“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” ~Maya Angelou
Last night I went for a walk in my favourite neighbourhood park, Henteleff Park, a long narrow strip of native grasslands and forest along the Red River. Just after entering the park, a movement at the edge of the woods caught my attention. I glanced over to see a dark animal, and because I could only see the top of its back and because I am mostly accustomed to seeing deer in that park, I thought it was an unusually dark deer.
I stepped off the path I was on and ducked through the trees to get a closer look and it was only then that I discovered that it was a bear. A BEAR! Within city limits! Just 5 minutes from my home! Just 20 feet from where I was walking!
Now, for many people, that would have been a rather terrifying discovery that would have sent them quickly back home. For me, though, it was quite exciting. I wanted more! Though I stepped back onto the path and didn’t go directly into the woods were I saw it disappear, I wandered the park for another half hour, hoping I might spot it again. I never did.
What occurred to me after wandering through the woods by myself (there are rarely other people in that park), slightly nervous but not overly concerned for my safety, is this…
Courage looks different for each of us.
After reading my story of bear-seeking, your thought might be “Wow! She is really courageous!” But the truth is, it didn’t take a lot of courage for me to keep walking in the park. I grew up wandering in the woods by myself, and I have always been a camper and hiker, so it didn’t feel like foreign territory for me. It felt familiar, with just a touch of adrenaline. Black bears are not particularly dangerous unless you provoke them.
You may never wander in the woods where you suspect a bear might be found, but there are probably things that you do quite naturally that would seem extremely courageous to me. Maybe you’ve grown up in a place where there are rattle snakes or tarantulas and they hardly phase you but would terrify me. Or maybe you’re way more comfortable wading into situations where there is conflict than I am. (I am admittedly rather conflict-averse.) Or maybe you’d go spelunking in a dark cave where I wouldn’t be caught dead. (Dark claustrophobic spaces are my version of hell.)
There are no universal yardsticks for courage.
There has been much hubbub lately about Caitlyn Jenner being awarded ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award after making her first public appearance as a woman. There is at least one meme floating around social media where her Vanity Fair cover photo is seen alongside a photo of soldiers in battle, suggesting that REAL courage can be found on the battlefield, not on the pages of a fashion magazine. Now, I’m not interested in arguing whether or not she was the right choice for the award, but I do want to say that it is a false construct to try to compare one version of courage with another.
What looks like courage for one person may not be courage for another person.
Sometimes, in fact, what we interpret as courage may in fact be the lesser of two evils for a person. A soldier, for example, may be on the battlefield because he is running away from something that really scares him at home. Gunfire may feel less risky than shame, rejection, or family conflict.
For some, it may take more courage to come out as transgendered or gay than it takes to join the army.
For others, the most courageous act might be to take a leap of faith and leave a job in a toxic workplace.
For still others, it might take years to work up the courage to speak their truth in front of people who disagree with them.
Courage is a very individual thing and nobody can define it in your life except you.
If you try to measure your courage on someone else’s yardstick, you will never learn to be true to your own life.
Only you can decide what courageous step you need to take in order to be true to yourself.
Don’t try to take someone else’s step – take your own.
And don’t sell yourself short when you take that courageous step. Celebrate it!
“Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.” – Saint Augustine
Since returning from my trip to Whidbey Island on Monday, I have been trying to come up with at least a few words to describe my time away. I haven’t been very successful, though. If you’re following me on social media, you might have noticed an uncharacteristic silence of late. It’s hard to say in 140 characters or less what I can’t even describe in a blog post or conversation. Some experiences are two deep for words.
It was one of those life-changing, heart-opening, paradigm-shifting trips.
I was on Whidbey Island for two purposes – a.) to work with a small circle of people on a new website for The Circle Way, and b.) to replenish myself and dive into my writing at Self as Source of the Story, a retreat facilitated by my mentor, Christina Baldwin.
Both of those experiences were dreams come true. I am working and learning and building things with my mentors and friends, and finding my way on the very path I first started dreaming about fifteen years ago. It’s been an incredible journey, learning to trust the nudgings and whispers along the way, gaining resilience in the hard parts, and trying to be patient in the slow parts.
If you’re hanging onto a dream that just won’t let you go, take heart – it may be slow in showing up, but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming. Keep your heart focused in the right direction, and life may some day surprise you with its abundance and grace.
The entire trip felt like a divinely-offered gift, and there are many parts of it that feel tender and fragile and that I need to hold close to my chest right now rather than share. Some day they will become part of my storytelling, but not yet – not until they are full grown and well processed and strong enough to stand on their own. (In a few months, you have permission to ask about the frog that showed up on my 49th birthday and the gold key that came to me in the labyrinth.)
