“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
What they did yesterday afternoon, Warsan Shire
LEADING WITH COURAGE AND FEAR
"Fear either rejects the road ahead or it births the courage needed to take it."
Not all deaths are physical. Actually, most aren’t.
We can die in numerous ways during a long lifetime. Indeed, in a happy life, we surely will.
Courage arises when we can see past the loss we are contemplating; when we can embrace the death that is needed at this moment.
The extraordinary Somali poet, Warsan Shire, captures the magnitude of the world’s suffering in a word: “everywhere”.
In this poem, her aunt’s house was burned down the day before. The poet mourns the loss, and then does what so many artists do. She sees the larger picture. The particular story becomes the universal state of being.
It is the nature of wisdom to move outward. What begins as me, ends as all of us.
We could think of wisdom as something that arises through the compassionate recognition of mutual suffering.
This understanding was so well expressed in the Parzival myth. When the young hero, in learning his social graces is to taught to avoid idle curiosity. It's the lesson of "Mind your own business." All this is well and good, but Parzival learns the lesson too well. When Parzival arrives in the presence of the King, he sees that the ruler is mortally wounded. But rather than risking the natural human response, having learned to observe the boundaries of societal norms, Parzival does not ask the wounded king the obvious question, “Why do you suffer so.” In avoiding the opportunity to comfort the king, he unwittingly avoided the opportunity to help him. In the Parzival myth, only one thing can provide true healing - the willingness to be true to your emotions, rather then bend to social constraints. The unasked question speaks as much about Parzival as it does about the King. To ask it means, "I see you are suffering. Your pain has been seen." Parzival’s journey of interior growth lasts until he has gained the necessary understanding to develop the courage to ask based on the integrity of his own empathy. Only then does he find himself again in the presence of the king. Only then can he serve as an agent of healing.
When a doctor asks, “Where does it hurt,” it is a useful question. There is person in need of care. The pain helps direct the physician’s attention to a specific place to treat the condition. Pain, seen in this way, is a feedback mechanism. The body speaks through the pain, “Place your concern here.”
Pain is the language of attention. It is the doctor’s teacher. It points the way forward to the one who can offer care. "Look at my back, or my knee. Notice my ankle."
Pain is the language of attention. It is the doctor's teacher. It points the way forward.
As with pain, so with fear.
Of course, we don’t like pain. To experience pain is to feel vulnerable, weak, and ineffective.
As with pain, so with fear.
What if fear is like pain? What if it is a mechanism of the psyche to communicate?
Just as the doctor needs to know where it hurts in order to heal the patient, perhaps we NEED to know what we fear, and more importantly, why we fear it?
We might need to know why we reject feeling fear, and what that asks of our interior exploration.
When I experience fear, I feel the powerlessness of the situation. Something is impinging on me from outside or something is freezing me from within. I feel threatened and perhaps inadequate to the challenge of the moment. I want to wait. I might feel overwhelmed by the inputs I’m getting. I can’t go forward, and I want to retreat. Maybe I can’t even gather the strength to run away. Perhaps my very life feels at stake.
This is a key – often we find our answers at the edge of our capabilities to endure - I feel fear when I am afraid of any kind of death.
There are as many deaths as there are ways of living. The body is only one form of death’s expression. There can be the death of a relationship, of an old way of life, of a sense of identity that no longer holds true, of self-respect. There can be the death of an ideal, of shared values, of a long-lived culture.
Epochs die. Political systems die. Everything dies at some point, if the idea of impermanence holds true. Nothing that has ever been created lasts forever. As Robert Frost put it, “Nothing gold can stay.”
Often we find our answers at the edge of our capabilities to endure.
I feel fear when I am afraid of death.
All of our separate fears then belong to a single fear. The death of something we identify as belonging to us: The death of me, of mine, of ours. Now the nature of fear becomes clearer. We know that death is as natural as life itself. And that means that, if we fear death in its many guises, that fearing fear is just as unnatural. Running away from fear is to deny nature itself.
Fear is as useful a condition as pain.
"Everyone feels fear," is just as true as, "It hurts everywhere."
What then of courage? Is it also everywhere? Does it belong to everyone?
Fear is as useful a condition as pain.
