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Posts Tagged ‘courage’

On Tuesday night Jonathan Carroll had a quotation on his Facebook that resonated with me:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

There are different kinds of events that call for courage. There is the desire to make change, of course, which I’ve talked about a fair amount in the past. There is the question of how we face and handle adversity. There is the desire to try something new. And there is the willingness to go back and do the same scary thing again and again, even if it doesn’t get all that much easier.

I think when we choose to be artists–whatever that means to you–we are, in a sense, choosing to face fear again and again. There might be times when we aren’t seeking change, when we’ve got the adversity of life under control, when we’re living in a comfortable groove of existence. But if we’re actively working as artists, we’re constantly pushing, striving, experimenting, and revealing ourselves to others.

I can see it getting easier with time and practice, but I can’t imagine it ever being easy.

I have three main projects I’m working on right now: I’m querying my completed novel to agents, I’m in the middle of writing a novel rough draft, and I’m planning a future project that involves experimental elements. Each of these projects involve artistic courage.

-Querying puts me straight in the path of the rejection of my work, and while most of the time I shrug it off fairly easily, occasionally a rejection will sting.

-The rough draft is not coming together like I’d hoped it would, so writing it has become quite the struggle. I also deliberately chose to work on a concept that I knew depended on a writing ability in which I lack confidence and feel fairly weak.

-The new project is something new and experimental, and I’m not sure if I’m going to do it yet. But if I do, I’ll be trying all kinds of new things, and because of this, the entire project has a higher likelihood than many of tanking. It takes courage even to consider doing it.

reaching for origami cranes

Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

And then there’s the drive as an artist to go deeper, to explore dark corners, to shine a light on truths that are hard and uncomfortable and scary. There is the call to show vulnerability in our work. All of this requires so much courage.

So I would say not only do our own lives expand or contract in relation to the courage we can bring to bear, but our artistic work does the same.

What do you have the courage to see? What do you have the courage to feel? What do you have the courage to communicate?

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This summer I went to a workshop about dealing with fear, and I left it feeling disappointed. The teachers didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already known. They kept using examples that either weren’t really about fear or that were about being afraid of public speaking. So it wasn’t a talk geared for me.

Apparently fear of public speaking is the second most common fear in the United States. But to me, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I get nervous ahead of time, and I over-prepare, and I don’t always do a good job with it. But it’s so much better than having to sing operatic arias in a foreign language I don’t actually speak that contain high notes I can’t actually hit from memory and then have my performance critiqued in front of a group of fellow singers. That’s what I spent my college years doing. Which was still better than actual auditions.

So one way to manage fear is to do something a lot harder, and then easier things might not seem so bad. Another way is to do whatever you’re afraid to do A LOT. So basically you’re practicing your way out of fear.

But really I was disappointed in the talk because there is no easy answer. Whether you’re afraid of speaking in public or dying, uncertainty or being treated poorly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And I wish there was. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion. It can both hold us back and make things a lot more miserable even as we trudge forward. It can warp the nature of reality itself, making things that might be true seem like they are actually true. And it can make us physically ill in a variety of ways.

I have spent a lot of time being afraid. And ultimately it’s always the same thing that pushes me through.

Belief.

I remember once as a student, I was walking towards the music building where I had an audition. I think I was sick (I was almost always sick), and I already knew I wasn’t going to get the part. I thought to myself, Why are you even bothering? Why don’t you just go home? Why are you doing this to yourself?

But the answer was clear. I had decided to do this. I believed this was what I should be doing, even though I felt awful and I was really nervous and I knew I wouldn’t get the part. I had a vision of what I wanted my life to be, and this crappy audition experience was a part of that. So I went, and I did the audition, and I didn’t get the part, and I moved on.

Belief is still what gets me through fear. I fix my eyes on my idea of the future, and I clench my jaw, and I do what needs to be done to give myself a chance of getting there. The fear is still there, making things harder, making me pause and ask myself why I am putting myself through such difficulty. But I believe in my vision, and I hold onto that belief as if my life depends on it.