The biggest lesson of the trip was this…
Authentic living is like scuba diving. Just when you get comfortable diving to a certain level, you’ll become curious about what the sea looks like further down and you won’t be able to rest until you get there. Soon you’ll be developing the lung capacity and looking for the equipment to take you deeper.
During Monday’s closing circle at the writing retreat, I said “I’ve been a writer long enough to know that every few years I’ll be invited into an even deeper understanding of and connection with my own voice. I just didn’t know how deep this week was going to take me.” This statement doesn’t only apply to writers – it applies to anyone on a personal/spiritual journey. We are always invited to go deeper.
I’d started the retreat with one goal in mind – to gain some clarity about the book I finished nearly three years ago. Some of you who’ve followed me for awhile know that I was working on a book about how the three weeks leading up to and including the birth and death of my son Matthew changed my life. I thought I was finished that book three years ago. I was in the process of editing it when my Mom was diagnosed with cancer.
Mom’s death changed the story. Not only did my grief make it difficult to re-enter the story of my short relationship with Matthew, it changed the very fabric of what I’d put on the page.
Several times since then, I’ve taken it off the virtual shelf and tried to revisit it, but there was always resistance. I didn’t know how to bring it to completion. I hadn’t found the right equipment or developed the lung capacity for the deeper dive.
By the time I got to the retreat, I was ready to simply put it away and allow it to be part of my own personal growth and never have it published. But I opened myself to the possibility that the story wasn’t finished yet. It wouldn’t leave me alone.
In the very first writing prompt at the retreat, I cracked the story open again. Instead of putting it onto the shelf, I was invited into a deeper understanding of it. A new voice showed up on the page. Or rather – an old voice showed up – an old voice that wanted to weave itself into mine. This old voice had always been there, but I hadn’t known how to tap into it before. It took the right container, the right intention, an open heart, and a few simple words from my mentor to crack it open.
That’s the lesson I want to leave with you today… Your personal work is never done. You will always be invited to go deeper.
I don’t know what your version of “deeper” will look like, but I know that if you create the right container, find the right circle of support, and let yourself be guided by the right mentor(s), you’ll be invited into deeper and deeper self-awareness and deeper and deeper trust in your own voice.
This deep diving doesn’t happen by accident, however, and it doesn’t happen at the fringes of our overly-busy lives. We have to be intentional about it, create space in our lives to invite it in, and seek out the people who will lovingly hold space for it. We have to seek out the equipment and do the practices that increase our spiritual lung capacity.
Throughout the week, I did the work to invite this deeper voice more fully into my life and work. I walked the labyrinth several times, I spent a day in silence, I had deep and personal conversations with like-minded people, I wandered the woods, I sat in circle and listened to other people’s stories, and I wrote pages and pages in my journal. I also shed a lot of tears and let some of my fears hold court until they felt adequately heard and were willing to let me move on.
Our deeper voices have to be tended well. They don’t show up by accident and they’ll go back into hiding if we don’t create space in our lives to foster them. They are easily swayed by fear and easily ignored by long to-do lists, unless we give them priority attention.
If you feel that you are being invited into the next layer of depth, be intentional about creating space for it.
- Go on a retreat that’s long enough for the work you need to do
- Spend an hour each day with your journal and your spiritual practices,
- Find a coach or mentor who will ask the right questions,
- Gather like-minded people into circle, and
- Guard the parts of the story that feel tender and fragile. (Only share those parts with your most trusted confidantes – people who can be trusted to help you nurture them.)
If you need some support, consider joining The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself (starts June 1st). Or sign up for one of the remaining spots in the Openhearted Writing Circle (online on June 6th). Or learn to Lead with Your Wild Heart. (Note: At this time, I am not accepting new coaching clients, but will open the door again in September.)
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.
What do you do when your city has been named the “most racist in Canada“?
Some people get defensive, pick holes in the article, and do everything to prove that the label is wrong.
Some people ignore it and go on living the same way they always have.
And some people say “This is not right. What can we do about it?”
When that story came out, some of us felt like we’d been punched in the gut. Though it’s no surprise to most of us that there’s racism here, this showed an even darker side to our city than many of us (especially those who, like me, sometimes forget to turn our gaze beyond our bubble of white privilege) had acknowledged. Insulting our city is like insulting our family. Nobody likes to hear how much ugliness exists in one’s family.
