Courage – what does it look like?

Last month I focused in on joy. What brings someone joy? What doesn’t? People will spend a good deal of their day – and life – trying to attach themselves to what makes them happy, but never really get to that point of joy. I wanted to examine that further and for the most part, I did. But, I was also a bit distracted last month. In a good way though – I got married.

You might say that I have plenty to be joyous about. Wedding, honeymoon, beginning life with a best friend – yes, these are all awesome things. Daunting, but exciting and a great transition into the topic this month: courage.

It’s a hard term to define nowadays. What is courage? What does courage even look like? Ask someone 80 – 100 years ago and courage may look like defending one’s country or feeding the mouths of the hungry; a black and white concept with immediate results. Ask someone from 50-60 years ago and courage takes a new form: inaction becomes mistaken for action and calls to war separate people rather than bringing them together. Flash forward to the present and the image of courage is even more skewed; less clear and murkier than ever. In fact, courage now looks like this: sitting at home, “knowing what’s wrong with the world”, yet possessing neither the fortitude nor the incentive to act on the wrongness we feel. This new courage is all about hiding – the complete opposite of what the word means. The 21st century “warrior” builds barriers around one’s self, makes more money than his neighbor, and leads as comfortable an existence as possible.

Don’t believe me? Consider the protagonists of today’s popular stories and movies. And like it or not, the stories we are willing to indulge ourselves in – the stories we pay attention to – help define what is worthy of being called, courageous. On one side, there is the unattainable image: the perfect mate who never wrongs you or the impossibly-shaped supermodel made only for you. Neither persona exists as a whole – sorry. But then, you have the other extreme: the slacker; the privileged fool; the self-entitled comedian. All of which can exist, but share none of the qualities with being “courageous.” And with such opposite ideals flying around, people may find themselves struggling to achieve one of the two; thinking if one cannot be attained, then the other must be what he or she is meant for.

For example:

“If I can’t be the hero, then I can definitely be the slacker who will eventually get his day.”

“If I can’t be funny or land that awesome job, then I’ll work hard to get that perfect soul mate to make my life complete.”

These may not sound like actual statements, but through a person’s actions, we can observe where these unconscious agreements have become conscious reality.

I find myself severely convicted by this growing trend. More than in recent years. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because I just got married, or maybe it’s just because it’s always ticked me off – for whatever the reason, I burn with the foreboding sense that courage is a trait most men – and women – will never understand. Not until we make the effort to reevaluate courage will we see the difference. And courage is not always about getting recognized; it’s about the willingness to face and fight battles we’d normally run away from. Confronting an abusive relationship, not giving into despair and depression, acting on a civil injustice rather than standing idly by, etc. The list goes on…. Courage isn’t about having a grand stage; it’s about growth.

My most recent of reads, Killing Lions, by John and Sam Eldredge, strives to showcase the lack of courage our society faces and honestly, I agree with them. Not because I’m a crotchety old soul who hates fun – it’s because the epidemic is true. The world is in need of more courageous men and women. And that doesn’t mean more rich people, more ultra-successful entrepreneurs or people who get elevated to a top management position. It’s about daily living that isn’t racked by fear, but moved with a sense that the world is messy and in need of those willing to get their hands dirty and clean it up.

Pressure: Role Models and Writing

This may come as a surprise to some, but we tend to adopt certain traits and behaviors from the people we meet. Especially if the person is in a leadership role. But, the absorption process isn’t as simple as dipping a dry sponge in a bucket of water. We pick and choose model behaviors based on what we deem as admirable or attractive. Then we envision ourselves doing the things they do, operating in a manner that is reflective of what we are seeing. And we experiment to find out if what works for them, will in turn, work for us.

For example, when I was little, I wanted to be like Michael Jordan (and what kid didn’t?!). I read up on his training regimen, I tried to learn his moves, and I did my best to hone in on what made Air Jordan so great. I never did make it to the pros but I did adopt plenty of Mike’s attitudes along the way: don’t give up, strive to win, see who you want to be before you begin, etc. – all were applicable character-builders in my eyes. Mr. Jordan operated – at least on the ball court – like a successful guy and yes, I wanted to “be like Mike” too.

