(The Cardinal Virtues Part Three)
We're all on a hero's journey. The dragons we face may not have scales. The lands we visit may not be exotic. We may not have to carry a sword; except for the one forged by our own iron will. I have worn armor though, or many kinds. I have no doubt that in the future I will travel to many lands, and face many dragons. I also have no doubt that I will tame them. Why carve up a rare species when you can learn from it? Does the knight always have to slay the dragon? That being said, I may look good in dragon skin boots.
Know where I can score a pair?
House Targaryen? Were they at New York Fashion Week?
If you have anxiety you'll know this is a tough one to practice. The world is an uncertain place. There's no guarantees, no security. Even stepping out the front door can be a challenge. But without the risk nothing is gained. The alternative is to live a life that is not only circumscribed, but also unfulfilled.
Things like the fear of rejection or fear of inadequacy is what held me back for so long. Now, I purposefully try to do something each day that makes me feel a bit shaky, even if it's just talking to a cashier at a bookstore, or making conversation with a bartender. Courage doesn't always involve armed combat. It can be practiced during the battles we face within.
According to Jung anxiety of this kind is a good thing. It means that one is ready to grow. The reason it feels so scary is that the experience it brings is new. We learn to dwell in comfort zones, which can become prisons if we're not careful. That doesn't mean that one can't have a routine. Visiting your favorite places, or having regular activities is alright. What I'm talking about is when a person reaches a plateau in life. It's then the desire to wander manifests itself. It is also then that the person will feel the most anxiety as they prepare to cross the threshold.
Funny word, “threshold.” It comes from an old English word, meaning, “to tread.” To cross that threshold takes just one step. Once you've gone forward you become as The Fool in the tarot deck. Not in the modern sense. I'm not saying that people are nitwits for going on journeys. Well, it depends on the journey. If you want to see the biggest ball of twine, then you're probably wasting your time. Climbing Mount Everest...well, are you an organ donor? How are they going to get your organs if you snuff it on Everest? Anyway, my point is this: The Fool represents us all at the beginning of the hero's journey of life. We are all traveling into the unknown, and unsure of what awaits us.
In the classic Rider-Waite tarot deck The Fool walks toward the ultimate unknown, a cliff! He has a white rose in his hand, representing purity (or he's from York. Not the new one, the old one). He also carries a duffel bag or satchel of some kind; which represents the knowledge he is to acquire. As I look at that card now he reminds me of myself—except I don't carry a white rose (unless I have someone to give it to).
I was that fool when I first entered therapy. I wasn't sure what I'd say to my therapist on that first session. Would she judge me? Would I tell her something so freaky that she'd run away in disgust? The answers to both of those questions was, “No.” I sometimes wonder the same thing about other relationships I have.
I had all sorts of worries back then. I worried about catching the bus on time. Would I be late to my sessions? Could I afford therapy? I had even found a part-time job at the time just so I could afford therapy. To be in therapy is to be honest with oneself. In order to do that one must expose every facet of oneself, and then analyze those facets. It's not a matter of looking for imperfections as such, the way one looks into a diamond. It's more a matter of seeing you for who you really are, and not for the ego you've constructed, or that others have chosen for you. To do that takes courage.
I expressed courage when my mother was in the hospital. I expressed it when one of my cats was sick, and I took her to the vet. I express it every day. I sometimes feel anxiety when I'm in public, or even when I'm just ordering at a restaurant. I was in line at the concession stand at the cinema this past weekend, and I felt a mild sense of panic. Still, I put myself into the world so that I may live. One cannot really live unless one is in the world.
I've been told it took courage to travel 3,000 miles on my own to a place I'd not been to before. That was when I took the train ride cross country, solo, to California. I didn't see it as courage at the time. To me it was just something I had to do.
Back then I was reminded of an old quote from Plato, “Courage is the golden means between cowardice and stupidity.” I've had my share of both in different measures. So I think for me courage means stepping outside the predictable, and facing the unknown. That by itself isn't entirely rational. Then again, the fears that hold us back are largely irrational to begin with.
Though fear is an instinct it is not our natural state. Instead, we are explorers by nature. Anyone who has ever watched a young child will know this. You spend 90% of the time chasing them. The other 10% is spent catching your breath. Children know that the world is there for us to see, and all that is in it. They explore through their experiences, and then reflect on them as adults. It is in the latter half that we begin to learn about ourselves.
For example, I know a young woman who is intelligent, beautiful, and strong. She may not realize how strong she truly is, but she's very strong. Recently she's undergone some significant changes in her life. She's looking to go back to college, find a place of her own, and make a future for herself. I admire her for a great many things; that example of courage is just one of them. She's leaving the familiar, and going into unknown territory. Yes, it may be scary at first, but she'll get the hang of it. She'll grow even more since she's began a journey of sorts; one that will lead her to a happier life.
I've begun some new adventures as well. I started a new job recently, and was very uncertain of taking it. Sure, I could have stayed where I was, but I knew it was time to move. If I stayed in my old job it would have limited me in a way. It's as if I needed to graduate from working in a comic shop to working in an office. While I'm grateful for the lessons I learned in retail, I know it wasn't going to last. Retail was meant to be a point of departure; somewhere that would get me where I'm going. It only becomes an occupation for those who either enjoy it, or those who settled. I wanted to be unsettled, and progress to my next level.
That brings me to another point about courage.
Courage comes with practice.
The first time you see the wrong in the world, and speak up about it, is difficult. You'll feel shaky, sweaty, and may even forget what point you were trying to make. Sure, you'll have some grand vision in your head, only to have it sputter into disjointed words, but that doesn't last. Whether you're performing on stage for the first time, or heading to a job interview, you learn confidence with experience. It may feel like the impostor syndrome at first, but there's wisdom in “faking it till you make it.”
The first time I ever read some of my writing in public, I was nervous. I'd never done anything like that before. I did it, and when it was done, the anxiety was gone. I've told jokes, and performed both improv and stand-up. I found the latter of the two to be really scary. With improv I could hide behind characters on stage. With stand-up there's no hiding. You are fully exposed, just as when you sing in public. The nightmare of going to school naked comes to mind, except this is a nakedness of the soul, not the body. I'm exposing myself right now as I write this. No, not that kind of exposure! I'm exposing my thoughts, my feelings, and writing to the world. That's real nakedness. It won't get me on a magazine cover, but it'll get people's attention anyway.
And as for assertiveness, that's a form of courage. It's speaking out when something isn't right. I've had many occasions in the past two years when that form of courage was needed. I'd not done it before, so I had to fake it till I made it. I was surprised with the results. Whether it was putting a rowdy concertgoer in this place, or telling an offensive customer to back off, I did it. I felt that anxiety that comes with growth, but I did it. In the end I learned a new set of skills, a sort of “on the life training.”
You may ask, “Why is courage a virtue?”
I think the answer is simple: It enables us to have the strength to be ourselves. Without courage we cannot live a fulfilling life. If we do not exercise courage we are damned to live a life of regret. Then the game of “what if” becomes a form of self-made hell. The only way to break free of this is to be brave, and be fully within ourselves.
That in itself takes real courage.
Courage, as depicted on the tomb of Pope Clement II
Text copyright J.X. Joyce 2016
Images from the Rider Waite Tarot deck are in the public domain in the U.S.