Note: I have been challenged to reflect on my language in the above paragraph. Originally it said “all of us felt like we’d been punched in the gut” and that is not an accurate reflection. Instead, some felt like it was a relief that these stories were finally coming out. I appreciate the challenge and will continue to reflect on how I can speak about this issue through a lens that allows all stories to be heard. That’s part of the reason I’m in this conversation – to look inside for the shadow of colonialism within so that I can step beyond that way of seeing the world and serve as a bridge-builder.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I began to wrestle with what it would mean for me to be a change-maker in my city. I emailed the mayor and offered to help host conversations, I sat in circle at the Indigenous Family Centre, I accepted the invitation of the drum, and I was cracked open by a sweat lodge.
I shared my interest in hosting conversations around racism on Facebook, and then I waited for the right opportunity to present itself. I tried to be as intentional as possible not to enter the conversation as a “colonizer who thinks she has the answer.” It didn’t take long for that to happen.
Rosanna Deerchild was one of the people quoted in the Macleans article, and her face made it to the front cover of the magazine. Unwillingly and unexpectedly, she became the poster child for racism. Being the wise and wonderful woman that she is, though, she chose to use that opportunity to make good things happen. She posted on her own Facebook page that she wanted to gather people together around the dinner table to have meaningful conversations about racism. A mutual friend connected me to her conversation, and I sent her a message offering to help facilitate the conversation. She took me up on it.
At the same time, a few other people jumped in and said “count me in too”. Clare MacKay from The Forks said “we’ll provide a space and an international feast”. Angela Chalmers and Sheryl Peters from As it Happened Productions said “we’d like to film the evening”.
With just one short meeting, less than a week before it was set to happen, the five of us planned an evening called “Race Relations and the Path Forward – A Dinner and Discussion with Rosanna Deerchild”. We started sending out invitations, and before long, we had a list of over 50 people who said “I want to be part of this”. Lots of other people said “I can’t make it, but will be with you in spirit.”
In the end, a beautifully diverse group of over 80 people gathered.
We started with a hearty meal, and then we moved into a World Cafe conversation process. In the beginning, everyone was invited to move around the room and sit at tables where they didn’t know the other people. Each table was covered with paper and there were coloured markers for doodling, taking notes, and writing their names.
Before the conversations began, I talked about the importance of listening and shared with them the four levels of listening from Leading from the Emerging Future.
the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows
- Factual listening:
the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas
- Empathic listening
: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances
- Generative listening
: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to “land” or manifest
“What we really want in this room,” I said, “is to move into generative listening. We want to engage in the kind of listening that invites new things to grow.”
photo credit: Greg Littlejohn
For the first round of conversation, everyone was invited to get to know each other by sharing who they were, where they were from, and what misconceptions people might have about them. (For example, I am a suburban white mom who drives a minivan, so people may be inclined to jump to certain conclusions about me based on that information.)
After about 15 minutes, I asked that one person remain at the table to serve as the “culture keeper” for that table, holding the memories of the earlier conversations and bringing them into the new conversation when appropriate. Everyone else at the table was asked to be “ambassadors”, bringing their ideas and stories to new tables.
For the second round of conversation, I invited people to share stories of racism in their communities and to talk about the challenges and opportunities that exist. After another 15 minutes, the culture keepers stayed at the tables and the ambassadors carried their ideas to another new table.
photo credit: Greg Littlejohn
In the third round of conversation, they were asked to begin to think of possibilities and ideas and to consider “what can we do right now about these challenges and opportunities?”
The one limitation of being the facilitator is that I couldn’t engage fully in the conversations. Instead, I floated around the room listening in where I could. This felt a little disappointing to me, as I would have liked to have immersed myself in the stories and ideas, but at the same time, circling the room gave me the sense that I was helping to hold the edges of the container, creating the space where rich conversation could happen.
After the conversation time had ended, the culture keepers were invited to the front of the room to share the essence of what they’d heard at their tables. Some talked about the need to start in the education system, ensuring that our youth are being accurately taught the Indigenous history of our country, others talked about how this needs to be a political issue and we need to insist that our politicians take these concerns seriously, and still others talked about how we each need to start small, building more one-on-one relationships with people from other cultures. One young woman shared her personal story of being bullied in school and how difficult it is to find a place where she is allowed to “just be herself”. Another woman shared about how hard she has had to work to be taken seriously as an educated Indigenous woman.
One of the people who shared mentioned that the Macleans article was a “gift wrapped in barbed wire”. Those of us in the room have chosen to unwrap the barbed wire to find the opportunities underneath.
Another person said that the golden rule is not enough and that it is based on a colonizers’ view of the world. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has to shift into the platinum rule, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” To illustrate his point, he talked about how Indigenous people go for job interviews and because they don’t look people in the eye and don’t have a firm handshake, people assume they don’t have confidence. “Understand their culture more deeply and you’ll understand more about how to treat them.”
