A QUESTION OF COURAGE

by Cathy Arden on July 15, 2014

courage

When four years ago, after taking my youngest to college, I decided to move across the country to re-dedicate myself to my acting career (whilst still pursuing my writing career), an old friend of mine wondered why I was revving up the engines just when most people our age were slowing them down.  Honestly, I don’t know anyone my age or any other age who is slowing down.  So I suppose this same friend will be startled to learn that now I have taken on a third career while still fully engaged in the other two.  And that my energy is threefold what it was ten years ago.  But various people along the way have not just thought me crazy.  Many have told me I’m courageous.  Which, as it turns out, is just as difficult for me to comprehend as the comments that I’m crazy.  Now that I am working toward my certification as a Martha Beck life coach, I’ve been wondering about this thing people call courage.  Are we born with it?  Do we acquire it?  Is it learned?  Is it inherited?  Why do some people seem more courageous than others?  And why is it that people we deem courageous don’t see themselves in the same way?  It’s clear that people who risk their lives for others are courageous.  It’s easy for us to define a true hero.  But what about the people we believe have courage in their everyday lives?  What do we consider courageous?  And do we think courage is difficult to come by?

My first case in point is my sister, Doren.  She battled breast cancer for 3 ½ years and tragically died at age 33.  My sister, however, didn’t describe her life during those years as a battle.  She gave up writing a novel she had a contract for, and she gave up a job in publishing because what she decided would give her the most fulfillment while she was ill was to teach and take care of profoundly mentally challenged adults.  Doren had been a counselor at a camp for special children when she was a teenager.  It was this type of care-giving work she returned to after being diagnosed with cancer.  She’d tell me often she felt these people were her children.  She loved them that much.  Friends and acquaintances would often tell Doren during that time how courageous she was.  Doren never understood this.  In fact, comments about her courage really annoyed her.  “What is courage?” she’d ask me.  “I don’t feel courageous at all,” she’d insist.  “What are my choices?  I could lay down and die or I can live my life.  Living my life is not an act of courage.  It’s ridiculous for people to think that it is.”

When my sister died, I didn’t feel courageous.  Yet people told me I was.  It began with her memorial service.  There were hundreds of people who attended.  I got up and talked about my sister.  People were amazed, and grateful, that I had done this.  They asked me afterward how I was able to speak, given my grief.  Aside from the fact that it wasn’t hard to get up and talk about my sister – it was, in fact, something I had planned and was compelled to do – and aside from the fact that as soon as I sat down after speaking I began to shake uncontrollably, I didn’t feel courageous in the least.  I did what for me was necessary.  I spoke for myself, and I spoke for my sister.  It was an act of love, not of courage.   I didn’t consider that the power of grief would get the better of me in this instance or any other.  Which isn’t to say I haven’t lived with grief.  The proverbial one foot in front of the other produces life, in spite of yourself, in spite of your grief.

And, as time has gone on, it’s been said about me at other transitional periods of my life that I have courage.  One such time was when I moved to Paris with my children who, in August of 2000, were eight and twelve years old.  I had been divorced and a single Mom for many years, and I had just broken up with my fiancé of three years. Why did I want to move to Paris?  As my plans were underway, I couldn’t explain it logically.  I was merely compelled to do this.  The plan emerged during a Spring break in Paris with my children.   And although I executed the plan in the time period of three months, it took a lot of pulling together and learning what steps to take after each step that came before.  I was pretty much winging it.  I knew nothing about getting the proper visa which, it turned out, was the most challenging task of all.  The visa didn’t come through until the day before our flight to Paris and after many crying jags – my own — in the middle of the French embassy in New York City.  I begged and pleaded with disinterested French embassy employees until I finally found a sympathetic ear.  I rented my furnished, modest suburban house in New York for an apartment in Paris that cost the same as the rent I got for my house.  The realtors were useless, so after a month I put my own ad in the NY Times and the first people who called, a young German couple, ended up renting my house.  How did I know I’d be able to rent my house for the same monthly cost as a Paris apartment?  I didn’t.  I was just determined to make it work this way.  I managed to get my children into a French bi-lingual private school I had heard about.  In fact, hearing about this school while in Paris on that Spring break and finding out that the French government subsidizes private schools – which makes them extremely inexpensive — is what first planted the idea in my head that this move was indeed possible.  And wise.  An affordable private school in Paris for my children and a year abroad with travel for them as well?  And for me a year to write in Paris and to travel throughout Europe? I had always said a writer could live anywhere.  Here was the perfect opportunity for both me and my children.  Seriously, who wouldn’t want to do this?

So there I was in Paris, a mother alone with her two children.  Knowing no one.  I’ve always remembered the feeling I had my first day there.  I put my children to bed in our Paris apartment for some much needed sleep after our overnight flight and I went out to find cell phones for all of us.  I had been told of the market street nearby and stores within walking distance of our apartment.  When I emerged onto the street from our building I was consumed with fear.  I felt suddenly ill.  What had I done?  Was I indeed crazy?  I was in a foreign country with no friends, no family except my young children, and a vague and inadequate knowledge of the language.  I was alone and terrified.  The cars seemed to float above the street.  The world was surreal.  I did not feel grounded.  I didn’t recognize anything and I didn’t recognize myself.

