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Finding Inner Courage
By Mark Nepo
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2007 Mark Nepo
All rights reserved.
Facing the Lion
Wings of the Butterfly
If you bring out what is inside you, what is inside you will save you. If you fail to bring out what is inside you, what is inside you will destroy you.
The Gnostic Gospels
Somewhere in this time we live in, she was one of many, too many, an orphan of war. Her story took place in Guatemala. Her parents were killed and her brother lost in retaliation. And three years later, this little girl, maybe nine or ten, was found pulling the wings off a butterfly, muttering, "Pobrecita ... Pobrecita"—"Poor little one ..."
The image has haunted me. For in her innocence and pain, she revealed and relived the knot of our struggle as human beings: what we don't face as our own, we perpetrate on others. I'm in no way blaming this little one. She was just a tiny angel sent to remind us. But it has worked on me, the struggle she enacted for us all. She, of course, was the poor little one whose young wings had been torn. And carrying a pain too big for her small heart, she was, I think, trying to alleviate her pain by acting out her wound on something else. This, to me, is the source of much of the pain we cause in this life.
It is not new either. As far back as 7,000 years ago in the land of Sumeria, the tale of Gilgamesh was first told. It is the story of an empty and sad king who is so detached from life that he seeks adventure and battle to know he is alive. Thus, he declares war on Humbaba, the forest deity, proclaiming he must be killed. Along the way, the story says that, "Like many before him, Gilgamesh sought to slay Humbaba rather than face the undiscovered country in himself."
Throughout time, the role of consciousness and compassion in our lives has been to help us face our own experience and demons, to face the undiscovered country in ourselves. Largely, so we won't hurt each other. Indeed, the original meaning of the Muslim word jihad is to face one's own demons. This is the holy war. Without the ability to face our own demons, we often seek revenge rather than feel what is ours to feel. For vengeance is a powerful distraction from accepting the legitimate suffering that arises from the wheel of life; an acceptance that can make kindred spirits of us all, if we let it.
And so I feel compelled to inquire into the art of facing things—facing ourselves, each other, and the unknown. It is something we cannot do without, for facing things is what courage, at its most fundamental level, is all about. Without this, we replay and pass our suffering on to others repeatedly.
Each of us is the little one with the torn heart and much—indeed, the world—depends on whether we tear each other's wings or face ourselves and each other with tenderness. Yet where do we find the honesty and resilience for that? We can begin by asking: How many of us suffer the trauma of thinking that life is a tearing of wings? And what do we do in our quiet terror to avoid being torn? In these small questions, the most meaningful courage can grow until, against all odds, against the legacies of being torn, we might be able to stop hiding and pretending. Only then can we discover directly, for ourselves, what constitutes survival. For every time we face our own pain at being broken, we dissolve the heart's need to relive the break.
The Undiscovered Country
Let us present the same face to everyone.
The cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien has discovered that every indigenous culture on earth shares a common description of the cycle of experience. Though stated and honored in many ways, that central wisdom essentially says: what is not integrated is repeated. Just what does this mean? It doesn't mean that any of us are exempt from pain or chancing into the territory of injustice. It doesn't mean that we will not see things break down or fall apart. What it does mean is that whether pain and suffering will have a proper place in our lives or whether we will be trapped in the canyon of pain and suffering depends on our efforts to integrate our experience into a wholeness that then releases its wisdom.
It is a law of the journey: what is not integrated is repeated. What we won't face or express moves into our hands as a compulsion to speak itself through our actions: that little Guatamalan girl forcing the rip in her heart onto the small butterfly; my pain at being rejected by one friend being played out unconsciously on another; a sad and empty teacher painting a sad and empty world for his students; or a doctor pushed and abused in medical school pushing and abusing his patients years later. You can fill in the unconscious equation any way you like. Inevitably, what we won't face or express moves through our hands into the world.
You can see that we always have a choice between the effort to integrate, to surface and join what life brings to us, or to hide and disintegrate what life brings our way. For the opposite of joining is not just static. It becomes destructive. In describing his sadness at not being able to help a friend, the sociologist Jean Vanier remarks, "He had not come to terms with his own brokenness; all this was still hidden in the tomb of his being." Vanier goes on to say that instead of integrating the place of brokenness within him, his friend grew to see the world as broken. Not facing his own wounds led to a greater brokenness that was even more difficult to escape.