As one person mentioned, “the problem is not in this room”, which was a challenge to us all to have conversations not only with the people who think like us, but with those who think differently. Real change will come when we influence those who hold racist views to see people of different nationalities as equals.
There were many other ideas shared, but my brain couldn’t hold them all at once. I will continue to process this and look back over the notes and flipcharts. And there will be more conversations to follow.
photo credit: Greg Littlejohn
After we’d heard from all of the tables, we all stood up from our tables and stepped into a circle. We have been well taught by our Indigenous wisdom-keepers that the circle is the strongest shape, and it seemed the right way to end the evening. Once in the circle, I passed around a stone with the word “courage” engraved on it. “I invite each of you to speak out loud one thing that you want to do with courage to help build more positive race relations in our city.” One by one, we held the stone and spoke our commitment into the circle.
We took the energy and ideas in the room and made it personal. Some of the ideas included “I’ll read more Indigenous authors.” “I’ll teach my children to respect people of all races.” “I’ll take political action.” “I’ll take more pride in my Indigenous identity.” “I will host more conversations like this.” “The next time I hear someone say ‘I’m not racist, but…’ I will challenge them.” “I’ll continue my work with Meet me at the Bell Tower.” “I will bring these ideas to my workplace.” “I will find reasons to spend time in other neighbourhood, outside my comfort zone.”
I didn’t realize until later, when I was looking at the photos taken by Greg Littlejohn, that we were standing under the flags of the world. And the lopsided circle looks a little more like a heart from the angle his photo was taken.
This is my Winnipeg. These eighty people who gathered (and all who supported us in spirit) are what I see when I look at this city. Yes there is racism here. Yes we have injustice to address. Yes we have hard work ahead of us to make sure these ideas don’t evaporate the minute we walk out of the room. AND we have a beautiful opportunity to transform our pain into something beautiful.
We have the will, we have the heart, we have a community of support, and we have the opportunity. A year from now, I hope that a different story will be told about our city.
Note: If you’re wondering “what next?”, I can’t say that for certain yet. I know that this will not be a one-time thing, but I’m not sure what will emerge from it yet. The organizers will be getting together to reflect and dream and plan. And in the meantime, I trust that each person who made a commitment to courage in that circle, will carry that courage into action.
Let’s see… what have I done this week? Well, I taught my regular writing class at university, I welcomed a professional storyteller into my class to do a short workshop (and took her to lunch because she fascinates me), I made arrangements for an upcoming retreat I’m hosting, I visited the retreat centre where the retreat will be held (photo above), I wrote a lesson for Lead with your Wild Heart, I did a coaching session with a new client and accepted her invitation to do a workshop with the staff of her yoga studio, I promoted my upcoming Creative Writing for Self Discovery class, and tomorrow I’m heading out of town for a couple of days with my daughters.
Wow. When I break it down like that, I suddenly realize that this… THIS is the life I dreamed of two and a half years ago when I started self-employment.
I suppose you could say I manifested my dreams.
But there’s another part to this story that I refuse to ignore.
On the way to my dreams… I had a LOT of moments when I worried whether I’d have enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills, I went through a really rocky period in my marriage, my father-in-law died, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she went through the horrors of chemo, and then I watched her die, I had some significant business failures, and my husband had a heart attack. (There’s more, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with the details.)
Would you say that I manifested that too?
The truth is, life is full of the yin and yang of happiness and sadness, darkness and light, dreams coming true and dreams crashing at our feet, love and betrayal, life and death, success and failure, grief and joy. It’s all part of the package and it all matters. You don’t get to choose one or the other – the yin or the yang.
No matter how hard you pray or meditate or think happy thoughts, you won’t be spared the heartache that is part of the package of your life. You don’t get the happiness without the sadness. And it you try to push past the sadness in favour of the happiness, you’ll miss one of the best teachers of your life.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t dream because it might not come true – not at all! I’m a BIG dreamer and I’ll keep dreaming until the day I die! I’m just saying that there are no guarantees, and sometimes your dreams will shift with your evolving life. It’s all part of the journey, and you need to develop your flexibility and resilience skills along with your dreaming skills.
The best you can do is to learn to ride the waves and be present in the journey rather than focusing only on the destination. Hold your seat lightly, reach for the tools that keep you from crashing too hard on the rocks, trust the other people in your boat, relax when the water is calm, prepare yourself for when the water is rough, and be present in the flow. And when you find yourself capsizing, poke your head above the water and swim for your life.
