A couple of weeks ago, I planned a “star word” activity for my congregation. Each person chooses a small star with a word printed on it. The word can be a way to pray, reflect, or grow through the year. It’s a way of celebrating epiphany – remembering both the star that the magi followed toward the manger and reminding us that we are in the liturgical season of light, even though the days are still short and the nights are still dark.
A southern snowpocalypse hit the weekend of Epiphany, and we ended up cancelling worship. I offered to choose stars at random for anyone who emailed or texted me for one, and almost everyone did.
As I prayed for each other person and chose their stars at random, I was surprised to see how many star words matched so perfectly with the personality of the recipient. Someone I know as really humble got ‘humility.’ Someone else, a delightfully zealous and energetic person, got ‘zeal.’ I decided to choose a word for myself, hoping that it might be an affirmation like that. I flipped over my word, and I’ve been pouting about it ever since.
I am not a very courageous person. I have done some brave things, and sometimes surprise myself that the shy, quiet bookworm who didn’t really like leaving the house as a kid is now a fully independent, single adult woman who pays her own bills and changes her own windshield wiper blades and meets new people and cultivates relationships for a living and has traveled across oceans by herself.
But courage is not at the top of the list of Dana’s Virtues.
I am terrified of many, many things. I trust routine and get anxious when it is disrupted. I hate being forced out of my comfort zone. I need a while to decipher any new challenge, and even longer to decide what to do about it. I do not like being forced into threatening situations.
So, I spent the last few weeks whining and pouting and arguing with myself. I even turned the little wooden star upside down on my desk so I didn’t have to think about what a coward I usually am.
But then, after a few weeks, I started thinking about the people I know who ARE courageous. And I started thinking about the incredible things that they’ve done that wouldn’t exist without that bravery.
And then, I started thinking about all the things that terrify me. Some of them are too huge to even consider right now, but I did begin to realize that there are tiny, everyday things that I am afraid of, and that if I start there, maybe I can begin practicing courage. Maybe if I cultivate courage in small things, whatever this year brings that requires the virtue won’t feel so insurmountable. I decided to challenge myself.
This list feels small to me, but I’m going to complete it, anyway. It’s a weird reality out there in the world today, and I need to be doing something about it – even if it’s just practicing myself into a virtue that I expect to be needing more of sooner rather than later.
THE LIST (for now. Let’s call it Courage: For the First Quarter)
Walk to the library.
This is a ridiculous thing to fear, I know. I have walked to the library at least twice a month for the last year. The main branch of the Durham library system is less than a mile from my house, and it is huge and full and has that particular smell that old libraries harbor. But on January 1, the main library closed for 2 YEARS for renovations.
There is another branch exactly the same distance from my house, in the opposite direction. The walk from here to there is not like the walk from here to downtown. It takes me past strip malls with bars on the windows, at least three permanently stationed homeless guys with cardboard signs asking for money, a liquor store, a pawn shop, and a payday loan enterprise. According to the local police, there were six crimes committed this week between my house and the new library. Zero between my house and the old one.
A year ago, when I moved to downtown Durham, I did it intentionally. I wanted to live in a place where I could not easily ignore my white privilege. I turned down suburban apartment complexes in favor of this downtown loft so that I could walk more, interact with people on the sidewalk regularly, know my neighborhood at a pedestrian level, and generally be less of an isolated middle class suburban white lady. I am probably only succeeding at those intentions 30-40% of the time. I still do my grocery shopping elsewhere, I get in my car far more often than necessary, and I still avoid certain blocks on foot during the day; all of them at night.
But constant access to a car and the ability to drive is a privilege that I rely on too often. I have friends without either, and have been impressed and inspired by the courage they use every day to walk where they need to go because that’s the only way to get there. Courage: walking to the library. Regularly.
Call my congresspeople.
Again: not exactly scary. But I am terrified. I have looked up all their numbers, I have researched scripts for what to say and how, I have given myself pep talk after pep talk, but I have not yet been able to participate in this particular aspect of democracy. Yesterday, I picked up my phone, entered Senator Burr’s number, threw it down and sent an email instead.
I hate the phone. Detest. I don’t like answering calls and I dislike making them even more. Always have, expect I always will.
And also: politics has never been my thing. In fact, I have studiously avoided politics out of what I believed to be theological commitment to an alternative way of being. I have been ambivalent about voting, decidedly against spending time, energy and money on national politics in general and, at times, quite smug about it all. I am afraid that doing this one thing will drag me into an inescapable pit of political awfulness.
But these are weird and convicting times and both my worldview and my theological one have shifted in recent years. I voted in the presidential election. I am horrified by the results. I elected these representatives, I want them to represent me in their offices and with their votes. So, the least I can do is call.
Lead a conversation about sexuality at my church.
This one terrifies me. I am not scared of leading conversations – I have experience at that, even tense and important ones. I am not scared of my congregation, either – they are some of the most genuine, hospitable and thoughtful people I know. I’m not even scared of discussing sexuality – it’s an elemental part of who we are as humans, and the impact of these conversations has immediate spiritual and political impact.
What I am scared of, I guess, is the combination of the three things: sexuality, church, and leadership. Specifically, being a leader in the church when we talk about sexuality. Colleagues have lost their credentials for not much more. Not long ago, my integrity was questioned because I have an opinion about it. And I know that people I love and respect – and who are in positions to complicate the standing of both my congregation and my credentialing – disagree with me.
But I also remember the unimaginable courage of my friends who have done this – led a conversation about sexuality in the church – without the privilege I enjoy of being straight and cisgender. That’s bravery, right there: to put your own safety on the line in order to prod the community toward discernment. If they can do that, surely I can do this.
Okay. The list was actually a lot longer, but my stomach is in a few knots and my anxiety level is rising just having reflected – theoretically – on these three.
Courage. Courage. Courage.
I can do these (not very) hard things.