However, his off-the-court troubles have been hard to swallow as I’ve followed his career. As an athlete, he’s the best – driven, competitive, talented and applies himself – but as a husband and father, he hasn’t always had the best rep. And both are positions holding great authority in the most intimate of places: at home and with family.

Mr. Jordan has probably faced absurd amounts of pressure as an athlete, but he’s also faced a ton more in his personal life. Every leader, every role model, faces similar pressures. But, sometimes when you’re a leader, being the proper role model can often be an afterthought. “Let me get to where I want to go first” is the mindset – then, “I’ll worry about what people think of me” comes later. But, the two go alongside one another. A person who wants to have influence, but thinks a good leader means being a good delegator is a fool. Leadership is an act of service, and is done from the ground-up, not top-down. The eyes of the ones you lead aren’t watching you with awe because you’re in charge, they’re watching you and looking for consistency of character and clear goals and objectives. That’s all about role modeling and very little about delegating to your subordinates.

So there’s more pressure with being a decent role model than one may anticipate. Or perhaps it’s better to understand the perspective that people are always looking for strong role models, seeking out proper and good authority even when they don’t even realize it. Eager eyes watching and absorbing what you do like a sponge – hopeful you have the right gusto to serve them and not just yourself.

As a writer, learning how to be a better role model is huge. A person’s actions and words have great weight in the world and if you’re a writer, you’re basically in the business of both. You can write on a topic – any you wish – but the catch is that people’s expectations will increase. You have to live out what you write about; what you choose to be an authority on is what you must ultimately own in your own life. Otherwise, it’s like making a proclamation to hit a home run without ever having swung a bat in your life. But, here’s the good news: you can train ahead of time. It’s not like you have to bat without first taking a hitting lesson. You can still prepare; you can still train; and you can still seek out others who have done things well – modeling their attitudes, their practices, and their character. That way, some of that pressure can come off.

And when you’re a writer, that’s something to rejoice over.

 

 

 

The Difference a Year Makes

It’s been a year since I spoke to inner city youth on pursuing dreams; a whole year. I’ve been fortunate to mentor and inspire young adults in one-on-one environments but a whole year since I’ve been granted an audience larger than a mere handful. I’ve grown much in that frame of time – as a person and as a writer – just like any other person can or does. And recently, I was granted the opportunity to repeat what I did a year ago: speak in a classroom about what I do.

This wouldn’t be like what I did before though. This time, it would be pre-teens and new teenagers; a whole other animal to work with in a classroom setting. Last time, it was 9th and 10th graders, but this time, it would be middle school students. To any teacher who knowingly takes on the task of teaching 7th and 6th graders, I applaud you. Better yet, I say ‘you’re amazing’; you deserve a ton of credit. When it comes to these ages, the interactions can be as tender as they are hostile. The differences between a 12-year old and a 13-year old are vast; vast like an ocean, I’d say. Becoming a teenager can be like sailing off to a new continent, not knowing what to expect, but you have to go because you don’t have any other option. And that’s a maddening concept. You’re on a boat and there’s no way you can get off. The land behind you is dead or dying and your only escape is somewhere across the open ocean. But it’s not an escape so much as it’s a predetermined destination. And when you land, you find a place that’s nothing like what you left behind. It’s frightening to many, and for good reason.

I say this because I knew what I was getting into – a land full of angry inhabitants who want to be heard as much as they want to left alone. Quite the hypocrisy, but you tread lightly regardless. It was “Career Day” at one of our local city schools; a day I recall as being one filled with weird guests who had something called “jobs” and one day I would have a to choose a “job” myself. The usual suspects would come year after year to my school – police officers, nurses, firefighters, and sometimes other teachers. But never was there an author, I remember. There was never a professional wordsmith; a person like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or R.L. Stine walking through the archways of my alma mater. Not that I claim to be on their level – I just don’t remember one being at my school’s “Career Day”. So this was exciting. For me, it was, but to the kids? Well, who is to say that they had any interest in listening to me or what I had to give them.

