Poet Anne Sexton describes courage as “a small coal / that you kept swallowing.” It’s a powerful metaphor. As early as 1550 B.C., ancient Egyptians used a certain kind of charcoal to treat poisons and toxins. It absorbs them, renders them harmless.
And so we keep swallowing the small coal of courage, so that despite fear, we do what we need to do anyway. Despite the pain, we persevere. Despite opposition, we stand up for what is right. Despite risk, we expand our horizons and dare something new.
Last week I was very much mindful of courage as I took a week-long cruise to Mexico, as a way to draw the circle of my experience wider.
Going solo as I did—just me, myself, and I: that took courage.
So did unplugging from the internet for three whole days!
It took courage to be the only one out of many writing in a journal. I saw thousands of people with ice cream cones or food plates or drinks in their hands, but no one with a pen (unless you were a cruise employee and working).
I will admit I did NOT have enough courage to enter the hairy chest contest.
But I did have enough courage when, in Cancun, I was treading in cold briny water and, just as the dolphin trainer explained, I extended my left hand and looked very carefully at it, which was the signal the dolphin was waiting for, at which point she swam precisely to where my hand met her fin, and then I grabbed hold of her other fin with my right hand, and I held on for dear life as the dolphin rocketed through the water, me on top, water up my nose and in my mouth, and then all of a sudden it was done, we’re twenty yards away from where we started. She had been that fast. Foam blossoming in our wake.
Just to touch the dolphin as it swam past me—that took courage, because what if I unknowingly touched it in the wrong place, or in the wrong way, and it came after me?
At 4am one morning, the ship alarm went off and I was jerked out of sleep and the announcement said that a fire alarm had gone off in the engine room (which my room happened to be very close to). My heart exploded in fear. We were out in the middle of nowhere. I peeked out of my door to see if anyone was in on this terrible hallucination only to find that a firewall has been installed 10 yards down a hallway that, normally, runs several football fields long. I was boxed in. I was trapped. Fear on top of fear. Back inside my room, I looked at myself in the mirror. This could be it. But there was courage. I put shorts and a T shirt on, to get ready for what might happen next. I sat on my bed, waiting for some word, mouth dry and guts twisted up but I would do whatever I needed to do. Finally it came—it was the Captain, speaking in a thick Eastern European accent. False alarm.
To go back to sleep after that as I felt the relentless churn of the ocean beneath me—that took courage. Courage to let go of imagining other terrible possibilities that might happen, and to let sleep come.
“It is in the small things we see it,” says Anne Sexton, and she’s right. I was amazed, as I looked back, to see all those moments the coal of courage detoxified and defused fear. You’d be amazed too, if you took a moment to think back just to this past week, just to this day, for all your moments of coal swallowing. Just the fact that you braved crazy Atlanta traffic to get here! If you are shy or an introvert, just the fact that you went up to a stranger and started a conversation, as you did during the extended greeting a moment ago. (Reminds me of one of my favorite signs at one of the Marches for Science held round the country April 22: “You know things are serious when the introverts arrive.” Another sign: “I can’t believe I’m protesting for reality.”—But that’s a different sermon.)
Point is, we are all far more courageous than we might think. It is in the small things that we see it. Our lives are filled with such small things.
And when one such small thing is witnessed on the world stage—wow. As in the video from a moment ago, it’s John Stephen Ahkwari from Tanzania, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a marathon runner, and he kept running more than an hour after the race had already been won, to completion, and others were saying Why? Why do you persist? What good is it for? You are ridiculous! But all race long he was swallowing the small coal of courage, enabling him to stay true to his own vision of success and not to compromise for anyone.
Courage is central. It is essential. Maya Angelou calls it “the most important of the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
Courage, says Paolo Coehlo, is “the first spiritual quality you need to have.”
Unitarian Universalists, oh how we need it. Because we are called to do something as countercultural and maladjusted as what the Tanzanian runner did back in 1968.
To draw the circle wide.
People are so divided these days! Caught up in their homogeneous enclaves. Surrounding themselves with people just like themselves. That’s why one of the points of UUCA’s Love and Justice Pledge (more info here) invites people to actively reach out to at least five people who are significantly different (in terms of race, class, political affiliation, ability, and so on) in a spirit of curiosity and friendship, to find out about the life experiences that have made them who they are, and to share their own. To accomplish this sometime in 2017.
It’s drawing the circle wide. Breaking down walls that divide us. And the call to this has ancient, ancient roots, in the teachings and practices of Jesus. Fact is, Jesus did not say everything or do everything that the Christian Bible says he did. Biblical scholars have been hard at work trying to discern what truly came from him and what was added on later, and it’s complicated detective work, and it’s still in process. But there is at least one thing that scholars all agree on. Jesus used to draw the circle wide by sharing meals with an incredible diversity of people, who were definitely NOT like him, in fact were judged by the establishment religion of the day as the “wrong” kind of people. No one else used to do that. Just Jesus.
