Courage


My oldest daughter is a tad bit on the dramatic side.  On a recent hike, she was leading the way and was completely oblivious to the fact that she had stepped over a snake.  Being the second in line, I had to point out the snake so that my wife and other daughter didn’t accidently step on it.

This was the aftermath.

Olivia and the Snake

Had I not mentioned the snake, she would have just kept hiking happily along.  Once she realized that she was in the vicinity of perceived danger; however, a meltdown ensued.  There are snakes all around us.  Whether they be disease, financial crisis, toxic relationships, or job loss; the greatest pain inflicted by these tragedies is often not the damage that they bring directly, but the loss of security and hope associated with them. 

About 20 years ago, my truck was broken into and the stereo was stolen.  I distinctly remember that what upset me the most from that experience was not the loss of my stereo.  Instead, it was the sense of being violated – of someone intentionally doing harm and taking my possessions for their own benefit.  I didn’t get hysterical and cry about it like Olivia did with the snake, but I think the emotion was similar.

Whatever fear or struggle you are currently dealing with, remember that you are the one who controls how much power that fear has over you and the biggest opponent of fear is hope.

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BanjoMaybe it’s just my personality, but if I want to get better at something then I need a challenge… some sort of line drawn in the sand that I will either overcome or surrender to.  For example, I wanted to get back into running a few years ago.  I would periodically go out for a jog with no real goal, without timing myself, and generally hate the entire process. 

Then I entered a race.  Knowing that I didn’t want to look ridiculous at my race, I put together a training plan… and stuck to it.  I started timing myself and created goals, which I gradually met.  I had a respectable showing at my first race, so I entered more.  My times kept improving, I kept challenging myself with more difficult goals, and I enjoyed running more.  As of now, I’ve won first place in my age group in each of the last five races I’ve run.

I don’t enter as many races as I used to, but now almost five years have passed since my first race and I still run regularly, I run at pace I wouldn’t have dreamed of when I started, and I actually enjoy doing it.  Why?  It is all because I faced a challenge.

I’ve been plucking around on the banjo for a little over a year now.  The music of Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers were my main inspiration for getting a banjo.  For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is really good music… not the twangy stuff you may associate with banjos.  I started learning some of the basics and played around with a few Mumford and Sons songs.  I got better, but kind of reached a plateau… I needed a challenge.

That challenge came last week when our church’s worship leader called to tell me that we were going to open the service Easter morning with Mumford and Son’s Awake My Soul… and since I’m probably the only person he knows who even owns a banjo, he asked me to play.  Challenge accepted.

Now I’m not a great banjo player… but then again, I wasn’t that great of a runner when I first started training either.  I’ve put in some time practicing my banjo.  As a side note, I’m also reviewing my old calculus textbook as I prepare to go to grad school again – I think Saturday was the first time in human history someone went directly from playing a banjo to studying a calculus textbook.

I don’t know how it will turn out, but I do know that this challenge will make me better… maybe not great, maybe not even that good, but better than I am now.  So I encourage you to accept some sort of challenge and start paying your dues.  You will never be great at anything if you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Courage

As my neighbor noted in his comment to my previous post, I now have a full-fledged cyclist in the family.  Olivia has been riding her bike without training wheels for a while now.  We started out in the backyard because it is a lot softer than concrete.  Also, for the eighth of a mile that our driveway takes up, only about thirty feet of it comes close to resembling a level surface. 

Given the option between learning to ride her bike in the hard-to-pedal-through grass filled with land mines deposited by our chocolate lab and the concrete hill of death, her cycling practice has been very limited.  I would try to get her out, but she just wasn’t that interested.  She could go for a little while, but inevitably she would fall. 

Sara decided to take her up to the cul-de-sac to try on a more level paved surface.  Again, Olivia wasn’t interested.  Her previous attempts of riding a bike were riddled with failure and frustration.  Nevertheless, Sara loaded up the bikes and the girls and drove them up the driveway to the cul-de-sac (yes, that’s the way we have to do things with this ridiculous driveway). 

At first, Olivia was resistant.  She now had the audience of a neighborhood to witness her failure.  She quickly learned that riding a bike on pavement is a lot easier than doing so in the grass.  She also realized that it is not nearly as terrifying when there is no risk of riding off into the abyss of our driveway.  She caught on quickly and spent quite a while honing her newly discovered skill.  She also told Sara that she couldn’t wait to show daddy how good she had gotten at riding her bike.  See what just happened? 

Fear + Courage = Pride

When I got home on Monday, she was out in the driveway riding and telling me how much she loved riding her bike.  She even told me that she thinks she will become a professional bicycle rider – all we need now are some blood transfusions and performance enhancing drugs (sorry for the cheap shot, Lance). 

