“Courage reveals itself most often in the ordinary.”
Many have written about courage and ordinary people, and about courage under ordinary circumstances. If I have failed to cite them properly, it is simply because as my good friend Dan reminds me, 'you haven't had an original thought, you just forget where you heard it.' In this case, I think the wording is mine. Let's consider that courage in ordinary things is still courage, that it sometimes takes great courage to live an ordinary life, and that living an ordinary life with courage is both meaningful and extraordinary.
To be courageous does not usually involve major heroic things. Courage reveals itself most often in the ordinary. Consider first our public heroes, often athletes. If you follow football or basketball , these athletes are literally larger than life. These are massive human beings with super human strength, speed, and endurance. We are in awe of their accomplishments, as well we should be. It is even more impressive when we put such accomplishments into perspective and realize that on our very best day, we would not equal their very worst day. They are that much better than us at what they do.
As children we imagine that we are these great athletes and often wonder what it must be like to really be like them. Everyone wants to be like Mike, Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever for our young readers. Honestly, it must be wonderful to be like them. We cannot imagine being as good at something as they are at what they do. Certainly, they have worked hard and continue to work hard to develop their gifts and God given talents. That couldn't have been easy. Yet,let's pause for a minute. Was it courageous? Was it heroic?
These athletes operate at a different level. They are the best at what they do. It must be incredibly easy to wake up everyday and know that you are that good at something. You are at a level that most people could never imagine exists. If you are Lebron James, 'it's good to be the king.'
Then there are the rest of us. We are ordinary in that regard. We could practice for the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers reminds us is the price to be paid to become an expert. Yet even if we paid such a price, most of us for many reasons, could never attain that level of expertise. We would be better of course, but most would never be that good. So think of our courage. We have the courage to wake up everyday and try again. Mary Anne Rademacher wrote “Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.” What courage that takes! If we keep trying again for tomorrows after tomorrow, we must ask why? What is the reason for trying? The reasons are often simple.
We get up and go to work everyday, sometimes at a job we don't like, to provide for our families. We sometimes play at a sport or recreational activity knowing that we will never be good enough to be professional but we have a reason to come back. Golfers play at that enormously frustrating game hoping that their next shot is the one that they hit just like Tiger Woods. Those reasons are within ourselves, to simply provide enjoyment, to get better albeit marginally, to participate, to engage in life and living, to accept responsibility for who we are.
The courage we speak of and even celebrate is the courage to try. Life does not promise us success, it does not promise us really much of anything except life. So let us engage life head on, embrace it,embrace that notion that we have power within ourselves to craft that life if we but participate in it. That active participation and engagement in life can begin to create meaning in line with our values.
What then can we do to change our lives, to begin to create a more meaningful life? Frankl suggests three ways to discover and create meaning in our lives:
- Create a work or do some deed. Frankl is not urging us to do something that makes front page news so to speak. Rather he urges us to get up and do something, something for ourselves perhaps or do something for others. If we have a core belief in something fundamental like an environmental cause, serving the homeless, or giving ourselves in some way to others, we begin to create meaning in our lives, our days have a purpose. Yet there are of course other deeds to perform, some other work to do. We can do something for ourselves as well. Most of us have had a desire to become more healthy, to get more exercise. So this small deed of doing something to start small, do something healthy for yourself begins to change your life and to create meaning for you. It begins to proclaim to the world, 'This is me! This is my life defined by me!'
- Experiencing something, encountering someone. We can at least today, at least one time, stop to say hello and converse with our neighbor, to do something for someone in our family, even to the point of just calling them to say “hello, how are you?”. These are deeds and works of caring, and caring for someone expressed through a deed creates meaning. We can experience something as well. These experiences do not have to be dramatic events, but can you experience beauty, truth, goodness? Emerson wrote that 'if eyes were made for seeing, Then beauty has its own excuse for being.' We can discover meaning by experiencing goodness,truth, and beauty.
- In our attitude toward suffering. Frankl does not suggest that suffering is necessary for meaning, but that in spite of suffering, it is possible to discover meaning. Dostoevsky said “There is only one thing I dread, not to be worthy of my sufferings.” While this might seem a strange thing to say, Frankl reminds us that the way one bears suffering is a genuine achievement. That is to say that the spiritual freedom of exercising one's will in these circumstances is what makes life meaningful and purposeful. We have a choice to have courage, to have dignity, or to forget the dignity that makes us human and become more concerned with self-preservation at the expense of that dignity. Few people have such courage and dignity, however, we can point to examples of such moral courage as something to emulate. Our failings do not mean that we lack courage or moral fiber, it demonstrates that we have the courage to try to succeed. That courage demonstrates our free will to transcend suffering and to find meaning in the worst circumstances.
So let us begin to create more meaning in our lives. Let us, in the ordinary things we do, have the courage we imagine our Superheroes to have. Try once again. Let us take the next step.