In the Middle East, to eat with another person is to signify acceptance on the deepest of levels. So when Jesus, a rabbi, ate with people who did not follow Jewish ritual law and were therefore called sinners, he was saying, as a rabbi, that something was more important than religion: Love. If you belonged to a social out-group (as in, you were a tax collector or a shepherd or a gentile or a woman), you were, by definition, wrong. Didn’t matter if you were a really good person, ethically speaking. Didn’t matter what was in your heart, or the kindness of your actions. You were a sinner. But Jesus shared his Welcome Table with sinners. He drew the circle wide. He did this countercultural and maladjusted thing to proclaim that absolutely everybody has inherent worth and dignity. That absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter what social in-group or out-group you come from.
You are worthy.
That was the countercultural and maladjusted vision, and it’s what got Jesus killed. He knew it was going to happen, too. But he just kept swallowing the small coal of courage. The call to Love and Justice meant so much more to him that his personal fear.
That Love and Justice call must mean everything to us today, too.
But countercultural and maladjusted are not for the faint of heart.
Let me make it plain how challenging the Welcome Table really is, as we invite folks of different spiritual sensibilities and sexual orientations and races and classes and genders and abilities and on and on to grab a seat and take a place. Why courage is key.
Because we do not all come to the table in the same way. A woman, for example, who’s endured leers, sexual innuendo, cat calls; a woman who has literally been followed to her car in parking lots by strange men; a woman who has experienced unwelcome touches and kisses and maybe far worse—this woman comes to our Beloved Community Welcome Table because she is hungry for the soul food that Unitarian Universalism delivers up. She loves it. But her history is so thick with shocks like I have just described that she comes in a state of what I’ll call Gender PTSD and the next time some well-meaning man in her Beloved Community comes up to her and tells her how he would love to see her in a bathing suit, it’s just like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Immediately her heart is racing; she is in a place of fight or flight; she feels completely unsafe. She has encountered a microaggression. Doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean it. Intention does not erase impact.
She belongs at the Welcome Table, but does she even want it anymore?
And then there is the unintentionally offending man. If, out of commitment to being a dedicated Unitarian Universalist, he is willing to draw the circle wide and face up to his blind spots, this is what happens to him. He learns very fast that the moments of discovering his blind spots consistently feel like being blind-sided. Every increase in awareness feels like a rude shock, and how could it be otherwise, because there are so many things he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know! So when he’s told that his comment about wanting to see the woman in her bathing suit is a microaggression, it pulls him up short. It stuns him. His heart starts to race; he finds himself in a place of fight or flight; which means that he doesn’t feel safe either. He might be tempted to blame the woman for oversensitivity, which would be unfair. But he’s feeling defensive. The other direction is for him to feel full-on shame, because (he thinks) I should be better than that!
This man: he belongs at the Welcome Table too, but does he even want it anymore?
Our countercultural and maladjusted originally-from-Jesus vision of drawing the circle wide can get this difficult. Some of us sitting at the table suffer from gender PTSD or racial PTSD or disability PTSD and other kinds of PTSD. Others of us are privileged enough to have never had to struggle with that kind of stuff personally–so privileged, in fact, that we could easily hide ourselves in some privileged enclave and never have to trouble ourselves about what the have-nots struggle with 24/7. But we privileged reject that. We are going to sit at the table and embrace all of humanity. We are going to learn how to be allies to those the world marginalizes. That’s what Unitarian Universalism means to us.
So we need courage. For some, it will be courage to be in our PTSD of whatever kind and to keep showing up and keep believing that this can be true Beloved Community for you. For others, it will be courage to reject the temptation of hiding in privileged enclaves and to show up to places like this one, where the learning process of uncovering blind spots will be shocking and rough going at times.
We need courage—and we CAN muster it. Nothing magical about it. Remember Anne Sexton when she says, “It is in the small things we see it.” We are courageous every day, in so many ways. Now all we need to do is summon courage and apply it intentionally to our relationships in this place, as we create Beloved Community together.
Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
May we have wisdom enough to honor the glory and the difficulty of what we try to do as we draw our circle wide.
May we have wisdom enough to understand the emotional complexity of it, and how we don’t all come to the Welcome Table from the same place.
May we have wisdom enough to discern when it is time to stand up and speak, and when it is time to sit down and listen.
And may that wisdom be filled and fulfilled through: COURAGE.