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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mental Pathways of Courage


Courage doesn't always roar.  Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow. 
~Mary Anne Radmacher
I’ve defined the word courage with a dictionary, and with the help of my kids, so now I ask myself: “What does courage mean to me?”  “Do I have courage?” “When have I been courageous in my life?”

I read Jennifer’s retelling of The Lion’s Whiskers, and reflect on the times when I’ve had to approach my own inner and outer lions to gain the necessary whiskers, or qualities, to develop the love and respect for myself, my children, my husband, and all who cross my path.  Whiskers I cling to for balance and guidance, qualities that help me to be brave during times of fear, pain, or uncertainty.  I think of the times I’ve succeeded, and the times I’ve failed, in attaining the kind of intellectual, social, physical, spiritual, emotional and moral strength necessary to be deemed “courageous”. 

Even more poignantly, I reflect on the times when I am the healer coaching my children, or my clients, to approach that which they fear; and sadly, the times when I am the lion my children must approach cautiously when I am impatient, judgmental, or demanding.  Each time I can be relied upon to be consistent and caring with my children, I watch as their posture straightens with the kind of confidence that an unconditionally loving relationship provides.  The kind of self-confidence necessary to approach life with courage.

Courage, in my understanding and experience, is the essence of perseverance when faced with difficulty.  Courage, for me, requires the intellectual capacity to fight through my fear; and the moral basis to care about myself, my friends and family, my community, and the world-at-large enough to do the right thing.  Most of all, I gain strength, and thus the resilience and courage to act, from identifying meaningful purpose in my life. 

On a cold night, cuddled under layers of dogs and blankets, I ask my husband “Would you describe me as a courageous person?  Do you think I’ve done things in my life that are examples of possessing courage?  Do you think I have anything worthwhile to offer on the subject?”  “Yes, yes, and yes”, he utters in a sleepy voice.  He is exceptionally loving and reassuring, my husband—if slightly sleep-deprived due to my midnight musings.  He reminds me of the times I’ve been courageous, if not very practical.  Like the time I ran to a burning farm house to help rescue a Nepalese family and all their belongings.  In an instant, I dropped my pack on the trekking trail to run to their rescue.  A pack filled with most of my worldly possessions, including all my cash and passport.  My husband, on the other hand, stayed back.  Mindfully assessing the risks, noticing all the other neighbors already arriving with water buckets, deeming the situation under control; he chose to pick up my backpack and approach the scene more cautiously.  I guess you would say I responded altruistically.  Without care for myself or my belongings, I placed the welfare of others above my own.  Someone else might say I acted selfishly, perhaps in the interest of 'looking good'.  Others may say I was foolhardy in my impulsiveness and took an unnecessary risk without considering other options. Still others may question whether courage was evident if I am unable to show evidence of fear, threat, and danger.  It begs the question:  who gets to decide what and who is courageous?

Unlike my husband, I barely remember the incident.  It’s a common phenomenon for people who’ve been courageous to have little or no recollection of the events leading up to the moment they made their move—particularly when altruism is at play.  Upon reflection, when people who’ve displayed courage are asked “How did you do it?” I am amazed how often friends, family, or clients I’ve worked with as a mental health or child/family therapist over the course of 22 years, respond “I don’t know.  I didn’t have a choice.  I just did it.”  My job sometimes is to highlight how courageous their actions actually were, to help deconstruct the choices they make in their lives that will hopefully result in increased confidence and a sense of their ability to be active agents in the creation of their future lives.  Our role as a parent is to do the same with our children. 

The truth is more likely that for most adults, years of rehearsed mental pathways create habitual grooves in our brains’ topography culminating in relatively unconscious choices in favor of survival, compassion, and altruism.  Without learning healthy attachment with another human being in childhood—therefore learning to care about oneself, others, and our surroundings—another more destructive pathway (engaging similar centers of the brain) can just as likely result in more sinister choices aligned with aggression and fear. 

The gap between thought and action, those precious few seconds (or maybe even as many as 90 seconds) that culminate in a shift from the mental to the material—biochemistry to action—can motivate or paralyze us. 

According to Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist catapulted through paralysis to enlightenment as a result of a stroke in her left hemisphere, our limbic system (in charge of our emotional programming) is triggered to respond, in less than 90 seconds, either positively (in favor of compassion, altruism, and love) or negatively (in favor of aggression and fear).  Within those 90 seconds we can transform our reaction from positive to negative or negative to positive.

It is important to note that our responses are to actual physical stimuli, or rather our mental perceptions of those stimuli, and can even be in response to an unconscious thought.  She advises us all, in her memoir My Stroke of Insight (2008), to be conscious that we do, in fact, have a choice about how we respond to the events of our lives.  The commonly dispensed advice to take 5 deep breaths or count to 10—to help us not lose our cool—may in fact make all the difference to our happiness in life.  Alternatively, in moments when we are faced with a situation to save our own or another’s life, hopefully we’ve rehearsed enough loving to care to not only respond, but react quickly. 

Ultimately, it is a choice to be courageous—consciously or unconsciously rehearsed—a choice that makes all the difference not only in terms of our survival, but also our happiness.  A choice as simple and as complex as being understanding and compassionate, instead of losing it, when your child is sick and drops her new iPod into a bowl of chicken noodle soup (one of my more recent failures).  It was only after taking a few deep breaths whilst hugging my daughter (to reassure her that she is still lovable even when she makes mistakes--as am I), and getting all the information, that we managed to fix her iPod with a blow dryer.  A calm mind is, it turns out, the necessary condition for creative problem solving.



Dr. Lisa's Parenting Tip:

Ask yourself, “When have I been courageous in my life?”  Ask your child, “Can you recall a time when you needed courage?”  Share your courage stories on our blog...we'd love to hear your stories in our comments section or send us your stories to us by clicking here!

The next time you feel like you’re going to lose your cool as a parent, take a mini time-out for yourself.  Breathe a few deep breaths.  Count to 10, or 90!  Modelling this kind of self-control when under pressure, will help your child not only trust you more; but also to learn to be the ruler of his/her emotional reactions—instead of being ruled by them.

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