Grace Under Pressure

The first time I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I was hooked. His insights were a revelation to me, a young man too much at the mercy of his own wild emotions. One of the most profound gifts the book gave me as I began to give his ideas more than just my intellectual consent, but as I took the time to try to practise his suggestions actively, was deliberately to choose principles I value and by which I can judge myself.

My core values, carefully chosen, have been an anchor for me and have afforded me a much healthier sense of self than I previously had. Certainly, there are days when my fight against depression is more challenging than others, but in the last decade I have not visited that dark abyss where the voices in my head make me loathe myself. I do not think I will go there again. I no longer judge myself solely by my shortcomings, nor by my triumphs. Rather, I judge myself by the closeness with which I abide by my core values, irrespective of success or failure in an endeavour. It allows for a much more stable sense of identity. My core values do not change with my circumstances, nor with my moods; I am not so easily tossed about on the waves of my erratic feelings.

In my previous post I promised that I would unpack my own personal core values. The English teacher in me is urging me to discuss them in alphabetical order, but the first one alphabetically – Christlikeness – is going to require a fairly lengthy response. So I will ignore the protestations from the part of me that has categorised my not insubstantial book collection by genre and, within those categories, alphabetised authors and arranged the books according to  date of publication. I will start instead with ‘courage’.

I have long been a champion of the notion that the right thing to do in life is almost never the easy thing. We stay in damaging relationships because it is too uncomfortable to leave or to confront; we refuse to take responsibility for our own bad decisions and protest when we have to reap the consequences of our own irresponsibility; we don’t maximise our potential because the sacrifices that excellence in anything demands are simply too great.

But here’s the thing: sowing in courage always leads to a harvest that makes life richer. I believe that courage is a vital component of a successful life. Ernest Hemingway described courage as “grace under pressure”. As somebody who values grace, as a result of having been shown so much of it himself, courage is a quality I desire. My working definition is:

Courage: I will do necessary things even if they are hard or scary. I will have the courage to listen to and respect others, even when I disagree, and to speak my opinions, even when they are not popular. I will accept responsibility: whether good or bad, I will bravely accept the natural consequences resulting from my actions.

Courage is, for me, first an intellectual attribute. Most of my opinions on key issues have been very carefully formulated and deliberately chosen, rather than inherited from others. That gives me confidence in being able to defend them when necessary: it is always easier to defend that which one values personally. Realising, though, that my own perspectives are invariably flawed –  I am, after all, only human –  allows me to listen respectfully to the opinions of others. I am always able to learn and grow. Learning can never be complete – the universe is too large for my brain to ever comprehend it  – and so I need not be threatened by those whose opinions differ from mine. I do not need to belittle those whose views contradict mine, because my internal security is not at stake. If I think they are mistaken, I can simply disagree (passionately, I have to confess, which sometimes gets mistaken for anger. I actually have quite a low tolerance for logically unsound arguments, and my frustration with such reasoning is occasionally read as disdain). If their ideas warrant investigation, I will explore them.

That is not to say I believe all opinions are equally valid. That is a ludicrous suggestion, and a topic I will address another day. It is simply to say that I try to practise tolerance: the ability to respect others even when I profoundly disagree with them. Respect is built on courage.

My working definition of courage moves beyond the intellectual realm. In order to form functional and healthy relationships with other people, it is important to have a very clear sense of one’s boundaries. I need to be very clear about what constitutes me, and what I am responsible for (my attitudes, emotions and behaviour) and what I am not responsible for (anybody else’s attitudes, emotions and behaviour). It takes courage to clearly delineate and defend one’s boundaries. I battled with saying ‘no’ for a long time, afraid that to do so would be ‘unChristian’ or unkind. I know better now. Trying to please everybody and not to offend only leads to my feeling violated and others getting hurt when my resentment surfaces.

The attempt to foster courage also acknowledges that if I want to learn and grow from my mistakes, I need to take responsibility for them. Only once I cease blaming others for them can I begin to understand why I act the way I do, and what issues would need to be addressed for me to live more effectively.

I am, as I have re-iterated many times, far from perfect. I have said and written things I wish I could retract; I have acted in ways that have deeply hurt others. If I could take them back I would. And I could easily justify my actions and impugn others, and sometimes I catch myself doing just that. But at the end of the day, I like to think that I accept responsibility when I am wrong. I face the music and apologise. That does not diminish the hurt caused nor does it vindicate me, but I have undoubtedly become a better man through taking responsibility for my actions.

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that I start by discussing courage. It is, I think, a necessary precursor to all other virtues. To quote Maya Angelou, “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest”. I do not believe that a life of virtue leads to salvation, but I do aspire to be a virtuous man. The world needs more virtuous people. And so I will continue to cultivate courage. I encourage you to do the same.

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