To state the case plainly, there is rarely a neutral place in between. Those who are not busy trying to integrate are busy disintegrating. So we don't have the luxury of sitting this one out! Still, the courage to be conscious and caring alone will mitigate our suffering. For the courage to lean into what needs to be joined, instead of hiding from it, will keep our brokenness from spreading. A recurring theme of wakefulness is that facing, feeling, and accepting our own suffering keeps us from reenacting it on others. Facing the undiscovered country in ourselves often stops the bleeding. It often stops the disintegration. Thus, a central goal of inner courage is to bear our humanness and integrate our experience so that we might strengthen the bond between living things and not add to the tearing of wings smaller than our own.
Vengeance or Music
When pushed below our frightened sense of self, we do not die. We live.
History has shown that if we don't find the courage to face our own experience, that unconscious spiral can lead to vengeance. If unchecked, it can fester into a deeper form of violence that we call evil.
The renowned psychiatrist Gerald May describes vengeance as a diversion from the hard work of facing our own suffering. Even children experience this diversion of vengeance:
Years later, I learned of some studies of traumatized children in which an attitude of revenge seemed to compensate for what otherwise would have been paralyzing depression. At last I began to see how, at a primitive psychological level, vengeance [can] serve a certain self-protective function. It by no means prevents future injury, but it [can] function as a defense against the reality of insults or injuries that have already been sustained. In the absence of revenge, we would be left with the bare pain of our loss, the sheer awful fact of it. Without revenge, we would have to bear what may seem like bottomless grief and despair. We would have to see ourselves.
While these insights make the gears of vengeance visible, they don't justify it. May simply and strongly shows how difficult it is for us to bare our own pain and loss. Often, it is an unconscious sequence of little choices—to hide instead of face, to lie instead of cry, to harden instead of staying vulnerable—that leads us to a numb place where we can't recognize ourselves. The writer and director Menno Meyjes speaks to this human struggle with little choices as his impetus to create the film Max (2002), which focuses on the development of Adolf Hitler's aberrance as a human being:
The movie isn't about Hitler's great crimes. The audience knows all about them already. This is about his small sins—his emotional cowardice, his relentless self-pity, his envy, his frustration, the way he collects and nurtures offenses—because those are the sins we can see when we look in a mirror.
Hitler, like Osama and Saddam and Milosevic, obliges us by representing an uncomplicated picture of evil. But nobody wakes up one day and slaughters thousands. They make choices, one at a time, and they do it because they do not have the courage ... to give up illusions and look within and accept one's humanity.
What Menno Meyjes raises here is very profound and challenging for every human being. For it is the simple, daily choices—or lack of choices—that enable power over compassion and self-righteousness over empathy. Countless times in our days, we find ourselves faced with the almost imperceptible choice to enable trust or distrust, to affirm directness or indirectness, to empower anonymous judgment or the courage to stand in one's truth without judging others. In minute ways, each time we let distrust, indirectness, and anonymous judgment spread and deepen between us, we water the seeds of evil that make a Hitler or Milosevic possible. I cannot overstate this connection. If a butterfly beating its wings in China can cause a strong wind on the other side of the world, then the seeds of inhumanity that we all carry, the small wings we tear in private, can incubate darkly over a continent of time into something horrific. It is all connected, and all our choices contribute to what appears before us: love or hate, welcome or disdain, compassion or cruelty.
Other traditions speak, as well, to these ethical forks in the road. The philosopher Jacob Needleman speaks of the ancient Greek notion of Thumos, which means spirit of fight. The Greeks believed this to be a part of human nature. Whether it becomes a destructive or healing energy in the world depends largely on whether that spirit of fight or struggle is directed in self-centered ways at the disappointments we experience in not getting what we want, or in deeper, self-transforming ways that seek out the resources of spirit, love, and truth. It seems to be perennially true that if that spirit of fight or struggle is not directed at what distances us from God (our isolations and illusions), then it will be directed at others. Needleman suggests that the misdirection of Thumos, our spirit of fight or struggle, has been a timeless source of war, evil, and unnecessary woundedness in the world.