The bottom line is this.  Riding her bike is now one her favorite activities because she experienced a little success.  Previously, her attempts were filled with failure and she didn’t enjoy it… but the act of riding a bicycle hasn’t changed in the past week.  So it was not riding her bicycle that she disliked a week ago; it was failure.  With a little courage and perseverance that thing that you despise today may be your passion tomorrow.

As I said last week, Sara just got back from a medical mission trip to Nicaragua.  This was her first time abroad on a mission trip and she was pretty nervous before she left.  As I recall, I was the same way before my first trip to Belarus.

It can be intimidating going to a different country with a different culture and not knowing how the people will receive you.  When I went to Belarus, I was worried about the KGB (from whom our team got a personal visit – they don’t get sarcasm).  Before my trip to Nicaragua, my worries were different.  I had no idea where I was going, where I was staying, or how I would communicate, but I did know that the health department required a two-hour consultation and dealt out more needle sticks than they would if Dairy Queen hosted a diabetes convention.

As Sara quickly discovered, her fear turned to contentment, which later turned to a longing to go back and help again.  Once we get past our fear, we get a bug that makes us want to go back and no, I’m not talking about malaria.  That’s just the way it works.  Ask anyone who’s ever been on a trip like this.  The images of those kids leave a permanent impression in your head.

Even if you have never felt the desire to do something like this, I encourage you to try it.  I know you may not feel drawn to serving internationally, but once you do it, I guarantee that you will expand your horizons, and there is a very good chance that you’ll want to go back.  The key is to force yourself out of your comfort zone.

Think about the first guy who tried cow’s milk.  Somebody had to do it first, right?  That guy didn’t just go to the fridge and grab a jug of cold 2%.  I’m guessing it was hot and he was thirsty and somehow thought a shot of body-temperature milk straight from a 2,000 pound creature would hit the spot.  I image it was an awkward moment when he and one very uncomfortable bovine arrived at the village to tell the others about his new discovery.  I’m sure there were some scoffers, but guess what – his idea caught on and the makers of Oreos are forever grateful.

That guy took a leap of faith and I’m glad he did because a bowl of shredded wheat without milk would be completely inedible.  Think about all of the other things we have as result of this guy’s resourcefulness – cheese, butter, cool whip, milk chocolate, ice cream… need I say more?  We have all of this because somebody tried something new.  He shook his fist at the status quo and did something unconventional.  Of course, the guy who first tried rhinoceros milk probably wasn’t quite as successful, but that’s a different story.

If you have ever considered doing something like this, my advice is not to wait until you’re completely comfortable with going.  If you wait for that moment, you’ll never go.  Besides, there would be no such thing as bravery if the world were void of fear.

Sara and I were sitting in our living room watching television last week when we heard something scurrying around in the ceiling.  I muted the TV and started listening.  We could hear the scampering of clawed feet and what sounded like a marble rolling around.  The ceiling of our living room is also the floor of the guest bedroom on the second story, so I went up there and listened.  The noise went on for about fifteen minutes then stopped.

The next night, we heard the same thing – quick little feet, long claws, and the marble noise.  At first, I assumed it was a mouse, but from the sound of the feet, I knew it had to be something bigger.  Sara was getting squeamish, so I went up into the attic to see if I could spot anything.  At this point, I was thinking it might be a squirrel and I was hoping that I wouldn’t pull a Clark Griswold if it went on the offensive.

There have been several rabies cases in our area, so I was cautious.  Armed with a flashlight a plastic grocery bag, I started looking around.  While I didn’t see any mammals, I did see a few acorns laying on a joist near the framing around the chimney.  That solved the “marble” mystery.  I decided to set some mousetraps, hoping we were dealing with mice and not something bigger.

The next day, I went up to check the four traps I set the night before.  The first two I checked were missing.  I couldn’t help but think that I was about to crawl up on an irate, rabid raccoon foaming at the mouth with mouse traps dangling from its feet and tail.  I wished I had double-bagged my grocery sacks.

The third trap revealed the culprit – a chipmunk.  It was such a relief finally to know what I was facing.  I continued to set the traps and caught one chipmunk per night for three nights.  That seems to be the end of the chipmunks, which makes sense because they always travel in threes (Alvin, Simon, Theodore).  Before any of you write me about how evil I am for killing chipmunks, we are surrounded by woods and if I used a live trap, they just would have come right back.  Besides, did you see any of the Chipmunks movies?  They had it coming.

I’m glad that we got rid of culprits of our home invasion, but the most relief actually came when I saw my enemy and knew what I was dealing with.  Sometimes, the fear of the unknown prevents us from ever taking the necessary steps face our enemy.  That’s too bad because an enemy that we refuse to confront will always win.

I went for a run at 3 pm over the weekend… not one of my wisest decisions.  You don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that an afternoon run in Atlanta during the summer is brutal.  While running, I learned that 3 pm is that magic time of the day when the temperatures reach about their highest point and the humidity that precedes the afternoon thunderstorms makes the air so thick you feel like you’re breathing soup through a respirator.

