The Way We Are Made: On Courage and Becoming Real

I’ve thought a lot about bravery and courage the past few days.  While those words were my constant companions for a long while, I no longer feel the same constant drive to live into them – mostly, I think, because I don’t feel fear biting and gnawing and whispering quite so often anymore.

This weekend, I went camping with a very large group of people from my church.  Given that I haven’t been camping since I was probably 11 years old (and I think we only went once), I had 0 of the things I needed, 0 experience, 0 ability to draw on memory of how to do the things, and…well…I was going to do it anyway.  Honestly, I didn’t think about it all that much, aside from the logistics: borrow tent, find sleeping bag, buy batteries for flashlight.  In the scheme of my last several weeks…er…days before the trip…, “camping thoughts” and “camping prep” was at about the very bottom of the priority list.

So when I arrived on Saturday morning, I was prepared (because, even if I prepare at the last possible second, I will be prepared, dammit), but I had not really thought through what camping would mean.

Namely, I had not really thought through the part about sleeping in a tent.  In the woods.  By myself.

Keep in mind, I was by myself in my tent, yes – but I was not alone, by any stretch.  My friends were literally next to me on all sides.

But at 3:00 in the morning, when I heard rustling outside, all I could think was that camping is pretty much the stupidest thing ever.  (I mean, seriously – first you zip yourself in a tent you have to crawl into/can’t crawl out the back of…and then on top of that, you zip yourself into a sack…and then you’re supposed to sleep, in the woods, without doors or locks or real honest-to-God walls.  Who thought THIS up?).

But then I did fall asleep, and there was something beautiful about waking up and smelling the wet mustiness of Earth, and hearing only nature and stillness.  And – yes – there was also a quiet sense for me of still alive: a reminder that I am still here and that this life is beautiful and terrible and that I am here, amazingly to witness it.  This awareness rings my body sometimes, but particularly when I do hard things.

And more than anything, that is what I’m left with – that vibration of life and community.  I’m thinking about the things I asked for help with – and the things I didn’t.  I’m thinking about the help I offered.  I wrote last time about the retreat I attended with Parker Palmer, and I am thinking about the ways this is what Palmer called “the work before the work.”  This action of finding fear and courage and still alive and community and life all inside the rainy weekend: this is not the work.  It is the work before the work.  And it is beautiful and terrible and vital.

David Whyte writes: “Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with one another, with a community, a work, a future…To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on.  Whether we stay or whether we go – to be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.”

…to be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made,” he writes.

And – oh – y’all, these words are nearly the truthiest words I have ever read.

Like I was made to be a person who trusts and lives in community, in spite of all the ways this is so difficult for me.  The person who is untrusting and isolated and anxious in community is not who I am fundamentally and at my core — and so I am courageous, over and again to get ever closer to the way I was made.

I think about other situations currently: I believe I will be courageous in conversation because I was made to be a deeply feeling being who cannot stand passively when I know something is important and right.  I believe this is the way I was made.  I know this to be the way I was made.

I wonder where this type of courage — this courage that journeys us to the place close to the way we were made — I wonder were this type of courage would land us, collectively?  Politically, where might this courage land us if we, each of us, were the type of courageous that made us stand close to the way we were made?  Or move closer to that direction?  Are your actions in line with the person you believe you are?  The person you were born to be?  How could you bravely step towards that person?  Whyte reminds us, “To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere, to do anything, except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.”

And that’s just it, isn’t it?  I mean, if this shit was easy, we’d all be doing it already.  It’s the “living through the unending vulnerabilities” part that’s hard.

Yet, he also reminds us that linguistically, the word courage comes from the word Coeur, or heart.

It does not, in fact, linguistically come from the word “badass.”

And so this conversation of courage feels gentle, yet also yes.  Rather than images of knights going into battle, it reminds me of the conversation the Rabbit has with the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt….It doesn’t happen all at once…You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 

It sounds to me like it takes a lot of courage to become Real.  And like, maybe, becoming Real is the process of discovering/uncovering/living/enacting your courage in such a way that you are able to stay close to the way you are made.  Not the superficial way you are made – not the stick-out handles, or the symmetrical/asymmetrical, or the tall/short/fat/thin way – but the way you are that you’ve always been at the heart of you.  The way that you become when you are loved and courageous.

It takes a long time.  It doesn’t happen often to people who break easily or have to be carefully kept.  When you stay close to the way you are made – when you are Real – it is beautiful, and terrible, and vital.  It is hard, like courage is hard.  Like hurt is hard.  Like becoming is hard.  Like vulnerability is hard.  And, it can’t be done alone.  It takes so much love and community to become Real.  And yet, I can think of nothing more important, and of few things our world needs more.


May we be real and becoming and courageous.  May we stay close to the way we are made, and may we always and forever see the next right step through the fog towards the next beautiful, terrible, and vital thing.


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