So I guess if I were to give a workshop on overcoming fear, I’d explore how to create a vision strong enough to withstand whatever fear can throw at us. I’d look for some exercises to promote self esteem, because in order to believe in a vision, I think we also have to believe in ourselves. And I’d talk about how to take care of ourselves and handle rejection and disappointment and failure and other obstacles in a resilient way that allows us to keep moving forward.

How do you overcome fear?

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I really like the metaphor of the phoenix for transformation.

I remember learning about metamorphosis in grade school, and being excited I could remember how to spell it. (I had a happy gift for spelling.) The caterpillar stuffs its little self as full as can be, and then it spins a warm, comfy cocoon. I imagined it sleeping inside, engaged in curious caterpillar dreams, until one day it would wake up and break free, transformed. It sounded so easy.

That’s why I like the phoenix. The phoenix doesn’t have it easy at all. When it’s time for the phoenix to change, it literally bursts into flames. Being burnt to ash has to be excruciating. And there might very well be some uncertainty involved as well, because what if it doesn’t work this time? What if the phoenix does not become reborn? And even if it does, what if it’s different in some critical and upsetting way? What if it is no longer its self? What if it’s lost something valuable in the process of being reborn?

Photo Credit: Ryan McCurdy via Compfight cc

So often, that’s the reality of transformation. We don’t always know exactly what the end result will be. When I sit down to revise a manuscript, I often have the troubling thought, “What if I end up making it worse instead of better?” When I set out to change myself, I can only guess at the ripples that are going to spread out from that change. And those ripples, once they start moving, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control. Who knows where they’ll travel or how fast they’ll spread?

What we can know is the process will hurt. It will be uncomfortable. Bursting into flames, even if it’s only metaphorical, is clearly not the easiest path available to us. Excising large portions of a manuscript that represent hours upon hours of effort can be nausea-inducing even while it’s liberating. Any large change is going to require an adjustment period when nothing feels quite as it should. When you rip off the band aid, you take some skin and hair along with it. When you fling yourself into the world newly altered, you flail and whack one or more of your limbs against obstructions that you hoped to avoid or didn’t even know were there.

But the idea of the phoenix also encompasses hope. The phoenix is reborn. It returns renewed and refreshed, brighter and fiercer. It is a thing of beauty and fascination. Through the pain of the fire, the old is burned away, leaving space for something new and wonderful.

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“There’s always been a bit of the Princess archetype in you,” she said. (And she’s totally right; there always has.) “And I thought you had manifested that for yourself, that your life was settled and you had gotten your happily ever after. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t see you.”

In her talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown says that the word courage comes from the word coeur, French for heart. What is courage? She says it is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart: in other words, allowing yourself to be seen, choosing the authentic. It takes courage to tell our stories. It takes courage to be honest and open. And it takes courage to infuse our artistic work with truth.

Coeur.
Photo Credit: Miriam Cardoso de Souza via Compfight cc

She also mentions the importance of having the courage to be imperfect. And let me tell you something about the Princess archetype. It’s not all bad: it includes a healthy dose of positivity, some chirping birds, romance and adventure. But it also contains no space for imperfection. The Princess in the fairy tales is perfection in essence: she is beautiful and charming, she is talented, she can sing and play music and dance and speak twenty languages, she always knows what to say, she has a sweet disposition, and she never ever feels angry or tired or upset. She can only feel fear when she is in danger as a plot device to allow the prince/knight/fool to rescue her, self-actualize, and win her as a prize. And she is always brave and smiling.

Being the Princess means not being seen for yourself.

I have been the Princess. I have tried to be perfect in every possible way. I have worked to be attractive and charming and to always set people at ease and know the right thing to say.  Whenever I have made a mistake, it has meant falling short of impossible standards. I have tried to please everyone and hate admitting that I need anything at all.

And yet, it has only been through surrendering the Princess archetype that I could begin creating the life that I want. It has only been through searching for people who don’t need me to be that Princess that I could finally be me, with everything that encompasses. It has only been through finding my coeur to begin to tell my story that I could create authentic connections with other people. Being able to see other people and being seen yourself, as it turns out, go hand in hand.

