A Guide to Finding Courage in Difficult Times

An Excerpt from David Whyte's "Consolations"

David Whyte

Courage is a word that tempts us to think outwardly, to run bravely against opposing fire, to do something under besieging circumstance, and perhaps, above all, to be seen to do it in public, to show courage; to be celebrated in story, rewarded with medals, given the accolade, but a look at its linguistic origins is to look in a more interior direction and toward its original template, the old Norman French, Coeur, or heart.

Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in our society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on. To be courageous is to stay close to the way we were made.

The French philosopher Camus used to tell himself quietly to live to the point of tears, not as a call for maudlin sentimentality, but as an invitation to the deep privilege of belonging and the way belonging affects us, shapes us, and breaks our heart at a fundamental level. It is a fundamental dynamic of human incarnation to be moved by what we feel, as if surprised by the actuality and privilege of love and affection and its possible loss. Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.

Solace is the art of asking the beautiful question of ourselves, of our world or of one another, in fiercely difficult and un-beautiful moments. Solace is what we must look for when the mind cannot bear the pain, the loss or the suffering that eventually touches every life and every endeavor; when longing does not come to fruition in a form we can recognize, when people we know and love disappear, when hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.

Solace is the beautiful, imaginative home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated. When life does not in any way add up, we must turn to the part of us that has never wanted a life of simple calculation. Solace is found in allowing the body’s innate wisdom to come to the fore, the part of us that already knows it is mortal and must take its leave like everything else, and leading us, when the mind cannot bear what it is seeing or hearing, to the birdsong in the tree above our heads, even as we are being told of a death, each note an essence of morning and of mourning; of the current of a life moving on, but somehow, also, and most beautifully, carrying, bearing, and even celebrating the life we have just lost. A life we could not see or appreciate until it was taken from us. To be consoled is to be invited onto the terrible ground of beauty upon which our inevitable disappearance stands, to a voice that does not soothe falsely, but touches the epicenter of our pain or articulates the essence of our loss, and then emancipates us into both life and death as an equal birthright.

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Solace is not an evasion, nor a cure for our suffering, nor a made-up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp nor make sense of.

To look for solace is to learn to ask fiercer and more exquisitely pointed questions, questions that reshape our identities and our bodies and our relation to others. Standing in loss but not overwhelmed by it, we become useful and generous and compassionate and even amusing companions for others. But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

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David Whyte, Hons, poet, author, and internationally acclaimed speaker, is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of prose, including Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment & Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self & Other, and River Flow: New & Selected Poems.

This blog is excerpted from "In Search of the Big Story," by David Whyte. The full version is available in the January/February 2016 issue, Speaking of Sex: Why is It Still So Difficult?

Photo © Nicol Ragland

Topic: Mindfulness

Tags: David Whyte | depression and anxiety | healing | hope | love and relationships | Networker Symposium | poet | poetry | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | culture | Depression & Grief | grief

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2 Comments

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 9:11:15 AM | posted by Angela
Hearing David Whyte in person at the Symposium was one of the highlights of the entire experience. It was not so much his words, but it was more about his tone and the way he carried his message. I think that this article conveys the same tone and it allows me to reflect on the unanswered and often difficult questions that life in of itself can manifest. Those very beautiful questions that stem from the most uncomfortable and even damaged parts of myself. Thank you, David Whyte for planting the seed necessary to bring up these questions and allow me to look inside the self to try to figure out the answers or to at least accept the fact that I do not always have to find all the answers, but I can continue to seek out and find more of the questions that allow me to grow. This is just such a beautiful process and I look forward to learning more as I move forward.

Thursday, January 24, 2019 5:17:41 PM | posted by Michael R Myers
Beautiful... Shared this with my Men's Group and select friends today. If you like David Whyte you probably would enjoy Richard Rohr and Jim Finley.