When a Lion Needs Courage

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The Wizard of Oz is well-known by many. It is referenced in writing and in conversation – called an ‘icon of pop-culture’ for Americans. In terms of characters, there is Dorothy, a sweet and cheery girl from Kansas who just wants to get home after she is displaced from the prairies to an unknown land. There is the Scarecrow who longs for a brain, a Tin Man who longs for a heart, and a Lion who wants courage. Their journey is full of adventures as they set out to find a wizard in an emerald city who can give them what they most want in their world.

The story takes us through their journey, until finally they realize that Oz is just an old man from Omaha, Nebraska who is a ventriloquist. He has played into the delusion that he is a wizard for years, but is now tired of it. Ultimately, he shows the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion that throughout the journey they showed characteristics that demonstrate they already possessed a brain, a heart, and courage. Getting Dorothy home turns out to be a more difficult accomplishment.

These characters are used regularly to talk about the characteristics of intelligence, kindness, empathy, and courage.

But I want to talk about that lion- I don’t think of myself as a timid person. I’m loud, strong-willed, and can be stubborn. My family can attest to the fact that I have a temper, and I don’t always use that temper in the right way. But there are times when I long for more courage in writing and in speaking. I long to gently, but clearly, speak into situations.

Early this morning was one of those times. 

Around 6:40 every morning you will find me at the subway station in Cambridge, waiting for a train to take me three stops into the city. The protocol is the same every day: the train pulls up, the doors open, you wait for people to get off the train, and then you step in, hoping there is a seat.

Today as the doors opened, a black woman around my age began to step out. As she stepped out, she almost tripped. Our eyes met and I looked inside the doors to see what was blocking her. A much younger man had blocked the door, causing her to stumble and lose her balance. As I realized what was happening, our eyes met and we shook our heads. We were both puzzled and somewhat stunned. I looked at the younger man and said “Whoah!” He turned and shouted out the door “Call the f*&^@in’ police why don’t you?” The door shut and the train began to move.

The man was standing and moved across to the other side. He looked at me and shouted “f’in terrorists! Do you think it’s easy for me? Do you think it’s easy? I’ve seen people die!”  At this point, I got up and walked purposefully over to him. I looked at him and said “I’ve seen people die as well. A lot of us have seen people die.” He looked at me and stomped off to the other door, where he shouted at us again that none of this was easy. At the Park Street stop he got off.

At this point, most of us in the subway were shaking. It was a difficult way to begin a Monday morning. The subway is always a kaleidoscope of color and diversity and everyone was feeling the heavy weight of what went down. To watch a young, white man trip a middle aged black woman was more than troubling. It was a blatant statement of disrespect and racism. As a health professional, my guess is that he had PTSD and severe anger issues – But it still wasn’t okay. It still isn’t okay.

As I relive the incident, I wish I had calmly but forcefully said “You need to stop.This is not okay.” Or I wish I hadn’t even gotten on the train, I wish I had taken the time to walk with the woman, to make sure she was okay and that she knew she had support.

I feel like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, begging for courage. Only instead of an elderly man who was living out a delusion, I want courage from God to stand up for what is right, whether in speaking, writing, or everyday living. At the core, I lack courage. I am a people pleaser and I want people’s approval. But wanting people’s approval stifles me and too often leaves me keeping my mouth shut, thinking after the incident of what I want to say.

The incident felt awful and I was in tears by the time I arrived at my office. Thankfully, I have colleagues of many colors and backgrounds who help me process and move forward. There have only been two other times in the nine years that I have been riding the subway where I was truly disturbed, and the reality is, it’s easier to handle when it happens to me than when it happens to others.

But it illustrates to me what my prayer and word for the year need to be. Quite simply, I need courage. I need courage to speak up stronger and better.

And so on this Monday morning, with my heart beating and my soul raw, my prayer is this: Lord have Mercy. Give me courage to get out of the safe bubbles that are so easy to find and crawl into. Help me to  confront the wrong in myself first, and then gently, but firmly, speak up for others.

Brene Brown Would Have Been Proud


Chloe stood straight and as tall as her 4 foot 11 inch frame would allow for in her black floor length dress. Her ginger colored hair was pulled back into two tight buns on either side of her head. She had deliberate bangs that framed her face. Red circle rimmed glasses balanced on her nose. She looked up at the ceiling and took a breath. I smiled at her, she smiled back—tightly. Clearly she was nervous. The accompanist sat poised on the piano bench. Several of Chloe’s peers sat on the edge of the room. They had already performed in small groups or their vocal solo numbers. One girl balanced a saxophone on her lap. I was the only mother in the room, as far as I could tell. Another adult served as a room monitor of sorts. The room waited.

