I hear you will not fall in love with me
because I come without a guarantee,
because someday I may depart at whim
and leave you desolate, abandoned, grim.
If that’s the case, what use to be alive?
In loving life you love what can’t survive:
and if you grow too fond and lose your head,
it’s all for nought–for someday you’ll be dead.
— Erica Jong, To X. (With Ephemeral Kisses)
This post started out as a reply to one of the comments in my first go-round of the relationship skills poster I’m working on.
I believe courage is among the most valuable traits any person can have. It’s a trait I look for in a potential partner. One of the things I say often, and included on the poster, and one of the things I believe it would have been most helpful for me to have learned a long time ago, is “life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage.”
Every time I say that, I’m always taken a bit by surprise by the amount of resistance I get to it. I hear a lot of objections to this idea, and the objections are usually couched in terms that frankly don’t make a lot of sense to me. It seems like when I talk about life rewarding courage, the idea I’m trying to communicate ends up vastly different in its interpretation. I started to write a response about what I mean when I say that life rewards courage, but I thought it deserved a blog post of its own.
First, let me talk about what I mean when I use the word “courage.”
Courage is not the absence of fear. If we never felt fear, there would be no need for courage; indeed, without fear, the idea of courage would be meaningless. We as a species never experience the emotion of fluntillation, for instance, so talking about making a virtue of bandestility in the face of fluntillation makes no sense. Courage isn’t in what you do when you are fearless; it’s in what you do when you’re fearful.
Courage does not mean recklessness. It does not mean acting on impulse or without intent. Recklessness is sometimes easier than real courage; when you’re reckless, you may act without considering the risks or consequences of your actions, and when you don’t consider the risks of your actions you might be less afraid of them. The kind of courage I’m talking about is not blind, impulsive recklessness, but action that comes from calm deliberation.
Courage is not desperation. A person with nothing to lose has nothing to fear.
Someone in the conversation that followed the first go-round of the relationship poster used the argument that a person who hits on a hundred women a day might succeed in finding sex partners in the short term, but will likely eventually run out of people to hit on and also end up being socially ostracized.
I find this argument a little baffling. It is not lack of courage that prevents me from hitting on a hundred people a day; it’s the fact that hitting on a hundred people a day wouldn’t succeed in getting me the kind of relationship I value. Hitting on every woman I see would not be an act of courage, because I don’t want a relationship–or sex, for that matter–with every woman I see.
Which brings up what courage is.
Courage is making decisions that take you closer to what you want, or to the person you want to be, even when you’re scared. Courage is not allowing fear to be in the driver’s seat. Courage is talking to the person you are interested in, even though you’re aware that you may be rejected.
Courage is saying “I will reach for what I want” rather than saying “I have been hurt before, and I don’t want to be hurt again, so I’m not going to risk it; I’m just going to sit here and do nothing.” Courage is saying “This new thing you’re doing scares me; it makes me feel unsure and insecure, but I will support you in it anyway” rather than “This thing you’re doing scares me; I forbid you to do it.”
I have tried both approaches. Moving with courage more often results in me having the life that I want to have than allowing my fears to control my actions does. Relationships with people who move with courage are more satisfying to me than relationships with people who don’t.
Now, sure, moving with courage is not always rewarded. Again, if there were no possibility of hurt or loss, there would be no virtue in courage. Yes, you might reach out for what you want and come up short. You might be rejected. You might be hurt. Absolutely.
But what’s the alternative? Never reaching for what you want? Always backing down in the face of fear? Never choosing the harder path? What does that gain, other than a life lived from cradle to grave by the path of least resistance?
If one person reaches for the relationship she wants ten times, and is rejected nine of those times, and another person never reaches for what he wants for fear of rejection, which of them has been more rewarded? The person who was hurt but now has the life she wants, or the person who has never been hurt but also never been happy?
Life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage. Yes, moving with courage means running the risk of being hurt. But hiding in the corner, afraid to take a chance, also hurts; it’s just that it hurts all the time, so you become less aware of it.
And being hurt isn’t the end of the world. Broken hearts mend. Indeed, I’ve written in the past about the value of having your heart broken; often, it’s in the way we deal with pain and loss that the best inside us has the chance to blossom.
To live a life built on a foundation of fear, in the end, breaks far more than just a heart. It destroys any chance of having anything worth keeping. Moving with courage means risking pain; but failure of courage means risking everything.
Courage is not fearlessness, or recklessness, or desperation. It is choosing who you want to be, deciding what kind of life you want to have, and then moving toward that even when it’s scary. It is not rewarded every single time; we do not always get what we want, and sometimes, we get hurt. Courage is in living the life we want in spite of that. If there is any other way to be happy, I have not found it.