When I think of all those years I was trapped in the tower of Princess-hood, I feel very sad. Now that I’ve rescued myself, I try not to be perfect with appropriate imperfection. I don’t always smile. I am not always brave. I sometimes put my own needs first, and I am allowed to ask for things. There is space for me to have emotions. The world doesn’t end when I can’t always be strong.

It feels very strange to not be a Princess. But also very right.

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I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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We don’t always live in a way that’s consistent with the things we know to be true.

I wrote this sentence on Monday when I was writing Tuesday’s blog post about making yourself a priority. It was the best sentence I wrote that day, but it didn’t fit the post, so I set it aside to use today instead. Take a minute and think about it.

We don’t always live in a way that’s consistent with the things we know to be true.

There are all kinds of reasons for this, of course. Maybe we’re being socially pressured to conform or live in a certain way. Maybe the truth is too painful to deal with. Maybe the truth calls into question our core beliefs, values, and what we hold dear. Maybe it has become so obscured we’re not even sure what it is. Maybe we’ve decided to bury the truth because it seemed necessary or because we were trying to be kind or because that was the only way we could see to move forward.

Life is messy, and sometimes truth and reality become misaligned.

I offer no judgments here. We’ve all done this, we’ll all probably do it again, and perhaps we’re doing it right now. We do it because we receive some kind of value in return. Something that we might really need.

But such a disconnect can also become malignant. It can worm its way inside of you, insatiable and bold, and it can hollow you out into an echoing emptiness. It can silence your voice. It can dull your vision. It can leave you in a dizzying state of confusion.

There is power to be found in the place where truth and reality intersect. The kind of power that creatives tap into to create the art that grabs you by the shoulders, kicks you in the gut, and never lets go. The kind of power for you as an individual to use to create a life story filled with meaning. It is not always a comfortable place, this intersection, but it is healing and challenging and ultimately uplifting.

This meeting place, where you live your truth, is where you can be the most authentic you. That you may not always be perfect or nice or happy or popular or responsible.

But that you is so blindingly beautiful all the same.

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“Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

-Dune, by Frank Herbert

I am afraid of so many things.

I am afraid of death, my own and others’. I am afraid of incompletion. I am afraid of bad health. I am afraid one day I’ll try to get out of bed and my knees will hurt so badly I won’t be able to leave the room. I am afraid I’ll crack more teeth and end up subsisting on gruel; forever, because most of my fears don’t allow room for the possibility of change. That’s what makes them extra scary.

I am afraid of being deeply alone. I am afraid I will discover a massive regret too late to do anything about it. I am afraid I’ll go crazy. I am afraid I will lose my sight or my hearing. I am afraid I’ll be attacked by a giant swarm of angry wasps. I am afraid of pain and grief and loss. I am afraid of the necessity of being brave.

I am afraid to fail. I am even more afraid to fail over and over and over.

Last week I had a particular scenario in my head that was causing me large amounts of worry (something that hadn’t even happened yet). This weekend, I read a blog post that talked about another person who was in a similar scenario, and how she was crippled with worry. The way it was written up, my first instinct was to think, oh, that’s silly, she’s not so badly off. It took a couple more beats for me to realize that meant my hypothetical wasn’t so bad either.

Because Frank Herbert got it right. Fear makes us stupid. It clouds our judgment. It squeezes us so we can’t breathe, can’t reason, can’t accept what’s happening. It transports us to fictional futures and makes them real in our minds, even though those futures may never become true in reality. It causes us to give up or settle or take the easy answer, even if it’s not the best answer.

Of course, we put ourselves in danger anyway. We become police officers and firefighters. We join the military. We bare our souls as artists, even while we’re embracing rejection. We fight to save lives. We deal with the up-and-down uncertainties of being entrepreneurs. We give away our hearts. We jump from airplanes, walk home in the dark, and swim deep underwater. We sing challenging arias in Italian in front of other people. Risk-taking is woven into the fabric of living.

