15 September 2013

Courage Doesn't Wear a Uniform

Over the past many months I have heard the word courage again and again, to describe selfless acts of first responders, to commemorate the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 earlier this week, and even in admiration of my own choices this past winter as I faced cancer.  The word courage comes from the French, coeur, which means ‘heart.’  This etymology is apt, as it requires a truly strong heart to face the challenges that global, national and personal disasters entail. 

Last night I read this open letter to teachers about the healing powers of faith, courage, and love.  It was written by Nebla Marquez-Green, mother of two children, her daughter, who died at Sandy Hook Elementary last December, and her son, who lived.  And it struck me that our national image of courage is one of a person in uniform:  police officers, soldiers, and firefighters, mostly.  These people, by nature of their occupational choice, are courageous, no doubt.  They somehow face opponents that the rest of us gladly hand over to them.  These are the people we call when the situation we are facing is beyond the scope of our skills.    This is courage, no doubt, to head to work each morning knowing that danger lurks at the very nature of the work they do.  They are worthy of the honors bestowed upon them and the sacred days we mark in their names.  And while Mrs. Marquez-Green feels that anyone who works at schools should rightly be included in that category of courageous heroes, there’s something else, too.

Courage does not always wear a uniform.  Indeed, it is far more often cloaked in fear and darkness, hidden beneath our soft flesh, encased in a cage of brittle bones - like the very organ from which its name is derived.  Perhaps this quiet, quivering courage is the most important kind, and the type of courage that Mrs. Marquez-Green so gracefully conveys - and I do not mean the courage of teachers that she pays tribute to, but her own courage.

Certainly, heroes rose to the occasion on that December day in Newtown, on 9/11 and on other dark days in our past.  Heroes will undoubtedly be called upon again.  But what about the courage of the days, weeks, months, and years that followed the tragedies in Aurora, Tucson, Oklahoma City, and Newtown?  The parents who found the courage to take their children back to school?  Those who found the courage to show up to work at the movie theater, the grocery store, the schools, the government job?  Courage doesn’t just happen at the site and on the date of a tragedy or near-tragedy.  It sprouts from that, but in mundane locations, like living rooms and hospital beds, classrooms and carpool lanes. 

I sense courage everyday from regular people.  Students who continue to show up and persevere in spite of the odds being stacked wildly against them.  Parents who know full well the inadequacies their children are saddled with, and yet, who continue to encourage them to take that next step.  This past winter, I was told for the first time in my life that I was courageous.  It’s a huge compliment, but to be completely honest, I hope to never be in another situation where courage is required.  Courage comes from the heart, to be sure.  It requires a degree of fortitude that is exhausting and a level of focus that is exacting.  And truly, all any of the quiet courageous really want is a return to normalcy, or a new normalcy if the old one is no longer possible. 

Think of all the days following 9/11, when, slowly, the stark reality of finding a loved one in the rubble of the towers evaporated to nil.  Think of the courage required to accept that.  Because if that horrible fate is possible, then what else is?  It takes so much, sometimes, just to keep breathing.  But one breath leads us to the next, and with the distance of time, we can begin to see what might be possible.

From time to time, we catch glimpses of this quiet courage, reflected perhaps in dignified bearing of Gabby Giffords or Mrs. Marquez-Green’s grateful letter.  But more often than not, courage reveals itself in the flutter of our hearts:  a not-so-shaky voice that calls out, “I am here.  I am present.”

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