Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Few Thoughts About Courage

Chapter XXI. The Lion Becomes ... Digital ID: ps_prn_cd25_369. New York Public Library
I haven't seen Oz: The Great and Powerful, but I can definitely get behind the craze for emerald eyeshadow that it has touched off. My hairdresser just added a red tint to my hair, so this should work-out great. Anyway, let's take a moment to consider the Cowardly Lion from Frank L. Baum's original work, as well as the various film and theater interpretations. Even though the lion performs many brave deeds in spite of how frightened he is, he considers himself a coward up to the end of the story. He does not realize that true courage is being afraid and continuing on anyway. In my family, and certain circles of friends, there's this idea that I'm brave and courageous, but like the lion, I walk around every day feeling self conscious of how frightening everything is.

Crescent Earth from Apollo 4
No Strings!
In high school physics, I had a teacher who really should have gone for a career in a lab, but chose high school teaching for reasons that escaped all of us. When he got tired of students throwing spit balls at him, he resorted to showing us a series of laser discs (oh yes, we had those---that was the "cutting edge" technology.) Each disc chronicled the creation of our solar system and our changing planet. In case you're wondering, I did not have the Of Pandas and People version of an education. We covered esoteric subjects like geology and evolution. I know, I know. I'm such a heathen. The solar system really freaked me out though. As I sat at my incredibly uncomfortable desk in the dark and stared at the screen, I felt so fragile: Earth was just hanging there in space "suspended" or whatever it's doing by these invisible forces that I still don't understand. Then, it got worse. Another disc showed us what will happen when our sun dies. Since our sun is a star, it will grow larger and hotter so that our whole planet gets barbecued and then, poof, no more sun and no more Earth.

The worst part: I can tell that story in detail because I still think about it all the time and it totally freaks me out. When I saw Annie Hall for the first time and Alvy Singer tells his therapist that he can't relax because the universe is expanding and that one day it will stop expanding, collapse, and that will be "the end of everything." I knew exactly what he was talking about. People who don't suffer from anxiety have no idea what they're missing. It's a whole other world for us.

When everything scares you, it takes courage to do everything because you calculate your risks more carefully than the most seasoned actuary. Did you know that most heart attacks occur when people are getting out of bed? I've long suspected that getting out of bed must be dangerous because I never want to do it. So, when I get out of bed, I'm pumped because hey, I showed that statistic who's boss! More people die in car crashes than plane crashes every year. Do I commute by plane just to reduce my risk? No! That would be silly, and I drive in New Jersey. How bad ass is that? Seriously bad ass.

Okay, so you say everybody does those things. You're probably right. With the exception of the extremely agoraphobic, that is probably the case, but I see other cases of cowardice that are more troubling and more subtle. Hardly anyone wants to put any emotional skin into the game or be in a place where their ego might be threatened or their feelings hurt. So they don't say the things they mean to say or talk about what's really important. They don't write that book or take that art class. They don't finish a college course because they missed "too many" classes and don't want to face the professor. They shut out any feelings that make them uncomfortable because it hurts to feel bad.

When I met Sara Zarr at SCBWI's Winter Conference in New York City, she signed my copy of Story of a Girl and above her signature, she wrote one word: Courage. It takes a lot of courage to write. It takes courage to get up in the morning. It takes courage to connect with people in the most authentic way I can. While it wouldn't be as frightening living in isolation and always sticking with the polite superficial things to say and not writing, I wouldn't want to live that way because for me, that wouldn't be living.

Believe in your ability to weather the tough times and enjoy the good times. Have faith that there are people who care for you if you let them. Have the courage to be everything you were meant to be. It's scary, but nobody is going to do it for you. Also, in who knows how many years, we'll all be cripsy critters anyway. What can anyone do that will be worse than that?