Bravehearts, One and All

Photo: Man on balcony of Biltmore Estate by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of bravery. It intrigues and impresses me. I haven’t looked up the definition since elementary school, but I’m confident of its core meaning. It is generally equated with being willing to face and cope with unseen or unwanted challenges, to persist in holding steady or going forward despite strictures, opposition or hardship. It is about nurturing hope despite a current reality that serves to quash hope. Bravery involves finding reserves of strength though feeling weak, harnessing courage in presence of fear, and taking meaningful risks when one might be cautioned otherwise. It is standing up, stepping out, going forth because one must. Or one determines it more desirable. To do otherwise would be harder to live with even if there is reasonable chance of failure. Bravery calls for a deep moral fortitude, for a tensile mind and will.

Often it seems we don’t even know we possess these until we need to use them. They come to us at our command or perhaps with assistance. Surprised, we revel in new prowess it can afford us.

Then again, I may be kidding myself. How much do I know about the need of truly mighty bravery? It’s true I’ve had diverse experiences through which to assess such qualities in people, either first or second hand. But neither do they include the full spectrum of circumstances by which people develop then utilize an almost mythic bravery. I am not a trauma nurse or doctor, disaster aid worker, war veterans’ services provider–those who surely see this firsthand. But I am a retired alcohol/drug and mental health counselor. And I have been witness to a lot of true stories that caused my heart and spirit to lurch and weep and experience great joy for lives lost and found again.

But I don’t have to go to work to see lives being lived despite many perils. There are examples of this even on streets I traverse, places I go.

For months homeless men have made their shelter in a cement entryway of a nearby church. The doors remain locked but this area is free to use. In bone chill of rainy winter they huddled deep into worn sleeping bags or tattered blankets. Sometimes a radio could be heard. Sometimes they’d be talking with one another–perhaps two or three as if there was a limit–or sharing a hot or cold drink. As the seasons morphed into warmer days and nights, they’ve been there less. But mostly they are there, belongings piled up on carts or in plastic bags. They–or others–rummage in our garbage for salvageable food or cans and bottles to turn in. And when it’s a decent day for one reason or another or weather is more amenable, off they go. I rarely have seen them arrive or leave; they just are there and not there. They, like thousands more, live a nomadic life in our city. They are tough or get toughened in every way to just go on living.

They are brave urban street survivors. They endure so much of what we will not ever have to, if we enjoy better fortune. By that I mean we have adequate income to cover our needs, adequate care and medicines to help treat illnesses of all sorts, none of a variety of addictions (gambling is perhaps the worst) that plunge us far over the edge with little help of rescue. I’ve had many clients who lived in city’s forests, along streets in tents or boxes or in relentless heat and cold of the open air under the freeway overpass. Their feet get weary and wounded from walking–from poorly fitting shoes, no socks, no shoes. They live with hunger despite a free warm meal once a day and handouts. They get lonely except for a stray dog they feed scraps and then give a name to only to know it might be taken or die or run off, or a buddy or two they trust this week. They suffer from maladies that they just ignore or cannot get treated. Fight to keep what little they have from those who rob them, and suffer attacks from stronger and angrier people.

The ones who came to me for help desired a safe place for their own, even a very small room. Or a  corner under an awning or camping in bushes with no one bothering them since being in open air offers freedoms, too. Sitting in my comfy office I knew they came partly for respite a while, for dryness or warmth or air conditioning. And to talk and just be heard. To get help with an opiate, methamphetamine or benzodiazepine addiction; or bipolar  or psychotic episodes or recurrent depression with crippling anxiety. To find a way out of the particular rabbit  hole they found themselves in despite once dreaming and working for a far different life. No one expects to be homeless, after all.

Not often did they admit to being brave but they knew they coped with things a great many others cannot. And endurable and enduring street life is predicated on one’s wits, physical and psychic strength–being able to engage in fully operant survival mode. Some might say “dumb luck” also played a part in staying alive. Still, I’d remind them that basic bravery was a prime asset among internal  and external resources that worked on their behalf. That dipping into even a piddling spring of hope one day to the next enabled someone to not throw in the towel. Because often all appears lost to the mentally ill and physically debilitated, the addicted and traumatized. There is powerful value in this tool for survival, this bravery. To keep on until a better answer is found. And this often did bring them to my door, seeking change. Renewal.