“Everyone feels fear,” is just as true as, “It hurts everywhere.”
What, then of courage? Is it also everywhere? Does it belong to everyone?
There are many stories throughout history of people acting in heroic ways, often when circumstances don’t offer time to reflect: an onlooker running into a fire to save a stranger from certain death; a parent shielding her child from danger.
The particular is universal. Fear is part of the human condition, and so is courage. All of these responses are latent within us.
Our work is to actualize them in the moment.
There is much to be gained from living in the state of fear long enough to get to know it intimately.. But this is only “poetic” learning if you can't move beyond the WHAT that you fear.
You might begin to look behind the object of the fear and see fear in its pure form. You might examine how it interacts with you. What does it feel like in the body? How is it expressed in your mind’s ability to focus? Is your mouth dry? Does the breath tighten? Can you feel fear and still move at all?
Why is this so important for a leader? Because NOT coming to know fear in this way can produce some unexpected consequences. Discounting the reality of your own fear can be destructive. It is easy for the shadow side of fear to emerge as a dark form of leadership.
Those who lead from intimidation are using fear as a tool to gain compliance. Have you ever thought about that? How can they use fear unless they already feel it? Now, imagine how much emotional energy is being spent hiding that fear from their own consciousness.
The bully is actually terrified, but he has not come to know and make peace with fear. His culture of fear can be created only because he is someone who already knows it well, but only by actively avoiding it. It is the bully's unconscious that knows fear.
The leader who does NOT create a culture of fear has also come to know it well – and to recognize its shadow. In this recognition, fear loses its power over the leader. It becomes useful as a source for self-reflection.
Conversely, courage has it’s own shadow. We like courage. It is a word that we want to apply to us. “She is courageous,” is a compliment. “She is scared,” is an indictment of character. We may place ourselves in situations that require courage because we have unresolved interior issues. We might questions like, “Is this risky behavior necessary, or is it serving something else? Am I courageous because another can see me and I would be ashamed to admit my fear? Am I doing this for approval? Is this a form of escape? Have I thought through my actions before I move from this still place of fear?”
And this is the beauty of your own examination of leading with both fear and courage. You are no longer rejecting half of yourself. You become whole. Leadership is not always defined by the word “or”. Sometimes it embraces the concept of “and”. Often the leader who achieves emotional health has looked beyond duality. Light and shadow become one. This is why we work with both courage AND fear.
If fear is a form of fearing death, courage is the willingness to die. It is seeing something valuable beyond self-protection, beyond continuing “at all costs”. It adds wisdom to fear. It recognizes WHICH death is needed, and becomes willing to engage in that act of dying.
Not all deaths are physical. Indeed most aren’t. We can die in numerous ways during a long lifetime. In a happy life, we surely will. Courage arises when we can see past the loss we are contemplating, when we can embrace the death that is needed at this moment. That is how wisdom comes to be.
Fear and courage are not synonymous with weakness and strength. They go beyond the opposites. We might begin to see them as a continuum. Something produces a reaction of fear. You awaken to it, and you notice the fear within you. It arrests your motion forward. You wait, frozen and experience fear fully and inwardly, and then something undergoes a metamorphosis. The fear either tells you to reject the road ahead, or it will birth in you the courage necessary for this path.
This may be instantaneous or it may take time. You do not have to reject the time it takes to make the butterfly. Nature works at the pace of its own clock. When the fear has taught its lesson, then you can begin to act outwardly.
What will seem to be courage to the rest of the world will be something else to you. It will be the result of your inner work.
You will have come to know that courage is actually the child of fear. You will have become the Parzival who is at the end of the myth, able to heal the King with the right question. Parzival had to die to the social norms of his time in order to be reborn to authenticity. Genuine compassion came to be valued more than social acceptance and agreed-upon role-playing.
We die to the outdated lives that no longer serve us. We die to them as we see beyond the sheer need to survive. Our lives become expressions of values that we come to know and to embody. At such a moment we lose the need to defend the old ground forever. We no longer cling to our old lives. We are free to become the embodiment of the new wisdom.
When you ask, “Where does it hurt,” you can begin to try to heal what is around you, and the poet’s “everywhere” will be found right in front of you - you are looking.
©2020 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved
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