Fear is difficult. Sometimes we face it and emerge stronger. Sometimes we become paralyzed and cannot move past it. Sometimes we don’t even realize what it is that we’re really afraid of.

I am afraid of so many things. All I can do is remind myself that in this present moment, I am okay. And if I am ever faced with a killer swarm of furious wasps, I’ll deal with that then.

What are you afraid of?

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Elizabeth Bear recently wrote an essay in which she stated her intention to try not to self-denigrate herself out loud. You should go read it because it is thought-provoking and also because she references Sondheim in an awesome way, and who doesn’t love that?

That being said, it was a painful essay to read, at least for me. Yes, a great step would be for people to keep those tenacious feelings of self loathing to themselves so they don’t model them for others. Perhaps without the vocalization and implicit validation of those feelings, they will even lessen over time. But I can’t help but see the tragedy that those feelings of self-hatred and self belittlement are so prevalent in the first place.

In the comments section for the post, there is some mention of bragging, and how terrible it would be if one were to accidentally brag. (Okay, that’s not actually what is said, but that’s how it translated in my own head.) I mean, really, didn’t you know the world will END if you brag? Especially if you are a woman. Heaven forbid that you actually appreciate something awesome about yourself and want to share it with others. Heaven forbid that you give yourself a public pat on the back like I did last week. (And yes, I felt fairly uncomfortable about doing that, which was a signal to myself that it was important to do.) Humility is a great trait to embrace, but according to a recent Psychology Today blog post, “humble people are not self-deprecating but rather accurate in how they regard and present themselves.” And that is a big difference indeed.

I see this kind of unproductive behavior all the time. I talked to a friend this weekend who knows she is under charging for her valuable services. This is not the first friend I’ve talked to with this problem. I’ve talked to award-winning writers who are convinced they suck. On Twitter, a friend was talking about her husband, and how he gets a fabulous performance review every time at work, and then within a week or so he’s already back to worrying about how he’s doing. So many of us have so much trouble embracing our strengths and talents and believing in ourselves.

I recently read some blogging advice that said that in every post, you should be revealing all of your own weaknesses and mess-ups and personal disasters because that is what people like to read. And it’s true, there is a certain appealing rawness to that sort of writing, and certainly it’s not always the most helpful or communicative (or honest) to set oneself up as perfect. But aren’t success stories also instructive? Do I really have to focus only on the parts of me I don’t like in order to engage an audience? We as a culture seem to have this idea that we aren’t allowed to acknowledge our own awesomeness. Instead we wallow in insecurity and resentment, and at our low point, we try to tear other people down because we can’t raise ourselves up.

Photo by Kate McCarthy

Well, screw that! I love that Elizabeth Bear shows how this kind of behavior doesn’t just hurt ourselves, it hurts the people for whom we are role models–it is particularly brilliant because it tricks people into healthier behavior by playing on their concern for others. But can we take it a step further? Let’s have this concern for ourselves. Let’s acknowledge when we do something well, or when we come through in a difficult situation, or when we face our fears and do important work anyway. Let’s acknowledge that we are allowed to have something to say, that we are allowed to have opinions, that we are allowed to value our own expertise. Let’s acknowledge that we are worth it.

And let’s all take a moment to brag and celebrate our own awesomeness. (Oh, the horror!) Leave me a comment and tell me something amazing about you. It can be something small, like the way you rocked your To-Do list yesterday, or it can be something large, like how you raised millions of dollars for charity. Tell me how great you look in that outfit, or how many books you read last year, or the amazing high score you got on your GRE/SAT/whatever test you want. Tell me about the awards you’ve been nominated for (or won!), or the way you totally helped someone out, or how you met one of your goals. The sky is the limit, and the only rule is, you have to brag. About yourself.

I’ll start us off. I sold six stories in my first year of selling anything at all. I am super smart. I have a great smile. I spend most of my time doing things that I love and/or really care about. I read thirty books in the past three months. I am a passionate and dedicated blogger. I am an intellectual bad ass.

Yeesh, that was uncomfortable. And now it’s your turn. Guilt-free bragging! Who’s with me?

I can’t wait to read about how amazing you all are.

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