Their sort of bravery works for them. It is not a choice often, but more a requirement. It is far different to have to deal with harsh realities and try to make a change than to choose to face fear in order to do something new that is engaging and meant for one’s own satisfaction.

Bravery is a potent quality for us all to use, however. There are people who stand up for basic human rights despite any backlash from naysayers. Those who sacrifice personal security or even their lives to help or defend others. People determined to generate improvements in quality of life despite opposition branding them variously as budget busters or out of touch with real communities or having too radical an approach to make viable change happen.

Then there are the rest of us, perhaps at first glance ordinary people, no celebrated dragon slayers. We live our lives quietly, industriously, but often with fervency, a sense of expectancy. We are visited by lesser and greater life problems. Our strong bodies get busted. The love of our life finds then marries someone else. A best friend behaves like an enemy, or worse yet drifts away without a backward glance. Our talents fail to bring us the supposed glory we envisioned. Our good education somehow prepared us for a mundane job. We fail our children in small ways that will haunt us or in a big way that is never beyond shamed and pained attention. Our lives can be dolorous, frayed by restlessness, thinned by loneliness. Tried in seven variations yet discovered wanting again.

But we prevail, anyway. We chose to continue tromping on our way. We’d rather try again–if nothing more than because we wonder what else is out there. Trying emphasizes seeking or finding opportunities; it implies better possibilities. Ones that are preferable to the present circumstance.

All that bobbing about on the river of life, or being impeded by rock, branch or uncharted, unnatural dam. All the re-routing we must make. It takes stamina, too. We do not get to live by instinct alone but also must engage brain and soul power.

When once I was struggling with my own upended life, a person of authority told me something that stayed with me ever after–but as an example of what was an untruth. She said, “Trying isn’t close to enough and is not the point here. Only victory over your trauma symptoms will be enough, but that’s unlikely.”

I was a teenager in a psychiatric ward where I was sent to “get over” a damaged childhood. I had had about enough of adults’ ignorant ways. I looked at the psychiatrist to see if she was joking. She was not.

I retorted, “Victory is right in this terrible trying I do every day and night. Don’t you tell me trying doesn’t count. I’ll succeed because I’ll try hard enough and long enough to figure things out. Get better, get out of here and go on.”

With her words to fight against and my stubborn pushing forward, I began to think of myself as someone who might rise above. Who could change things even if they needed to be done alone. I loathed that place with its high, narrow windows and guttural sounds all night long and the mind-numbing pills I rarely swallowed. I began to alter my internal life story from one of fear to a tentative then quiet boldness. I did not feel brave but profoundly longed to be. So I started to act as if I was. Increments of courage propelled me. I learned to endure a dim and haunted place where many seemed to be fading or forgotten. To feel their ruinous grief within echoing walls while sorting out my own. To scrub bathrooms with a toothbrush when I broke a rule. To float beyond it all while trying to block out someone screaming in the night. I would not succumb. I found even an approximation of bravery cast enough encouraging light to offer refuge until the real thing kicked in.

Of course more challenges lay ahead. But I saw a light and parsed out some of what might work to better reassemble the pieces.

That was an experience long ago lived. But today’s post has another, far happier genesis.

I was on the East coast last week and got to spend time with my oldest daughter, a sculptor who teaches at a university. Naomi (Falk, not Richardson if you look for her on Instagram) was buying rather esoteric and expensive items for an upcoming sailing trip to Greenland starting in July. (Rubber boots, dry pack, super dark sunglasses that cost plenty, special socks and other clothing, etc.) She made an iPad purchase and was been talking with the salesman about how she needed certain video editing capacities and waterproof features for a trip. He inquired about it further so she shared more. He “high-fived” her and peppered her with excited questions. A Hawaiian, he’d been following the return of a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe after three years at sea with navigation via only stars, wind and waves.

