I was recently asked by a friend to share a few of my thoughts on courage and how it operates as a presence in my life. Truth be told, for me "courage" is an intangible essence that defies definition.
I believe it is ever-present and available to us all, yet is only breathed to life when we choose a path forward, one which is not absent of fear, but is in some way governed by faith -- a belief that even the most unbearable can be endured when we accept that within every experience, and encapsulated in every moment, is a lesson that reveals something greater lies beyond the scope of each of us.
In no way am I suggesting this broader essence is of the religious or spiritual realm, but simply a faith that there is a current of interconnectedness that runs in and through us all -- or in the words of John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
What others often define as courage in me, I see as nothing more than a belief that my scars do not define me... but rather, they reveal me.
And what is courage other than the faith to move forward in the midst of fear? As we dig deeper and deeper into the genesis of all our fears, we discover that invariably our fear is driven by our belief that we are alone, disenfranchised or set adrift in an achingly reverberant hollowness.
As a motivational speaker, I attempt to connect with my audience by returning to places of adversity in my past as touchstones or catalysts for personal growth. I have come to see the scars of my life -- borne of trauma and great discomfort -- not as blemishes to be hidden away, but rather as evidence of a personal roadmap of how far I've travelled in my life. What others often define as courage in me, I see as nothing more than a belief that my scars do not define me... but rather, they reveal me.
So again, I return to the essence of what it means to be courageous -- a deeply rooted faith in our human interconnectedness. I find such comfort in the words of Viktor Frankl: "A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how.'"
Many of us get lost is in the act of comparing our suffering to that of others, and in the process, we diminish the impact or resonance it has in our life. And in negating the presence of this suffering, we thereby deny any opportunity to embrace this discomfort as a lesson or opportunity for personal growth.
As our muscles respond to stress by becoming at first strained and later stronger, so too do we build up our tolerance for withstanding adversity by allowing it space in our life. Courage rises to the fore when we adopt a new mindset, a new lens from which we approach our life.
As our muscles respond to stress by becoming at first strained and later stronger, so too do we build up our tolerance for withstanding adversity by allowing it space in our life.
I was listening to an interview with John O'Leary, someone who despite a devastating fire that burned 100 per cent of his body, has become a tremendous source of inspiration and hope to many. Given the obstacles that John has had to face in life, he has chosen to embrace the mindset of a victor rather than a victim. He points out that victims tend to ask the same questions: Why me? Why now? Why bother? What can one person possibly do to change this situation?
O'Leary reminds us that if we take those same questions and approach them from a positive mindset -- one in which we see adversity as a lesson or an opportunity for growth -- we begin to align ourselves with belief in our role in a greater connectedness with our community.
"Why me?" becomes what makes me special to carry a message of hope and resiliency?
"Why now?" reminds us of the importance of living in the moment.
"Why bother... What can one person possibly do to change this situation?" provides, in my opinion, the greatest possibility for us all to unearth the courage that lies within.
It is a conscious choice to walk towards the bridge that connects us to everyone in our community, and in so doing we step away from the fear of isolation and into a wellspring of hope.
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In a paper published in 2009, Stonybrook University psychologist Liliane Mujica-Parodi reported that skydivers with a higher percentage of body fat took longer to return from elevated stress-hormone levels and performed worse on tests of mental agility. "Not only does physical fitness produce stress resilience," she says, "but fit individuals are better able to preserve their cognitive functions." Studies have even shown that exercise can ease depression and anxiety. And it can protect you from feeling stressed out in the future. Princeton researchers found that rats who exercise grow neurons in their brains that are less responsive to the stress hormone cortisol.
Human beings are mammals, and mammals are fundamentally social creatures. In a tough situation, we rely on emotional rapport with friends and family members. Oxytocin, the hormone that binds mothers and children and husbands and wives, has been shown to lessen the sensation of pain and fear. In wartime, it likely plays a role in turning a group of strangers into a band of brothers who will lay down their lives for one another. "I really don't think you can look at toughness in a vacuum. It's almost by definition a social phenomenon," says West Point psychologist Mike Matthews. "Many Medal of Honor winners were just normal soldiers who were put in a situation where their love of their buddies overcame any concern of their own well-being."
One crucial tool for mastering fear is to develop a sense of confidence in your abilities. You can train yourself for this mindset, Matthews says, by getting in the habit of pushing your personal envelope. "Intentionally expose yourself to things that you're afraid of," he says. "Set challenging but reachable goals that become progressively more difficult." Dread public speaking? Make a toast at a small dinner party. Afraid of heights? Try tackling the lower reaches of a climbing wall. Above all, be sure to reward yourself when you're successful. The goal is to train the emotional centers of your brain to anticipate a positive outcome when pushing boundaries.
Navy psychologist Marc Taylor surveyed Olympic athletes about whether they practiced positive mental skills such as silently voicing affirming thoughts. It may sound mushy, but Taylor has found that athletes who did the Stuart Smalley routine were significantly more likely to reach the medal stand. "If a coach can work with a promising young athlete to pay attention to his or her internal dialogue, and to stop negative thinking," he says, "it can really change their performance."
Instead of panicking in the face of a crisis, try to see the situation from another perspective. Consider the larger context and the good things that might come along with the bad. Rob Shaul runs a gym in Jackson, Wyoming called Mountain Athlete, where he works with mountaineers and other elite athletes. For these performers, the key to maintaining perspective is a sense of humor. "When it comes to surviving really hard situations," he says, "not taking yourself too seriously really seems to help."
A truly daunting task can drive even the toughest into discouragement. The trick, says Rob Shaul, is to just focus on the little piece in front of you. "The darker it is, the more short-term you want to be thinking," says Shaul. He cites the example of soldiers preparing for special forces selection. "Guys who've made it say that they just tried to think about making it to the next meal. Pretty soon those meals add up, and the next thing they know, they've made it."
A powerful emotion like anger can trump fear. Psychologist Stanley Rachman once treated a phobic patient who could only leave his house when he was mad at his wife. As soon as he calmed down, he had to hurry home. So? If you're tense before the big game, try thinking about how much you hate your opponents.
If you're terrified of public speaking, try tapping the soothing powers of oxytocin, the hormone of affection and bonding. One recent study found that subjects who had recently engaged in sexual intercourse were significantly calmer when asked to speak before a group of strangers.
Fear isn't all bad. Intense fear causes our brain to release chemicals that mimic the effects of marijuana and amphetamines. Time seems to slow down and pain vanishes; we can run faster and lift heavier weights. There really have been cases of panicked people lifting cars with their bare hands.
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