Posts Tagged ‘personal courage’

Always Ask the Question

December 1, 2015

Awhile back, I was talking with someone about entrepreneurship and building a business and they shared with me a story about someone who managed to get her product into a big catalogue simply by asking the owner if they might consider offering it amongst their other merchandise. The takeaway from this interview was, “Don’t hold back, always ask the question.” There are so many questions we don’t ask, either of ourselves or of others.


Questions are dangerous things because once asked, they hang there waiting for an answer. And sometimes answers, if given honestly, may present us with clarity we’d just as soon not have. As re-booters, it is these inconvenient answers that are so important to our reinvention process. “Am I ready for this? Can I take it on? Am I brave enough to try?” If we can’t see ourselves or our situation clearly and honestly, we’re just spinning our wheels. The enlightenment, the ah-ha moment, that can follow from a surprise, scary answer can change the course of our lives (or at least our thinking).


Recently, I was talking to a fellow about a serious decision he is preparing to make in his relationship. “I don’t want to be the bad guy,” he confessed, agonizing over when to pull the relationship rip cord. We went round and round about this for awhile and then I finally asked him, “Well, what if you are the ‘bad guy’*? Is that something you can’t live with? What would it mean if you were (or at least that is how others might perceive you)?” As the reader of this post, you may substitute any condition/status/interest/opinion. Perhaps, deep down, you are (gasp!): gay, fascinated by serial killers, talk too much, drawn to some weird religion, into D/s, Democrat, Republican, still play Dungeons and Dragons, hate being a caretaker, love reality tv. Or maybe we need to be willing to ask ourself whether the person we’re dealing with is who they present themselves to be? What if my confident, opinionated husband actually has no direction or ambition at all? What if my boss isn’t the loyal stalwart they claim to be? Am I willing to acknowledge this as a possibility? It’s not that you have to tell anyone else, but at least tell yourself. The point is to explore whatever it is we shudder to admit about ourselves and be honest about the answer. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else, can it really be that bad?


For me, admitting that I wanted to be a writer was a really big deal. Even saying it out loud, today, feels scary–especially in a place like Washington where everyone has ambitions and where there are “real” writers who publish real books and make real money. Saying that I am a writer may not be as scary as admitting I might be a Republican or like to watch reality tv (and I’m not admitting to either, fyi), but so what if I were? Absent a few roles where you’re harming other people, surely our ego can withstand the possibility that yeah, in this particular instance, we are selfish or indecisive or have engaged in some behavior that would put us in a less than an ideal and flattering light. This is true of us all!


Is it the end of the world? No!


What the act of articulating such answers does is free us up to live our lives from a more authentic place. Heck, we may even summon the courage to stop fighting this part of ourselves. Maybe you have no ambition and are ok with living your life in a drift-less state. Articulating and admitting such an answer to yourself may help answer why you feel so stressed all the time when your spouse asks you what have you accomplished. (Whether or not your achievement oriented spouse can continue to live with you is a different matter.)


I know so many people who haven’t been willing to ask themselves the important questions: what do I want? What sort of person am I really? How does this support or conflict with my image of who I am? Is what I’m doing, is the direction I’m currently heading the one that truly suits me? And we have to be brave enough to listen to the (sometimes terrifying) answers that burble up. But then, we have to summon another dose of courage and ask ourselves—if we are displeased or unsettled by the answers we receive—if I am this way, is that really so bad? Why do I fear this?


Whoa, Nelly, these are some big ass questions. The answers may throw you…but they also might open new worlds of possibility.


So, circling back to the top of the post, there’s our successful entrepreneur encouraging us to always ask the question. Here I am encouraging you to truly listen to the answer. Whatever it is, it can’t be so bad. It just can’t. You’re you, you’re fine as you are. You can handle it…


* Note: for purposes of this post, I am not saying that this person’s characterization of themselves as being the “bad guy” is even correct. Maybe they’re not the bad guy at all, but they’re doing something hard but necessary. What’s important for purposes of this example is how they perceive it.


Curiosity Enlivens the Cat

October 3, 2013

In my observation, most adults are incurious. Largely speaking, I’ve concluded that the vast majority of people simply put one foot in front of another, doing the things they’ve always done, thinking the things they’ve always thought. They live by a formula and seldom risk the danger that accompanies asking themselves questions such as, “Why am I doing this? What is the point? Does this make sense? Who am I, right now, today? What is it that I want?” It takes a great deal of personal courage to ask oneself such questions because the answers, often times, won’t fit neatly into our current lives.

Probably the quality that identifies a re-booter more than anything else is the courage to ask such dangerous questions. Re-booters are a curious group; not only because there are so few of us, but because we are not cowed by the threatening potential of the answers we may uncover. We may dislike the answers—they may be supremely inconvenient; we may decide not to act on them, but we know the answers exist. Because we’re willing to ask the questions.

How many people do you know who are inquisitive like this? By my bet, it’s not too many. I know an astounding number of educated and successful people, engaged in busy lives, but who have no curiosity about their place in the world or the people around them. Despite being experts in their particular field, able to research and absorb enormous amounts of data, these individuals have zero interest in examining why their lives are the way they are. These are not social misfits; these are our neighbors, our relatives, our coworkers and classmates. These are people who paddle their way along the social stream, but not once do they look up to see where they’re going or why. They just…go. It would never occur to them to wonder.