Teenagers are complicated organisms; more so than their earlier forms, the pre-teens. Having this knowledge, I wanted to speak in a way that would be engaging, intriguing, and somehow “fun” for the class. How does a one go into a school full of hormone-raged adolescents and keep them interested though? I understand their need for visual stimulation, but hey, I’m a writer. Putting words up on a board would be business as usual to these kids. How was I going to do this and what was I going to talk about and show? Well, the immediate answer I came to was this: I have no freaking idea. That’s when I decided to rely on some divine intervention from God to help me out because alone, there’s no way I could do it effectively. That’s not to say that I didn’t prepare ahead of time. I gathered a couple visual aids, specifically on stories I’m working on, and brought those along with me. That was for starters, but only after asking what might be a good idea to bring along.

So I went to school and encountered the 7th graders first. And truth be told, it was rough. Students could scarcely pay attention for more than a few minutes. But I trudged through on how and why I tell stories, my educational background, and all other things that may help paint a picture of how I got where I was. But all that broke down when I asked the kids one simple question – “do you any of you know what ‘passion’ means? Or do you have one?” The teens didn’t have much to speak on the word, which was surprising to me. Some said it was “something that’s fun to do”; another said, “singing”; and one kid said, “you mean like lobsters or something?” (this boy loved lobsters). I went on to explain that some of their responses were on the right track – save the lobsters comment – but there was one crucial piece missing. “What’s that?” one of them asked and I replied with, “the willingness to suffer for something better, namely a reward”. That’s when I got a ton of confused faces. And unfortunately, my time was up in the classroom.

I walked out of there feeling defeated; like, I’d done a poor job of explaining my work or what drove me to become a writer. The class was hard enough wrangling up to stay attentive, but the reception I received on that final remark really shook me. Not that every teenager should have a clear understand of passion is, but to think that wanting to suffer so as to gain a reward was a foreign concept was disheartening to me. I knew many of these students, if not all, came from difficult backgrounds so suffering or struggling is not unfamiliar. But that was the issue altogether. The reward, the possible gain; the hope was missing. If any one of those kids had the insight or the ability to do so, they may have jumped up and said something like, “well, we already know suffering, but what’s this reward business you’re talking about?” That’s when I sunk inside myself and immediately became angry. Suffering for the sake of something good did not make sense. What reward? What goal? There was none, it seemed. The blank stares made sense and I felt compelled to go back into the classroom and elaborate on what I meant. But there was no time for that – I had another classroom to share with.

This time, it would be the 6th graders. Not as old as the last group and some of them still teetering between pre-teen and teenager. I focused up and decided to stick with my original game plan but this time, get with the program and explain what ‘passion’ means as a whole. Or at the very least, touch on what that may look like for them. I got through the first part of my talk and then came back to that critical inquiry: “Do you any of you know what passion is? Or what that means?” The same responses came through. So I opened up and said, “It actually means that you’re willing to suffer for something so you can hopefully achieve something later.” Again, the blank stares. So I got with it and shared how I’d once wrote a story for a girl I liked when I was 10. I penned a short horror story for her and gave it over to her. My hope was that she’d love it and I’d win her over with my amazing writing talents. And as I told the tale, several of the girls laughed, wondering why I’d resort to something like that.

“Why do you think?” I asked.
“Because you like to tell stories?”
“Yeah. That’s it. And what do you think she said when she read it?”

The classroom went silent until one girl burst out, “She hated it, didn’t she?” To which I replied, “Yes, she didn’t exactly like it that much, at all.”

Every student in the class had a good laugh at that, but when I went on to say how I still wanted to write stories, despite that crushing blow, something clicked for a few of them.

“So, you kept going?”
“Yes. I did.”

It’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom, talking on my life as an author/writer, but more importantly, it’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom on why there’s hope despite any current circumstances. For me, it’s years of sticking with something, committing myself to a craft and not giving in to the doubts that try and intercede. For the students, it could be graver situations like abusive homes, drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. and that’s frightening to be within. Passion doesn’t exist; survival is the name of the game. So to these students and so many like them, a “guest speaker” is just another adult with an agenda; one they’re not interested in hearing about. But if anyone can bring a story that speaks of triumph – not mindless struggle or silver-spooned entitlement – ears open and heads perk up. All because there’s a hope that something will change for the better.

The storm of adolescence is hard enough, but if there’s a hope that the storm will subside someday, somehow – then that’s much more significant. And worth speaking about.