THE STRENGTH OF COURAGE
You have to know what you want,
when you want it, you must have the courage to say it,
and when you say it, you need the courage to carry it out.
GEORGES BENJAMIN CLEMENCEAU
“What would become of life if we didn’t have the courage to try something new?” said Vincent Van Gogh. He knew very well what he was talking about. His style stood out among his colleagues as something clearly different, and was misunderstood, rejected and puzzled over by his contemporaries. Years later, the beauty of his work moves people all over the world. They called him “the red-haired madman.” But he took risks.
In the business world, Thomas Alva Edison often said that he never gave up no matter how many thousands of attempts it took to make create each of his prototypes. Every mistake he put behind him meant a new step forward. Edison and his team created 1,903 patents, a figure no innovator has managed to improve on. Thanks to Edison and his co-workers, our standard of living today is vastly different to what it would have been without him. As a child, his teachers and schoolmates thought he was mad. But he took risks.
There are examples in sport, too, like Dick Fosbury, who revolutionised high-jump technique with what is now known as the “Fosbury Flop”, which consists in running diagonally towards the bar and curving backwards over it. He broke away from the traditional straddle method and upright scissors method. What is interesting about him is that he was not the tallest, strongest or fastest of athletes. He was, however, not satisfied with the usual techniques of the time, and this led him to start experimenting with his own style at the age of sixteen. As a student at the Oregon State University he won the NCAA title and was classified for the Olympics. At the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, at the peak of his career, he won the gold medal and set a new Olympic record of 2.24 metres, proving the potential of his new technique, which later continued to break records when other athletes started using it from 1990 onwards. The national selection official told him that he would break his back jumping the bar backwards, and said he was crazy. But Fosbury took risks… and won.
It’s interesting, but also sad, that the dictionary definition of “risk” only speaks of the possibility of loss or failure, but not, for example,of the fulfilling of wishes, of realization, of achievement or success, all of which require taking risks. The dictionary says that risk is “contingency or the proximity of damage, or being exposed to loss, among other misfortunes”. So risk is presented to us as the possibility of losing what we have or not reaching our desires. If this were all, who would take risks? When we’re paralyzed by the fear of loss all we can do is lose, because we don’t dare innovate, support anything, or stake our bets in creating new circumstances that will improve our and others’ surroundings.
THE REAL RISK IS NOT TAKING RISKS
Those who lack bravery will always find a philosophy to justify it.
We often hear that brave people, those who take risks, those who put themselves at stake and try to create a better life, are crazy, simply because they bring about new circumstances, and doing so is foreseeably difficult or even impossible. But perhaps courage is far removed from madness. Probably, rather than the absence of fear, courage is the awareness that there is something worth taking risks for.
Courage is strength put to the service of love and awareness. Courage moves us because we believe that what we want to create, to change, or to build, is meaningful. So meaningful, in fact, that for it we will face our fears, to confront the dragons inside us and outside us, and to set off on a journey we will return from completely different to how we set out; maybe because we managed to make the longings we set out to achieve real, maybe because after an apparent defeat, we learnt something new and see life differently after it. Whatever the case, we will have grown on our inner journey if we are able to work alchemy on our pain and not to become lost in success or achievement, but rather to let them bless us.
Longing and bravery will always go hand in hand. Longing invites us to grow and courage makes us grow. The former is the seed, it is potential, it is an idea; the latter is action, transformation, reality. And in the dance between them, the spiritual and real development courage gives us nourishes our longings in an ever-denser, ever more subtle spiral. The dance of our longings and our bravery is what changes our lives and those of the people around us; it is the building ground for the Good Life. It is this extraordinary dance that has made yesterday’s utopias today’s realities, and which might turn the utopias of today into the realities of tomorrow.
LOVE IS COURAGE
There is no human being, however cowardly,
who cannot become a hero for love.
