Courage is a State of Mind
Courage is defined as “The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.” (Free Online Dictionary)
Courage is a state or quality of mind. Fear is a biological reaction to the awareness that something may hurt us. Fear can be helpful in legitimately harmful situations. However, often we experience fear in situations where there is little or no danger, and we hang back, missing opportunities that may enrich our lives and bring us more happiness. There are risks in the decisions we make every day.
Some people are born a little more cautious. I have a son who was so focused on being safe that he refused to walk until he was 14 months old. Another son, at 9 months, saw the opportunity in walking even though it came with a few more bumps and bruises. Interestingly, this biological reaction and feeling of fear can also be triggered by our thoughts and emotions based on past
experiences. Triggered fear is powerful and can become emotionally overwhelming. It can be especially debilitating when the fear generalizes a specific event in the past and applies it to the present, causing more anxiety in situations than is warranted. This can have a negative effect on an individual’s quality of life and relationships.
I am not a risk taker. I tend to focus on the safety, or more accurately the lack of safety, of a situation, not the opportunity. The extent of my risk taking is to exceed the speed limit by 5–10 miles, but only as long as I am acutely aware of the lanes, signs, cars and traffic flow around me. When boating, I make sure we do not stay out too long on the lake if there is lightning within sight. I am always anxious before I get on a roller coaster. My husband thinks I worry too much. I tend to think he doesn’t worry enough.
Last summer was our 9th wedding anniversary. We have a large blended family and really enjoy spending time with our adult children and grandchildren. My life is now comfortable, safe, and fairly predictable.
For this anniversary, my husband suggested that we go white water rafting down the Snake River. I had never been white water rafting, never had a desire to go white water rafting, worried about falling out of the raft, and didn’t think that I wanted that adventure. To be perfectly honest, I was afraid that something could happen to me. I tried to push that idea of fear back. Over the last nine years, my husband has challenged my comfort zone. We have been sailing, horseback riding, snorkeling, and had many other adventures. But this summer, I just did not want to go river rafting. I was more resistant to this idea than the others and wasn’t sure why. It didn’t sound romantic to me for a wedding anniversary.
My husband was persistent, listened to my complaints, and saw through the fear, answering logically every concern that I could verbalize. I was getting older, I didn’t want to get hurt, and it would be embarrassing to me to have someone pull me out of the water. So my husband made sure that we would go with a professional company, would have life jackets, would go on a bigger raft, and I could choose the place to sit on the raft and would most likely survive the experience without even getting wet.
I did my research. I talked to everyone I knew who had been rafting, and they loved it. Most importantly, I could tell that this was important to my husband. So I hesitantly agreed.
As defined by social psychologists, taking risks is about balancing safety and opportunity. (Lopes, Lola L.)
Courage Requires Action
The closer it came to this new adventure, the less I wanted to go. The morning finally came. We arrived at the white-water company, put on our booties, and signed the injury (and in my mind death) waiver. I threatened my husband that if something happened to me, I would never forgive him. I just wanted him not to expect me to be excited to get on the raft. I knew he would feel obligated to sit by me in the safest place on the raft. The rafting company bused us, along with 13 others, to our launch site. The guide explained the rules and what we needed to know once on the river. He then handed paddles to those who would help steer through the rapids. He asked for four adult volunteers to sit at the front of the raft, two on either side. Only two people raised their hands, and during the uncomfortable pause, all of a sudden…something snapped…I was there, I could do it. I wasn’t going to let my fear control this experience. I raised my hand–much to the amazement, bewilderment, and utter shock of my husband. I decided to act! (See Anxiety – “Action Reduces Anxiety)
I thought that my husband would be at the front of the raft, with me safely behind him, but the guide explained that it was important that the lighter of the two was in the front. I didn’t expect to be on the very, very, very front of the raft. Not on a seat, when there were some nice safe seats behind me, but on the actual outer edge of the raft!
An interesting thing often happens after those few seconds of courage (action); fear dissolves and momentum begins.
There was no getting out of facing the river now! And I was leading. All I could do was sit up straight, firmly secure my feet in the bottom of the raft, enjoy the waves, follow the directions of the guide, and just do it!!!
Most of the ride, we calmly floated, enjoying the beautiful river framed with majestic trees, sun shining on the water, while listening to stories of our white water guide. My husband occasionally glanced over at me smiling, making sure I was still there. He was clearly amused that I was at the front–and by my own choice. There were six areas of white water with the last being the largest. It also had quite a drop. Each drop before prepared me for that one. And in each one, I got through safely, giving me more confidence.
When facing stressful experiences, as we act and realize that our unrealistic expectations are not happening, our confidence increases exponentially. (See Anxiety-“Anxiety Thinking Patterns”)
The company had a camera set up to take pictures during this last huge rapid. As we approached this final and anticipated section of the river, I couldn’t just hold on and get through. I needed to paddle as instructed by the guide. All I really remember was that I was hit by a big wave of water. My thighs gripped the side of the raft, and I focused on my feet staying firmly in the stirrup. I tried to paddle, but there was one point that I just had to grab the rope on the side to make sure that I would stay with the raft. But I did stay inside, and we did rise above the water. Exhilaration and a sense of “I did something really awesome” flooded me. I was so happy, and in the series of pictures taken, my reactions are clearly shown.
At first, I had an intense, focused anticipation. It wasn’t fear at this point. But, as you see in the picture, as I saw the drop and the crest of the rapid coming, my mouth dropped wide open in pure shock.
Sometimes, part of what we take on may be a little bigger than we think. However, the increased confidence and being in the moment again reduces the fear and enhances the ability to act as needed.
My husband and I cannot even be seen in the picture above. We completely disappeared in the deluge of water–evidently the point at which the wave hit me…with my mouth wide open.
The final photo of the series is not descriptive of the way I felt. I remember my response and feelings clearly. I look like a drowned rat, but came up out of the water thrilled and laughing. Although there was a sense of relief, it was not an, “I’m glad this is finally over, I can’t believe I survived” expression, but instead an expression of pure joy–“I did it! And it was so much fun! When can we go again? When can we take the kids?” I am so grateful for those seconds of courage when I raised my hand.
My husband immediately emailed all of the pictures to our children, and his delight created a happy memory for our relationship to continue to build upon.
Our lives and relationships are enriched as we choose to look past those fears we may have and embrace 20 seconds of courage!!!
What are the steps to act with Courage?
1. Identify what you are afraid of. I was afraid that something would happen to me if I went white water rafting. I wanted to be around and healthy to interact with my children and grandchildren. There is a potential that white water rafting can be unpredictable and dangerous. Respect your fear and where it came from. It is OK to feel scared. A river can be dangerous, and we should respect that and take appropriate precautions.
2. Understand the risk versus the opportunity. Even if you naturally lean toward safety (like me), understand both the true risks involved and the possible rewards or opportunities. As I did this, I learned that the specific activity we were involved in was mostly safe, and the opportunity centered around sharing an important experience with my husband. He had respected my concerns and been willing to make it as safe as possible for us.
3. Do it! Whatever it is. For me, it was an impulsive surge of courage that led me to paddle and really engage in the experience instead of sitting back and just enduring.
4. Celebrate! Acknowledge and celebrate your courage and the confidence that naturally comes from such actions. Next time you face fear, use this as a tool to remember that you can do hard things.