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Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. Anais Nin

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’ve been reading over some of his speeches and most famous quotes. Thinking about some of the stories.

Dr. Frank Rogers Jr. writes about King in his book, Compassion in Action. I have been reflecting on that story ever since I first read it six or seven years ago.

In 1962, Dr. King went to Birmingham, Alabama. At that time Alabama was not so different in some respects from Tennessee where I grew up. Schools, swimming pools, bathrooms, drinking fountains were all marked as to who could use them – colored or white.

But in other ways Birmingham was brutal. There were credible accounts of rapes, lynchings, and castrations of African Americans. (Although it would be in Memphis, Tennessee that King would be killed.)

Thaddeus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, unleashed attack dogs on a rally of schoolchildren. Racial tension was high to say the least.

King came to speak at one of the churches – it was overflowing. As King was finishing his remarks – continuing his call for nonviolence and brotherhood, a white man stood up and came walking toward him.

King was tired. He had been threatened, his home bombed, he’d even been stabbed while preaching in Harlem.

The man advancing toward him, suddenly threw himself at King, knocked him backwards, and beat his face and back. The place went crazy. A mob swarmed around King and grabbed the man.

People in the church were yelling, “Kill the bastard! Lynch him.”

King yelled out, “Stop! Leave him alone.”

Then King proceeded to call his congregation to try to understand…even this man. King was absolutely calm. He walked to the man, put his arm around him, and spoke to the crowd.

King asked the congregants to imagine who they would be if they were taught since they were children that Negroes where things. Taught by their parents, their teachers, even their preachers. “Who would you be then?”

It astounds me that King was able to do this – be compassionate toward this man who just attacked him. And it makes me, despite my fears, want to be wiser, more grounded, more compassionate, and especially more courageous, braver.

Bravery involves understanding the risks of failure and willingly accepting the consequences whatever they may be. People must know they are vulnerable, master their fear, and act.

Usually we think of bravery as a physical act of courage. For hundreds of years warfare was the ultimate proving ground. Today researchers approach bravery differently.

People can be brave in many ways including donating a kidney like my friend, Ann. They can also be brave socially, morally, and intellectually.

One of my heroes is a friend, Juli. She speaks her religious and political opinions truthfully though she knows others will disagree and possibly shun her. Having the courage to say things that might get us shunned by our peers is excruciatingly difficult.

If it’s not hard, it’s not courageous. If it’s painless, it’s not courageous. Our knees are never knocking, it’s not courageous. Understood that way, no surprise that many of us are reluctant to sign up for more courage even if it calls to us.

What can we do to help ourselves be braver and live more of the good life? I’ve been researching the answer to that question for months because sometimes I notice myself being cowardly like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz.

Like most behaviors, bravery probably can be promoted by example and inspiring stories like this one about Dr. King. Every culture has stories of heroes. We all know the story of Nathan Hale awaiting hanging, bravely saying that he only regretted having but one life to lose to for his country.

An acquaintance, Dr. Robert Biswas Diener, wrote a helpful book called The Courage Quotient. The book brings in courageous stories, but also science and research.

Remembering your own previous acts of courage and appreciating them is a good way to boost personal courage according to Robert. Fear can also be managed using various breath types of breathing (just breathing more deeply and slowly can help) and relaxation techniques.

Certain ways of thinking or switching focus can relax us. A friend of mine overcame her performance anxiety by thinking compassionately about her audience as people she loved and wanted to help rather than folks who were judging her.

You’d think we’d have a lot more science-backed courage building ideas than we seem to have, however. We’re still largely on our own when it comes to building our personal courage.

My courageous friend, Juli, became the brave woman she is today by noticing her own cowardice and making a promise to herself to change how she responded to social and psychological fear.

When Juli was in high school, schools in the South became integrated. Two small African American kids rode her bus filled with white high schoolers. The white teens – her friends, called the children hateful names.

Out of fear for her own (and her younger sister’s) social status, Juli simply watched and listened, though she knew what the others were doing was wrong. Juli hated herself for saying nothing to stop the teens’ racial taunts. When my friend went to college, she made a vow to speak up when others were being bullied. And she does.

Juli’s story helped me because it showed me that even if we act cowardly sometimes, we can change if we are willing to make the effort.

We can read many stories about courage. We can learn how to do some deep, slow breathing, We can remind ourselves of times we have been brave.

I am a great believer in the power of compassion. We often think of it as “soft.” Maybe it’s because there are elements of compassion that invite us to understand, to care, to be kind, to notice the humanity in another. But on many occasions, compassion also calls for courage.

And even if we are not all that interested in compassion, any attempt to live a full life - to achieve our dreams, rather succumb to a shrink-wrapped one will require that we learn to bolster our courage.

How might we become more skilled in being brave and journey to The Good Life?

(I would love to hear your own stories of courage and how you became braver. Love, June)


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