What wouldn’t we do for love? How far would anyone go to avoid the pain of a loved one? This is where courage comes in. Plato said that there is no-one, however cowardly, who could not become a hero for love. Courage lies precisely in the ability to do unimaginable things when circumstances push us against our limits. Because courage is actually not an absence of fear; it is the awareness that there is something worth taking risks for. Courage allows us to put our energy, feelings, emotions and visions to work so that we can reach beyond where we imagine and transcend our own limits.
When I think of the power of courage, I often remember a story the clear-minded Argentinian writer Enrique Mariscal told me about the great violinist Itzhak Perlman during a concert he played at the Lincoln Centre in New York. Perlman had polio as a child and as a result of it he finds it very hard to move around. Even today, getting to the top of the stage is not easy for him and he plays his instrument in a seated position. On the day this happened, a large crowd filled the auditorium, expectantly waiting to hear his exquisite playing, and he went painfully to his place on the stage and sat down on his chair before them. He put his crutches aside and undid the straps around his legs and waist. Then he picked up his violin and placed it under his chin. But just as the orchestra director was giving the signal to start playing, something awful unexpectedly happened: one of his violin strings snapped.
The public heard the snapping and thought that the concert would be interrupted so that the string could be replaced. But, to the astonishment of the entire auditorium, Perlman decided that this would not happen. The crowd were moved to see him signal to the director to go on. And then the great violinist closed his eyes and went on to play as if both he and his instrument were in top form, giving and committing himself completely to his music and the audience.
It should be mentioned here that it is technically impossible to play a symphony with only three strings on a violin –except that the master violinist, in his genius, skill and bravery, pretended not to notice. Inspired and dedicated to his performance, he spontaneously created new harmonies which gave his interpretation an astounding beauty and value.
When his work was done, the public were stunned for a moment and sat in absolute silence. Then a burst of applause broke the silence, and finally the whole room broke into an ovation. Enthusiastic clapping, whistling and shouts sounded out as the audience gave voice to their acknowledgement and admiration. Apparently, Perlman took a handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped the perspiration from his brow and bowed in deep gratitude. Then he raised his bow to quieten the audience. After a couple of seconds, they fell silent again in expectation. The virtuouso looked out at them and said thoughtfully and reverently, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
The question Perlman put to his audience is one we should continuously apply to our lives: What can we do with what we have, with what we have left? If we take into account that we will always lack something; that there will always be something to improve; that we will often have to play our roles in life with less than a full set of strings… But it is in the ability to give ourselves up to life with what we have now, incomplete, longing for happiness and realization, that true courage comes into play and we ask, What can we do with what we have left?
Perlman went on playing out of respect, courage and “for love”, as Plato put it. He did not forget that his public had paid a considerable amount for the chance to hear him play, and he felt he could not disappoint them. Probably, there can be no true courage without love.
THE ABSENCE OF COURAGE MAKES THINGS DIFFICULT
It is not that we do not do things because they are difficult,
rather, we make things difficult because we do not dare.
Acts that come from the heart pull us above our own possibilities and shape our lives. Interestingly, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, considered the world’s greatest authority on accompanying the terminally ill, says that if a person nearing death was asked “What would you do again if you were to live?” the answer was nearly always, “I would have taken more risks.” When the person was asked why, their reasoning went something like this: “Because of what I wanted to do and didn’t because I was too afraid; or what I wanted to say but was too scared or shy to; or because of when I wanted to express my feelings for someone but was too scared of making a fool of myself to do so –all these things seem utterly ridiculous in the face of my death. Death is something I can’t decide on, life impels me towards it; and now, before it, I realise that all those circumstance that once seemed such a terrible challenge to me are nothing compared to the fact that I’m dying and there is no way back from it.” Their response is undoubtedly full of common sense if we consider that life is a great opportunity for risking ourselves in order to learn, grow, share and love.
Perhaps the things that seem hard to us are not so hard if we take risks and think that it is thanks to the bravery born of love that we can get through challenges and difficulties, just as Perlman did. But what if we don’t make it? Well, at least we will have learnt something in the process, and perhaps doors will open up in our lives that we never expected.
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