Winter has finally arrived here in Flagstaff, Arizona and despite the nightmare traffic situation it produced, most of us are happy to see this much snow on our mountain high desert. There is a feeling of gratitude and relief; the moisture so desperately needed is here to nourish the land, ponderosa pines, wildlife, and our very souls. I’m watching the sun sparkle on fifty-plus inches of new fallen snow. The storm lasted for four days, and at times wild winds blew rapidly falling snow into blinding whiteouts. Even Olivia, my snow-loving pup, was not brave enough to go outside during those moments. The Flagstaff dry spell has lasted so long, that I almost forgot what big snow looks like: a marshmallow world made of diamonds! The sky is so blue it’s almost painful to look at. Everything is flocked in pure white glitter. Oh, the beauty!
After gazing at the beauty for a long while, I sat down to write. As I arrive at the letter “C” in my wellness alphabet, I hear the word “courage” loud and clear as the sky is blue. The root meaning of courage comes from the Lain word “cor” meaning heart. I think it takes a brave heart to be in biological form on planet Earth. Olivia and I would not have lasted too long if we had remained outside in the blizzard. For biological beings, danger lurks around every corner, from viruses to blizzards; immune disorders to natural disasters; accidents to insect bites and more. Our biological and psychological needs are quite complicated, and we are vulnerable, fallible, mortal.
There is a lot of maintenance to staying in biological form. The basics include breathable air, food, water, clothing, and shelter. Marshall Rosenberg reminds us that humans also have more existential needs including a need for respect, safety, compassion, and a feeling of connection to others. Marshall also taught that making meaningful contributions to others is our deepest need as humans. When we are declining in health, it takes courage to acknowledge limitations; to request and receive help. It is hard work to find peace when our only contribution is to receive. Marshall wrote a short song about this, entitled, Natural Giving that says it all.
After my first hospice care-giving experience with Wayne, my thoughts about giving and receiving, courage and contribution transformed. He was always a giver, a helper, but in his hospice time, he was courageous enough to graciously allow others to give to him. Since then, each time I have supported someone through a journey that concluded with hospice care and death, I see there is a constant companion in both patients and caregivers. That companion is courage.
Maya Angelou tells us that: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Virtues are generally about moral excellence. Aristotle gave us a list of twelve virtues including courage. I can see when exploring Aristotle’s list of virtues why Ms. Angelou would place courage in the most important position. Courage is the virtue that helps us to operate from confidence, rather than fear. Courage and confidence are needed to live well. These are needed even more when we decline in health or when we care for others who are in decline. We need courage and confidence to face mortality; our own and that of the ones we love.
Practicing courage does not mean we feel no fear. The list of things that humans fear is quite lengthy: failure and success; loss of a partner, friend, child, pet, or parent; succumbing to physical or mental disabilities; losing a job, a status, a home, a wallet. Humans fear lawyers, government, authorities, science, religion; angry people, sad people, sick people, aging people; people of a different culture or color, people in general. We fear flying, drowning, heights, small dark spaces, rodents, spiders, snakes, wasps, and alligators. We fear cancer, hospitals, doctors, dentists, needles; and interventions being worse than the cures. We fear being censored, shunned, or shamed; public speaking; confrontations of all kinds, hair loss, hearing loss, vision loss, weight loss (or gain), aging, frailty, and the ultimate unknown, death itself. Given that we humans seem to be hard wired for fearful behavior, I find it useful to consider what author, Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. suggests in her book, Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway. She teaches that stating our fears can be a powerful step toward healing and finding peace.
David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D. has stated that the primordial fear underlying all other fears is that of death. Most of us are wildly unprepared to know what happens at life’s end, and even talking about it in our culture is often difficult, if not impossible, a taboo. One way to explore the topic safely is an advance directive called Five Wishes created by the nonprofit, Aging with Dignity. This is a living will that clarifies what our wishes are in the event we are unable to speak for ourselves due to dire medical circumstances or at life’s end. It is legal in 43 states and helps us learn about end-of-life care options. Exploring, completing, or discussing the Five Wishes with others is an enormous act of courage. While some folks say they do not find it an easy task first, these actions always give way to feeling more educated, empowered, and confident about end-of-life choices.
Another great way to practice courage is to attend a Death Café. Founded in England, this international social franchise offers safe space to drink tea, eat delicious cakes, and discuss death for the purpose of living our finite lives more fully. The founder, Jon Underwood died suddenly in June of 2017 at the age of 44. His vision lives on to this day, and even though the pandemic has made challenges for getting together, there are virtual Death Cafés that people can join anywhere in the world. As a facilitator of Death Café, I am always amazed by the number of people who show up for this conversation. To date there have been 11,995 Death Cafés held in 75 countries. Attendees displays of courage are so inspiring!
As I pause in my writing to take in the sparkling snow and azure sky, it seems impossible to reconcile the finite reality of my own life. I feel the unbounded fullness of being alive today, inspired by the beauty, comforted by the warmth, a cup of tea, and the creative process. A fire is burning in our woodstove. Olivia and Teddy are snuggled in their beds nearby. My heart is humming with contentment. Never mind that writing holds its very own set of fears that are both common and irrational! “C” is for courage today because I am writing with reckless abandon from my heart. In general, I think it takes a courageous or brave heart enter into this world; to live life; to thrive in a world that is at once staggeringly beautiful and so full of danger that it appears to be a miracle that we are here at all!
In closing, here is an invitation from my heart to yours: Reflect on the ways you have faced and conquered personal fears. Take note of the ways you practice courage. Think about how the practice of courage might increase your contentment, your wellness, or enrich your life and the lives of others. Acknowledge, honor, or celebrate a loved one’s courage in some small way, then do the same for yourself! If you are feeling brave, please feel free to share about your acts of courage in the comment section below. Sharing courage strengthens us all and reminds us that we are not alone in life’s journey.