That conversation was a first and fascinating to hear. After two days with her I’d seen a different reaction. This man got it entirely. Usually when people asked and she shared the basics, they responded with mouth hanging open. Incredulous. Or they blinked at her blankly, repeated her statement but as a question, to make sure they heard right. She said something like this:

“I’m going on a trip in a fifty-one foot sailing vessel with a small crew and a few others for an artists’ residency. But it’s also about examining environmental issues, climate changes and how they’re impacting glaciers and Greenlanders. Yep, sailing up the East coast toward Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and then to Greenland’s western coast. ”

And she’d note: “I know only basics of sailing, but may not need to use my limited knowledge. I’d like to, though. I hope to scuba dive at some point.”

Or she would say: “Why am I doing it? Well, it’s not something I’d be expected to do. It interests me, the whole experience. I took a boat around and to the Faroe Islands last year, had an artists’ residency in Iceland before that– I can do Europe, for example, any old time. In fact, have gone and will go again.”

She was generally grinning while speaking, yet her essential equanimity always struck me. But that is Naomi. She gathers much information, cogitates, makes a decision and goes forward, even if there are more questions to be answered. She trusts her process and gut. She takes calculated risks, ones that many would not consider much less do. I consider her brave in more ways than one. Born at two and a half pounds, two and a half months early in the mid-70s when such preemies were not often expected to live much less fully thrive, she seemed pretty brave from the start.

“My brave and foolish daughter, dear Naomi,” I teased as we headed back to the hotel laden with her purchases, and we laughed even as I gulped a little.

And then I thought more about those words.  It’s not that she feels no trepidation. It’s that she does/creates/investigates unusual things, anyway. Isn’t that what it takes in life to keep the wheels turning? I mean all the wheels–the wheel of invention, the wheels of learning and time and creativity, of us becoming adaptable, goals being met and life being lived? We need common sense; I’m a huge proponent of the homely quality that withstands many stressors. But we need to take risks, too, that teach us what we are made of and what we may need to know. Lessons and insights that can connect us to more than our claustrophobia-prone, exclusive ways of being. And it takes bravery to take the first step away from all familiar toward something imagined but not wholly known. It requires visionary breadth to position ourselves in a scenario far different than what we know in this moment.

Whether life is terribly hard and wounding or safe yet empty of curious impulses, we cannot forge any new path without resurrecting our waiting bravery. And to do that may mean being a little foolish at times. Conjuring and planning what may not seem to make complete sense but which triggers a compelling sync with who we’re meant to be. Energy of anticipation. Magnetism of secret dreams unveiled. A sense of embarking on a finer adventure. Being true to our best selves.

We all are capable of being brave. In fact, I believe we are born to it. Perhaps we just forget in the morass of daily duties what bravery is, how it feels. It feels vibrant. (Even dauntless, not so foolish a thing to feel as we stumble–it’s like having a burly staff for balance.) We would do well to call it forth for ourselves and others, then do more good and be who we long to be. Call it forth even more under the press of worldly burdens and losses. There are days when opening the door requires a mantle of bravery for an emboldened step beyond the threshold. Find the heart to claim it and take a chance.

Naomi posing good-naturedly at McColl Center for Art+Innovation, Charlotte, NC

10 thoughts on “Bravehearts, One and All

  1. You move across some interesting terrain here Cynthia, and I enjoyed the trip. As you so well pointed out, bravery is one of those concepts that is near impossible to define, to pin down and say “that’s it, that’s it.” From the homeless persons huddled against a locked church door (telling image) to the intrepid daughter embarking on a sailing trip in the North Atlantic–the unifying element-the unknown. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

    1. Paul, I’m pleased you enjoyed the read. You are insightful, as always, to find the key element being the unknown. I wish I had thought of that to wrap up my piece! (We do have churches in PDX that offer shelter and food–this one seems not to despite touting being progressive in their general info/signage….so it goes, eh?)

  2. Your usual insightful autobiographical work, Cynthia. I’m not a fan of self help books, so I’ve never read ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, but I’ve always thought it an excellent title

    1. Thanks, Derrick. I get that sentiment in general–lots of oversimplification, for one. What are you a fan of when it comes to improving one’s life? And are there topics or titles you prefer? I might name great fiction and poetry, myself, as well as a few spiritual tomes! But nothing beats a plan of healthy action (helping others, for one) and a strong, supportive community. I appreciate your ongoing reading and commenting.

      1. Many thanks, Cynthia. Active listening is my way. Giving full attention and asking questions which will hopefully help people on their way. Great fiction always.

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