Whether you’re in the rapids or the calm waters, remember this – everything that comes your way is meant to be your teacher. If you forget that, and try to live only in the calm waters, your growth will be stunted and you won’t get anywhere. Just like the water needs to flow in order to stay fresh, you need to move through the rapids in order to thrive.
This week was good, but last week was hard. I don’t know what I’ll get next week, but I’m here, present, trusting that I have the courage and resilience to handle it. Through the ups and the downs, many of the things I’ve longed for are coming to me, but many of them have also been discarded along the journey. The best I can do is to keep my paddle in the water and keep rowing.
Three social scientists once conducted a series of experiments to determine which was more effective, “declarative” self-talk (I will fix it!) or “interrogative” self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in “sauce” to spell “cause”.) Before the participants tackled the problem, though, the researchers asked half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task. The other half of the group was instructed to tell themselves that they would complete the task.
In the end, the self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.
The researchers – Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, along with Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi – then enlisted a new group to try a variation with a twist of trickery: “We told participants that we were interested in people’s handwriting practices. With this pretense, participants were given a sheet of paper to write down 20 times one of the following word pairs: Will I, I will, I, or Will. Then they were asked to work on a series of 10 anagrams in the same way participants in Experiment One did.”
This experiment resulted in the same outcome as the first. People primed with “Will I” solved nearly twice as many anagrams as people in the other three groups. In follow-up experiments, the same pattern continued to hold. Those who approach a task with questioning self-talk did better than those who began with affirming self-talk.
I’ve been intrigued with this research ever since I heard about it a couple of years ago. Because of it, I often invite my coaching clients to create question mandalas rather than setting goals or developing strategic plans. Questions tend to release possibilities in us in ways that goals and declarations do not.
Lately I’ve been playing with this idea again in the area of courage. There are some areas in my life in which I know that I am still letting fear keep me small. I am conflict-averse, and so I shrink back and avoid challenging people when I know that it will make me feel uncomfortable. This has been cropping up in my teaching lately, where I’ve had to challenge some students for plagiarism and other unacceptable behaviours. I cringe any time I have to deal with these situations, and yet I know that I am not doing my students any favours by simply avoiding the tough conversations.
I also still deal with some fear around creating controversy in my work, or teaching things that people don’t like to hear or just don’t receive well. There’s a scared little child inside me who just wants to be liked, and I’m trying to coax her out of her hiding place into a bigger life.
In my effort to build my courage, I decided to use the question technique. Instead of telling myself “I WILL BE COURAGEOUS” each time something fearful shows up, I simply ask myself “Can I be courageous?” Usually the answer to that is “yes”. I carry enough courage stories with me that I can remind myself of times in the past when I’ve been courageous, so I know it can be done. Then, before I take any action, I sit with it a bit more and ask “what will happen if I am courageous?” and I play the scenario out in my mind. I play with the best that might happen and I play with the worst. Usually I realize that the worst is not as scary as I think it will be. If it still seems pretty scary though, I ask myself “can I live with the consequences of this action?” And again, usually the answer is “yes” because my story basket is full of reminders of the tough things that I have lived through in the past.
Almost every time I’ve done this little run-through in my mind, I’ve been able to step into the courageous act more boldly than I expected. In the past week, I’ve been in several of those uncomfortable situations, and each time, I’ve had more courage than I usually do.
And you know what? When I’ve had courage, shored up not by my resolve but by the stories in my story basket, people have almost always responded positively instead of defensively. The question approach not only gives me more courage, it gives me more grace in that courage. Resolve makes me more forceful, questions make me more open. People respond well to openness.
If you want to try the question approach to courage, here’s how to get started:
1. Fill your story basket with stories of courage. Take some quiet time with your journal and write down the stories that come to you when you ask yourself the question, “when have I had courage in the past?”
2. Fill your story basket with stories of resilience. Again in your journal, ask yourself, “when have I lived through difficult situations and survived and thrived?
3. The next time fear shows up, pause for a moment and ask yourself “Can I be courageous”? Reach back into your story basket and pull out the stories that remind you that you CAN.
4. Ask yourself the next question, “What will happen if I am courageous?” Run through the story each way – the best that can happen and the worst. (If you have the time, you may want to journal about this, but you can also run the scenarios in your head.)
5. When you’re sitting with the worst that can happen, ask yourself, “Can I live with the consequences of my actions?” Reach back into your story basket and find the stories of resilience that tell you that YES you can survive the worst.
6. Bonus question… Ask yourself, “Will I be happier if I am courageous or if I shrink from this in fear?” I think you already know the answer to this.