in it.
It is that first leap that is the hardest. What if you are defeated? What if you fail? What if people shun you, judge you, reject or hate you.
Chances are, they might. But if they do, does this mean you failed?
To the contrary, you did what only the brave decide to do. Most likely, they will respect you more. You took the risk. You refused to live vicariously through others or to live a life that is not authentic. Yes, they might shun you, judge you, or reject you at first. But those reactions are out of jealousy or their own fears. They don’t yet have the courage to do what you did.
But those who truly love you will celebrate your courage, even if it makes them uncomfortable. Most likely, you will inspire them to get out of their comfort zones, to live their lives instead of watching others live theirs.
So, which is worse? Trying and failing, or trying and actually living?
I think there is another important component to courage. Faith. Not blind faith or believing in something that was fed to you. Your truth. I think to have courage, you have to have absolute faith in yourself – your beliefs, your dreams, and your convictions- even when everything around you seems to contradict all of those. It takes courage to have faith, and it takes faith to have courage. Without faith and without courage, fear and doubt will decide your fate for you.
Andrew Sullivan summed it up in his article, The Madness of King Donald.
“Faith is a result, in the end, of living, of seeing your previous certainties crumble and be able to rebuild, shakily, on new grounds. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, and often inseparable from crippling, perpetual doubt. A life of faith is therefore not real unless it is riddled with despair.”
Basically, we have to let ourselves feel to the point that the pain is so great, the perpetual doubt so pervasive, that we have no other choice but to dig deep into the well, find our truth, and act- boldly, decisively, and courageously, even if we doubt our capacity, even if we are terrified of what will come next.
To bring this down a notch and apply it to our day-to-day, we have to do things that are uncomfortable to get where we want to be. From approaching our boss for a raise to running a marathon to leaving a relationship that no longer serves us. How can we achieve great things, experience great love, live the life that we want if we won’t take a risk and act? We won’t. It’s that simple. It’s scary as hell, but it’s that simple.
Sullivan quotes Polish dissident, Adam Michnik.
“In the life of every honorable man comes a difficult moment … when the simple statement that this is black and that is white requires paying a high price.”
The ones who take this difficult moment by the proverbial horns, rise above it. Because there, in the difficulty and discomfort, is opportunity. There, in that moment, is the chance to transcend this place that no longer serves us.
My suggestion? Jump into the fucking arena. Face you demon, get your ass kicked, fall to your knees. Then get back up, and you will rise above.
Or don’t. It is clearly your choice.
You can certainly stay sitting safely on the sidelines. It is much more comfortable there. That is what I hear, anyway.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Picture: Accessories. Artist: Ionut Caras. http://carasdesign.com/
The Madness of King Trump by Andrew Sullivan: Read more at: nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/02/andrew-sullivan-the-madness-of-king-donald.html
Link for podcasts: The Tim Ferriss Show: http://tim.blog/podcast/
Interview with Brene Brown: #207