But my first morning in Paris told me everything I needed to know.  When I woke up the next day with the shutters of my bedroom window open on that August morning, I heard the echoes of voices speaking French in the courtyard, I heard dishes rattling and the scent of baked goods wafted in.  I had an unfamiliar feeling I could not name.  It didn’t occur to me what that feeling was for the first ten minutes I lay in bed after opening my eyes.  And then it came to me.  It was so simple that I was shocked to realize it.  But I couldn’t remember when last I had felt this way.  I was, in fact, truly happy.  I knew immediately that I had finally come to a place where there was no separation between my internal life and my external life.  I knew then why I had worked so hard to get to Paris, ignoring what I knew most people felt, and what some expressed — that I was crazy.  I moved to Paris because I had to.  I had been listening to my higher self, or as I’ve now come to learn, I was following the pull of my essential self.  I was merely compelled to live the life that would make me feel whole.  What I had thought was a whim turned out to be a necessity.  It saved me.  Or, rather, I saved myself.  And as time went on, and Paris proved to be the best thing that had ever happened to me and to my children, the comments about my courage began to surface.

I’ve emerged from many tight spots, many dark places in my life.  And, each time, I credit my resourcefulness for being able to do this.  So does it take courage to follow the call of your essential life?   And if it does, what is this thing we call courage?  I have come to believe that courage is merely the ability and will to tap into your own resourcefulness and creative thinking and not let fear get in your way.  I’ll be the first to tell you I am a very resourceful person.  I’d be the last to tell you I’m courageous.  I’m no different than anyone else who knows they must put one foot in front of the other during the worst of times, and who follows an impulse and idea because not following it would feel like not living.

Overcoming fear is not as hard as you might think. I had come to know fear quite well over the years. When I first moved to California from New York, leaving the nest my children had emptied – why remain in an empty nest? — I knew I could trust the voice of my essential self as it had never led me astray before.  Once I was settled into my new home, I made this promise to myself.  Every day I’d do at least one thing that terrified me, one thing that would perhaps bring me closer to my goals in my new life. Sometimes it was a phone call to someone I thought would not be receptive at all.  Sometimes it was an email I was afraid to send.  Sometimes it was trying to get an appointment or audition that seemed one hundred percent out of reach.  The fear was there each and every day, and every day I made myself reject it.  And if the task didn’t bring the hoped for reward, it always brought the reward of conquering my fear.  And that, in itself, inspired me to keep moving forward.

Fear never stops trying to grab your attention away from what you really want.  It doesn’t go away.  But if you tune into what really matters to you, if you tap into the engine of your heart and soul and longing, fear doesn’t have a chance.  Only courage does.

Perhaps my sister taught me courage after all, although she hadn’t meant to.

 

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Howard July 15, 2014 at 3:10 PM

You know that Hemingway quote: “courage is grace under pressure”? If we apply that to your performance at the French embassy, I will agree with you – not courageous. However, you do present an air of confidence I have often admired; and, a lovely prose. Thanks again for sharing your life in words.

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Sharon Lester July 15, 2014 at 3:43 PM

Cathy,
I love to read things written by people I know as it is always an audio book to me. I can hear your voice and it is a great voice! And a great story to share. Makes me want to move to Paris (almost). Beautifully written!

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Barbara July 15, 2014 at 4:29 PM

Maybe acts of love are courageous? Thanks for sharing!

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Tziporah July 15, 2014 at 5:42 PM

So absolutely beautifully written!!! Thank you, dear Cathy.
I swear, it’s like reading Martha Beck, only better, more poetic!

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stephanie July 16, 2014 at 6:41 AM

Listen to the yearnings of our heart and acting on those yearnings is true courage that you demonstrated again and again in your life, Cathy. Bravo!

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Shawn Flint Blair July 17, 2014 at 2:51 PM

Cathy,
So inspirational!
I so appreciate the art of a writer. I love the fact you have the guts to explore.
Reminds me to go with my gut. I hope to see you soon and I’ll enjoy reading your blog.
Talented lady.
Hugs,
Shawn f Blair

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Rima July 22, 2014 at 8:39 PM

Beautifully written, very inspiring.
You are owning your courage & your personal
transformation from fear.
Love you!
Rima

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Amy Louise Pommier July 23, 2014 at 8:40 AM

Well, yes, I believe you are indeed courageous — facing fear head-on and acting in harmony with your deepest self and doing what is necessary — and far beyond that — despite the obstacle of fear. That is certainly one of the aspects of what I think courage means.

I’ve seen you face all sorts of challenges over the years and move through them, being true to yourself — this, to me, is courage — not “just” resourcefulness. Anyway, courage and resourcefulness are very much related and intertwined and work in synergy, I think.

It’s wonderful that you share with us, through beautiful writing, how you determinedly keep dancing to your “different drummer.”

Keep up the good work — and keep your impressive resourcefulness close at hand!

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Lisa July 23, 2014 at 11:26 AM

Very Beautiful and inspirational. You are my role model for taking action and following your heart despite being fearful. Thank you for sharing this. You are amazing!

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lauren November 10, 2015 at 4:18 PM

i was so grateful that it wasn’t a “I listened to my inner voice, moved to paris, and met the perfect man” piece. it was so much better than that.

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Mary Kennedy Eastham December 11, 2015 at 12:23 PM

Loved the article Cathy. We have a mutual acquaintance in SoCal, Kelly Carlyle, married to Boston boy Rick. People call me courageous ‘cuz I’ve left a mid-life marriage. Sometimes I think I’m INSANE but thank God I have a sense of humor that my Boston roots have given me. That plus spending my 20’s living in NYC. I live in San Jose now but dream of relocating down to Malibu. I won’t put a lot of personal stuff out here. Ask Kelly about me & my crazy MO!

So sorry you lost your sister Cathy. It leaves a big bruise. I lost my Mom in my 20’s. I still think about her every day. Love to connect sometime when I’m down in LA…

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Cathy Arden December 26, 2015 at 3:18 PM

Thanks so much for your response to my blog, Mary. And, sure, let me know when you are in LA!

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