Stubbornly, I ran.  With about a mile left in my run, I hit the wall.  If you’re a runner, you know about the wall.  It’s that point when you feel like you can no longer continue and the idea of running while not being chased by something with claws and fangs is just ridiculous.  I almost convinced myself that I would have stop running and walk the remaining mile back to my truck, but before my legs stopped moving, I began reasoning with myself on how I could continue.  This is what runners do to justify their obsession.

How many more steps could I run before I had to give up?  Ten more?  Twenty more?  A hundred more?  I finally convinced myself that no matter how hot I was, how tired my legs were, or how much my lungs burned, I could always take one more step.  I mean, what’s one more step?  It takes less than a second and doesn’t require a ton of effort.

You guessed it, after another mile of taking “one more step”, I was back at my truck and relieved that I didn’t give up.  Instead of focusing on the daunting task of one more (mostly uphill) mile in 95-degree heat, I just focused on the next step.

Chances are, you’ve hit a wall at some point.  Whether it’s going back to school, changing careers, fixing a relationship, or making an important life change, you’ve probably faced something that just seemed too big to do.  No matter how challenging the situation, taking the next step usually isn’t too intimidating.  After enough of those “next steps” you’ll look back and be happy you took them.

As I am writing this, my thermometer reads 17 degrees.  This was our third consecutive night in the teens and the cold weather is the only thing anyone is talking about around here.  The Atlanta news keeps reporting on an “Alberta Clipper” (when did Alberta get a basketball team?), everyone you see – whether at the grocery store, at work, or while dropping the kids off at school – reminds you to bundle up… as if you forgot it was cold, and Sarah Palin is accusing Al Gore of contributing to Global Cooling by overdoing his Global Warming tour (and inventing the internet).  I have to say the three consecutive nights in the teens seems cold to me now, but there was a time when this would have been downright tropical.

I spent most of the past decade moving all around the country.  I know, I know – we don’t actually start the new decade until 2011, but you know what I mean.  Back in 2000, we lived in Indiana and moved to central Florida; in 2002, we moved to northern New York; in 2004, we moved to northeastern Nebraska; and in 2006, we moved to the northeast Atlanta area.  In 2008, just for good measure, we moved about two miles down the road just because we were used to moving every two years but really liked the area where we were living.

While we experienced different cultures and landscapes everywhere we went, probably the biggest change at each location was the climate.  In central Florida, for example, I could wear shorts year round and people freaked out when it got down to 40 degrees at night.  I remember driving around looking at Christmas lights while people were watering their lawns.

We moved from there to northern NY in October.  This was not “Upstate NY”.  Instead, the locals called this area “The North Country”.  I called it Hoth.  We lived just off the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario – an area known for severe lake effect snow that will make Buffalo look appealing.  The coldest it got while we lived there was negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit.  That wasn’t the wind chill – that was the actual temperature.  We also experienced 10 feet of snow in 48 hours during one severe lake effect storm.  I don’t even know how much snow we got for the year, but I do know that we bought our house in October and I never saw our yard until April… only to have it covered by a foot of snow again in May.  How people continue to live there is beyond me.  Oh sure, it’s beautiful in the summer – all two weeks of it, but after that not even emperor penguins would want to call that place home.

The interesting thing is that people up there didn’t understand why Southerners would want to put up with the heat and humidity of the South.  My thinking was as follows:  100 degrees is uncomfortable.  Negative 35 degrees is painful.  In the South, you can go get the mail in the middle of summer and immediately break a sweat – inconvenient.  In The North Country, you can go get the mail in the middle of winter and loose extremities due to frostbite – crazy.

Here’s my point.  Our perception of what is uncomfortable, inconvenient, or painful is based on the climate to which we are accustomed.  In the South 35 degrees is cold; in the North it’s springtime.  To a childless couple, a screaming baby with a stinky diaper pinned underneath her older sister is chaos; to the parents of young children, it’s Tuesday night.  To an adult who’s been out of school for 20 years, enrolling in a college course can be frightening and intimidating; to a  third year college student; it’s just part of the routine.

We have the amazing capacity to adapt and cope.  Today’s chaos is tomorrow’s normal.  This is reassuring if the path we are on leads to our intended destination – we just endure and adapt and eventually we’ll be where we want to be.  It can be tragic, however, if the path we are on leads elsewhere.  We become so accustomed to following the wrong path, it just becomes routine until we finally get to the destination and wonder how we got there: How did we end up with so much debt?  Why don’t my children obey me?  Why am I out of breath after climbing one flight of stairs?  Why don’t I ever have time to spend with my family?

What is your normal?  Could a little chaos today lead to a better normal tomorrow?

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