Because I am so much the opposite, I am repeatedly surprised by others’ apparent comfort with their status quo. People fascinate and confound me, simultaneously; I want to learn from their example and watch how they evolve—if they evolve at all. I’m a monkey who likes a good nut to crack. The folks I’m referring to in this post leave the nuts lying all over the ground—they don’t even see them! They eat their bananas with no thought to searching for alternative sources of nutrition. Does what I’m saying make any sense at all?

My theory is that these folks prefer not to think about such possibilities because, underneath it all, they fear they won’t be able to handle what might follow. Instead, they down shift their lives into cruise control and never question whether there might be more out there and available, if only they were curious enough to wonder. I have more faith in them than they do in themselves. Re-booters understand that people are stronger than they believe. We’ve handled uncertainty and survived disappointment—this knowledge gives us the ability to enter that fiery den of personal change. We’re curious to discover how far we can actually go in this new direction. Do you see how marvelous and life affirming this is? It’s wonderful!

But back to curiosity. When coaching ourselves along such probing lines, we need to remember to search for the next right answer, and the one after that. A keen observer doesn’t stop at the first obvious solution; a keen observer probes further, seeking additional explanations and insights so as to more fully grasp the thorny situation at hand. All too often, folks stop as soon as they find an answer that fits their parameters, but true insight comes only after additional, careful study. Think of all those Agatha Christie novels where there was more than one motivated suspect to do the killing. The same goes for following the thread of your own life. You are where you find yourself for more than the obvious first right answer. Keep going! You can handle it.

The Power of Personal Courage

August 22, 2013

The recent near-tragedy at the Georgia charter school, McNair Learning Academy, was averted by a front-office school employee who wasn’t supposed to work that day. As reflected in the recorded 911 call, Antoinette Tuff displayed awe inspiring calm and compassion as she spoke to the 20 year old, mentally ill gunman, repeatedly calling him back into the room with her so he wouldn’t go into the school hallway and start shooting. In a subsequent interview with tv station WSBTV, Tuff told the reporter that she watched the gunman load his gun in front of her, realizing that what was happening was, “bigger than me. I started praying for him [the gunman].” She said that as this crisis was unfolding, she knew that, “800 babies and staff members depended on me to keep their lives safe.”


The composure with which Ms. Tuff speaks during the recorded call and the tv interview were only punctuated at the end by confessions of how scared she felt at the time. Her courage, compassion, and empathy is a crystalline example of what I hope I’d be able to do if confronted by a similar situation.


It’s hard to imagine an instance more dramatic than the conditions under which Ms. Tuff so superbly performed. She put aside all fear for her personal safety and, repeatedly, called the gunman back to her. “[This situation] was bigger than me. I started praying for him.” The fact that this brave woman could summon a concern bigger than her own survival and, simultaneously, find compassion for her would-be executor stuns me. “I gave it all to God,” she explained, somehow summoning the right words, manner, and tone of voice that connected with the gunman so effectively that he put down his weapons and lay down on the floor willing to surrender to the police. Antoinette Tuff wasn’t supposed to work at the PreK-5 school that day, and the front office desk she was sitting at wasn’t even hers.


Hopefully, none of us will ever be confronted with a situation so awful, but there are elements of what Ms. Tuff demonstrated that we can use for inspiration in our own lives and daily struggles—personal courage and the ability to put the big picture ahead of our individual concerns is something for each one of us to consider.


Towards the end of Spiderman 2, Tobey Maguire and James Franco’s characters face one another in their dual capacities as friends and enemies. Frantic to find Mary Jane Watson, Spiderman asks Harry Osborn where Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) has taken her. Reluctant to help Spiderman in any way, Harry accuses Spiderman of killing his father, to which Spiderman replies, “There are bigger things happening here than me and you.” Harry relents and gives Spidey the clues he needs to rescue Mary Jane from the evil and crazy Doc Ock. This is my favorite line in the movie.


It may seem strange that I would choose to pair the very serious, real life heroism of Antoinette Tuff with a scene out of a Marvel Comics’ inspired film, but as regular readers of this blog should know, I am a firm believer in the power of fiction to convey the biggest truths of human nature. Both examples discussed here are larger than the lives we lead—but that was true, too, for Antoinette Tuff until two days ago. The challenge is how do we learn from and apply examples and lessons presented in scenarios way more extreme and seemingly dramatic than those we must face throughout our lives?


Personal courage is a choice. Seeing the big picture and acting on it is a deliberate act of will. What is the big picture in your life? Is it remaining in a difficult relationship or job until your kids graduate and can fend for themselves? Is it turning down a promotion so you can remain closer to home in order to care for aging relatives? Is it taking the risk and inevitable backlash that accompanies most whistleblowers? Is it sacrificing your personal dream to meet a higher objective? Perhaps it’s extending yourself just one more time to give that person who’s disappointed or harmed you the reassurance or forgiveness they seek. There were no guarantees that Antoinette Tuff would live to see the next hour, but she repeatedly called the gunman back to her. As much as Harry Osborn wanted revenge on Spidey, he revealed where Mary Jane was hidden so she could be rescued. These are just two powerful examples of setting aside personal concerns for a more important cause.


Anonymous examples of this sort of courage surround us, but we need to watch for them, acknowledge them, and appreciate those brave enough to try because this will help us when the time comes for us to make our choice. 

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