Sunday, 19 May 2013

Courage: We can be heroes every day

One thing about the modern multi-media age is that it throws up instant heroes. People can do a heroic act in some part of the world and if it is caught on film or the person is filmed shortly afterwards within hours it can have gone viral and people all over the world soon get know of their heroic deed. Well such a thing happened last week.

I'm sure you heard about  Charles Ramsey?

He became famous by responding to screams he heard coming from a home in his neighbourhood. He thought it was a domestic dispute and broke into the home to free three women who were held captive there. The three women turned out to be Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. They had been missing for ten years and were presumed dead. They had in fact been held prisoner in the Cleveland home that Ramsey had rescued them from. Ramsey did not consider himself a hero and said he was only doing what any right minded citizen would do and certainly did not feel he ought to rewarded for his actions and any rewards ought to be given to the three women. Nevertheless he has become a modern day hero and has been held up to acclaim all over the world. He has become a modern day hero, if only for one day.

Heroes can be found in every single human tradition. They have existed ever since we began telling stories around the camp fire. Ancient Greek and Roman mythology spoke of Aneaus, Hercules, Odysseus and Theseus. The Hebrew Scriptures describe the heroic deeds of David, Joseph, Moses and Samson. Similar stories can be found in every culture. They describe heroic figures who stood up for righteousness and made a difference in their time and place.

The stories we tell today are full of heroic characters. We only need look at the recent remaking of the comic strip super heroes such as Spiderman, Batman, The X-Men, or Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dr Who, the Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These are modern day heroes, but they are no different in character to the heroes of ancient times.

The heroes of ancient times were endowed with great strength and were often descendants of the gods; while the modern day heroes tend to be superhuman mutations. Both the ancient and modern seem beyond the reach of mere mortals. Even momentary acts of heroism seem to be outside the scope of ordinary people. Charles Ramsay has become a modern day hero because he did something outside of the norm and also reacted to what he did in such a humble and almost startled way.

So is the song true, can we all be heroes just for one day?

I was recently chatting with my brother law. In the middle of the conversation my niece Aimee asked what the difference between heroism and courage was? Dave struggled to answer and I thought about it for a short while and then said something like “heroism is a single act a momentary thing that a person does on the spur of the moment without really thinking about the consequences, it is also something that is recognised by others. Where as courage seems a quiet consistent ordinary activity that almost goes unnoticed and is rarely glorified. It's about sticking at something despite the presence of real fear. As I see it courage is something that materialises in the ordinary.”

I recently came across the following, it speaks beautifully and powerfully to me about the everyday characteristics of courage:

 "The Art of facing Things" By Mark Nepo

"What people have forgotten is what every salmon knows.  Salmon have much to teach us about the art of facing things.  In swimming up waterfalls, these remarkable creatures seem to defy gravity.  It is an amazing thing to behold.  A closer look reveals a wisdom for all beings who want to thrive.

What the salmon somehow know, is how to turn their underside—from centre to tail—into the powerful current coming at them, which hits them squarely, and the impact then launches them out and further out and up the waterfall; to which their reaction is, again, to turn their underside back into the powerful current that, of course, again hits them squarely; and this successive impact launches them further out and up the waterfall.  Their leaning into what they face, bounces them further and further along their unlikely journey.

From a distance, it seems magical, as if these mighty fish are flying, conquering their element.  In actuality, they are deeply at one with their element, vibrantly and thoroughly engaged in a compelling dance of turning-toward-and-being-hit-squarely that moves them through water and air to the very source of their nature.

In terms useful to the life of the spirit, the salmon are constantly faithful in exposing their underside to the current coming at them.  Mysteriously, it is the physics of this courage that enables them to move through life, as they know it, so directly.  We can learn from this very active paradox; for we, too, must be as faithful to living in the open if we are to stay real in the face of our daily experience.  In order not to be swept away by what the day brings, we too, must find a way to lean into the forces that hit us so squarely.

The salmon offer us a way to face truth without shutting down.  They show us how leaning into our experience, though we don’t like the hit, moves us on.  Time and again, though we’d rather turn away, it is the impact of being revealed, through our willingness to be vulnerable; that enables us to experience both mystery and grace”

Courage in many ways is the essence of life, maybe it is our daily bread. Anais Nin once said “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” I think that there is something very powerful in these nine simple words. I’m sure we can all think of moments when our own lives have either expanded or shrunk in proportion to our courage. Courage itself comes from the French root “Cuer” meaning heart. To have courage is to have strength of heart. Courage is a consistent and sustaining love, it is a spiritual energy that sustains us in sickness and in health in loss or disappointment.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to the size and inclusiveness of our vision and our heart; life shrinks or expands in service of high and noble ideals that allows life to evolve to a higher plain. It is not just about risking everything and overcoming fear, that may well be bravery or even heroism, but I'm not sure it's courage. Many people risk and sacrifice their lives but not always in the service of love and life, they do so in a destructive way that is against life. Such people are fearless, but I’m not sure that they are courageous.

So how do we know if what we are doing is expanding or shrinking life?

Well during the 3rd century the theologian Origin came up with a two part test to determine whether a person was interpreting scripture rightly. I think that we can expand this same test and apply it to how we live our lives in 21st century Britain. Origin’s formula claims that our course of action must always meet two criteria it must be both useful to us and at the same time worthy of God.

This to me seems to be the essence of courage it must be useful to humanity and at the same time worthy of God. To have courage is to have strength of heart and to live from our hearts in our ordinary everyday activities.

Howard Thurman said the following on "Courage"

"There is a quiet courage that comes from an inner spring of confidence in the meaning and significance of life. Such courage is an underground river, flowing far beneath the shifting events of one's experience, keeping alive a thousand little springs of action. It has neither trumpets to announce it nor crowds to applaud; it is best seen in the lives of men and women who do their work from day to day without hurry and without fever. It is the patient waiting of the humble person whose integrity keeps his spirit sweet and his heart strong. Wherever one encounters it, a lift is given to life and vast reassurance invades the being. To walk with such a person in the daily round is to keep company with the angels"

Courage is a way of living and breathing it’s about living openly and vulnerably in the world. It is about bringing this attitude of Origin’s into life itself, it needs to be useful to us and worthy of God. We can bring this attitude into any situation, even the most difficult. It is not just present in the middle of a crisis when all is going wrong it is also there living and breathing as life returns to normal at the end of a crisis as we start to rebuild life when the storms have blown away. Courage comes in those ordinary acts of love as we walk slowly through life. It is courage that allows us to learn that even when life has betrayed us, love is still present. 

It is courage that allows us to stay open to life even when the storms are really blowing. It is courage that is formed in the heart; it is courage that is the ultimate act of faith; it is courage that keeps us open to life so that we can live in ways that are useful to everyone and worthy of God.

Yes we can all be heroes, we can perform heroic acts, we can all be heroes even if it is just for one day. Courage though is something more, something deeper, something that comes from the heart, from that place deep within each of is something that has to be useful to life and worthy of God.

I’d like to end this little chip of a blog with the following words on courage by J. Ruth Gendler.

“Courage has roots. She sleeps on a futon on the floor and lives close to the ground. Courage looks you straight in the eye. She is not impressed with power trippers, and she knows first aid. Courage is not afraid to weep, and she is not afraid to pray, even when she is not sure who she is praying to. When courage walks, it is clear that she has made the journey from loneliness to solitude. The people who told me she is stern were not lying; they just forgot to mention that she is also kind.”

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