By: Ellen Nimmo
My favorite types of stories when I was growing up were the sort where a young person would find themselves in a situation where they had to survive, often alone or with a few strange companions with not much but their intuition, some compelling force, some shred of hope, and the blessing of the gods to guide them. It was as though reading about their courage, their strength, gave me some of my own to lean on. To cultivate and remember, you too, child, can survive. You too can be brave.
There are many books like this, but one of the first I read was: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry. In this Newbery Medal winning book readers meet Mafatu. Mafatu’s name means “Stout Heart,” but his people call him a coward. They taunt and tease and remind him of his failure, his cowardice. The seafaring culture of his tribe worshiped courage and ever since the sea took his mother’s life (but spared his own), Mafatu lived with a debilitating terror of the waters all around him. A disgrace to his father and scorned by his people, Mafatu can take it no longer and decides to prove himself, even if it means death at sea.
Spoiler alert: Mafatu doesn’t die. He conquers his fears, day by day, moment by moment, and returns home into loving arms of his (now) proud father.
You’ve probably heard we are living in a “Call Out Culture.” This contemporary form of public shaming and humiliation, often done through online social media platforms, is meant to correct, to hold accountable, to rebuke actions that are out of step with what we want as a society. But what if this swing for action is an over-correction of sorts? Where we’ve needed to correct, we’ve cursed. Where we’ve needed to hold accountable, we’ve abandoned to the seas of self-reliance. Where we’ve need to partner and teach, we’ve scorned and preached. In many ways, Mafatu underwent a “Call Out Culture” all his own. And though the times are certainly different, the crowd often looks eerily the same.
I wonder what it would have looked like for Mafatu if his culture, instead of maligning him for his fear, would have moved towards him, enacting the courage they claimed to value. Instead of shaming him into a risky solo-attempt to save face, what if his village rallied around him to help grow their own courage as well as Mafatu’s. For every successful child (or adult) that confronts the waves of fear alone, I wonder how many drown in their attempt to self-correct in a world that’s turned a scolding, cold shoulder?
Concurrently, what would it look like for our culture to put aside the call-out, and instead reach into the fear, disappointment, and mistakes? Lifting one another up, into courage. Recently, a friend pointed out that, in these strange days, we need courage. He noted that for each person courage will likely look a little different. Each of us, like Mafatu, must work against our fear(s) to bring something healing, something hopeful, something good out of our days.
E.E. Cummings (a poet) said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” That could be a summary of the story of Mafatu and I sure want it to summarize my life too. With my limited time, I don’t want to look back and wish that I hadn’t let fear keep me from so much, and more often than not, I think it does. Like my friend said, courage will likely look differently for each of us. Whether that means courageously wearing a mask (when no one else is) or hugging a friend that really needs a hug (despite the risk) or giving financially (when fear tells me to keep it), standing up for justice, sitting down for peace or a hundred other actions that take bravery, self-control. What Mafatu seemed to learn, was that his enemy (unhelpful as they were) was not the scathing villagers, but the fear that raged within him. The sea of dread was drowning out his courage. Until, it wasn’t. Until he took action to conquer the beast, the voice that hinders and restrains was silenced – “But, most important of all, he knew he had won a great victory over himself. He had forced himself to do something he dreaded, something that took every ounce of his will.” – Mafatu, Call It Courage.
There are a lot of wise people who have lived amazing lives; some of those same wise, inspiring people had thoughts to share on courage. It seems they thought it was part of the fabric humanity should be knit from, the heart of what it means to be good:
- Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. – Dale Carnegie
- To see the right and not to do it is cowardice. – Confucius
- Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better. – Harry S Truman
- Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. – Winston Churchill
- Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it – C. JoyBell C.
- Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. – Anais Nin
- Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. – Mark Twain
- There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain, and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life. That is the sort of bravery I must have now. – Veronica Roth
- I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. – Nelson Mandela
- Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. – C.S. Lewis
The list goes on.
In the coming days, the coming moments, God help me, I want to seek out courage. Enacting also the bravery to encourage it in those around me.
Courage, we know you are there, we know you are worth it and we are moving towards you.