Yet when we can find and stand by our core, when we can face our isolations and illusions directly, we have the chance to enliven a different kind of relationship with the pain of life. To understand this, we need to consider the nature of a flute. It is a simple fact that a flute cannot make any music if it has no holes for the breath of life to pass through. Each being on earth is such a flute, and each of us releases our unique song of spirit through the holes carved by our experience through the years. Like it or not, this is one of the purposes of suffering.
And since no two flutes have the same holes carved in them, no two flutes make the same music. Likewise, no two beings sing the same song, since the holes in each life produce their own unrepeatable melody. All this to say that there is a great, ongoing choice that awaits us every day: whether we go around carving holes in others because we have been so painfully carved ourselves, or whether we let spirit play its song through our tender experience, enabling us to listen, as well, to the miraculous music coming through others. When experience opens us and spirit moves through, we can be astonished into humility. Once opened in this way, there is great strength and joy in listening together for the song of spirit that arises so uniquely from our brush with life on earth. In submitting to this journey, courage can turn wounds into openings. In embracing this journey, love can turn brokenness into song.
Wrestling with God
Like an inlet worn open by unceasing depths, I can no longer decide what belongs in or out.
This ever-present choice—between facing our own experience or perpetrating it on others, between integrating or disintegrating, between empowering vengeance or enlivening the music of spirit—requires another kind of spiritual practice that wrestles to keep our inner and outer lives aligned and congruent. The ongoing struggle between these energies is, in some fundamental way, what we are put here for. Waking in the midst of these choices evokes an engaged practice of living that makes use of both being and doing. It is both receptive and active.
The Jewish tradition speaks to this ongoing engagement with experience as a necessary form of wrestling with God. The assumption under this sort of practice is that head-on engagement and heart-on engagement with the mysteries of life hone us to what is essential. It is a courageous engagement that wears away whatever is extraneous. Repeatedly, our vitality often comes alive from our wrestling with the energies of God.
This form of give and take is beautifully described in the Old Testament story of Jacob, when he "plunged down into the profound ravine of the Jabbok thousands of feet below." Reaching the strong river rushing at the bottom, he found the place of crossing and sent his family and all his belongings on. There he waited, not sure for what, until an apparition appeared and wrestled with him all through the night. At the sign of first light, the figure went to flee, but Jacob held on saying, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." Finally, the spirit gave Jacob its blessing and vanished as dawn flooded the length of the river. The spirit refused to name itself, but Jacob knew he'd seen the face of God. From that point on, Jacob was known as Israel, which is Hebrew for God-Wrestler.
The essence of Jacob's journey awaits anyone who dares to search for God and who thinks truth might have something to do with it. For who among us, in our heart of hearts, can deny that such a profound ravine exists within us all, waiting for the instant we summon the courage to descend into our own depths? And, against all our fears, at the base of this profound ravine is that portion of God's river cutting through our deepest stone.
The story seems to say: if you can descend to your rock bottom, no matter what brings you there, you will find God's river. And, at the place of crossing, if you put down all that you carry, if you send on all that you love, if naked of all attachment you wait in your deepest rock through your darkest night, the spirit of the Universe will enfold you, and you will have the chance of a lifetime to turn and bend, to wrestle with the elusive Being of the World. Then, if you can hold on until there is a trace of fresh light, the ineffable will reveal itself to you, and that revelation will bless you, renew you, enable you to wade through God's river into the freshness of original living.
This is a parable of transformation worth meditating on. I invite you to retell it while personalizing all the players: placing yourself as Jacob, naming your loved ones who travel with you, particularizing the landscape of your own ravine, describing the taste of God's stream that you alone know, and putting a face and voice on the spirit that you wrestle with. Imagine your conversation with that spirit. Enter the parable again with all these personal faces and see what you learn.
At the heart of it, the story confirms that at the bottom of our toughest troubles flows God's stream. It tells us that by facing our own experience there, we will be forced into a baptism that confronts our deepest assumptions about life. It is important to note that in facing these things and wrestling with God, the purpose is not to conquer or pin God, but to take hold of what is essential and elusive at the heart of our experience and stay in embrace with it until it reveals its secrets and blesses our journey. Inevitably, we are given the chance, again and again, to face the river at the bottom of our ravine, where we will rise either more committed to seeking vengeance in a life of wounds or to making music out of our suffering.
Excerpted from Finding Inner Courage by Mark Nepo. Copyright © 2007 Mark Nepo. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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