In the back of the room sat the judge. Papers and music books were piled up around her. She scribbled in pencil on a previous contestant’s paper. The room held its breath and listened as the judge erased something and then brushed the pencil crumbs to the side. She wrote again with brief strokes, circling numbers, making short comments. She was serious and deliberate.

Eventually she looked up at Chloe. Chloe took a deeper breath and introduced her self and the two pieces she would be singing. The pianist played the introduction and Chloe started.

Suddenly, without meaning to, I found my eyes filling with tears.

This situation would have made sociologist, Brene Brown, so proud. I’ve been reading her book, Daring Greatly. Brown talks extensively about shame and ways to develop shame resilience. In Daring Greatly she broadens the conversation on shame to the wider topic of scarcity. “Scarcity is the “never enough” problem.” (p 28) Shame, comparison and disengagement all contribute to the insidious nature of scarcity. Shame is that horrible knowing that something is wrong with me. I’m never enough. I’m flawed. Comparison also breeds shame and contributes to the “never enough” problem. I compare myself to those around me, those on social media, those on TV and I always come up short. I’m certainly not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, skinny enough. Disengagement is the natural consequence of shame and comparison. I pull back. I choose to not show up. It’s too risky. And I’m not enough.

According to Brown the antidote to scarcity is not abundance. She doesn’t think the opposite of ‘never enough’ is ‘more than you can imagine.’ Instead she believes that the antonym of scarcity is quite simply ‘enough’. She calls that “Wholeheartedness”.

Wholeheartedness…at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure and emotional risks and knowing that I am enough (Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, p29).

Believing that I’m enough silences the shame, even if only for a few moments. The comparison track is paused and I’m given the space and the courage to engage. It requires risk and true bravery. It means being vulnerable. Showing up. Allowing myself to be seen.

Chloe finished her two solo pieces and she left the room. Our daughter, Adelaide, came in next. She stood in the very place Chloe had stood. Adelaide’s piano accompanist arranged herself at the piano. Adelaide smiled at her friends and at me. She wiggled a few fingers. She looked up at the ceiling and down at the floor. And then she took a deep cleansing breath and she locked her gaze on the judge. The judge was finishing up Chloe’s paperwork. Suddenly Adelaide smiled. The judge had looked up in anticipation and

Adelaide met her gaze. Adelaide introduced herself and the two pieces she’d be singing. The piano started up and Adelaide joined in, her voice clear and strong.

It took tremendous courage for Chloe and Adelaide to compete as solo vocalists at the state competition. They had the courage to stand up in front of others, to bring their strengths, to allow themselves to be seen. I’m sure they felt vulnerable and laid bare before their peers but they did it. They dared to show up, to remain engaged.

The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time…. vulnerability is life’s great dare. It’s life asking, “Are you all in? Can you value your own vulnerability as much as you value it in others?” Answering yes to these questions is not weakness: It’s courage beyond measure. It’s daring greatly” (Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, page 43).

I’m not performing in any competition. My day-to-day life doesn’t involve long black dresses and Italian operettas, vocal warm ups or practice sessions. Yet many a day comes where I feel afraid to face the next thing. My courage wanes. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I flounder. Emotions rise like the moon on a dark night and cast shadows. Watching Adelaide last Saturday was inspiring. Her courage was transparent. She dared to be there. She dared to do her best. She invited others to see her. As much as she might have wanted to, she chose not to recoil. She chose to show up.

As odd as this may sound, I want to be like my daughter when I grow up!

 

Be Strong

As I scrolled through social media yesterday I knew I needed a break from word clutter. So I’m signing off here for a couple of weeks. Thank you immensely for being a part of this space. I value you and the many comments, notes, and emails you have sent the past four years. I leave you with one of my favorite verses from the book of Joshua.

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Monday Morning Resilience

 

In the United States there has been another mass shooting. As bad as it is to wake up and hear this news, it is nothing compared to those who lived through it and are even now trying to make sense of the horror.

I began the day by reading about refugees and resilience. The specific article I was reading is a fascinating study on refugee care. The authors want to move refugee work away from being completely trauma-focused and instead focus on the strength of the refugee, changing the focus of care from trauma to resilience.

I was thinking about this as I drove on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Monday mornings you will usually find me waiting for the subway at 6:30 in the morning. Today I will be in Worcester guest lecturing for a class at UMass School of Nursing, so I had the rare privilege of driving in brilliant fall sunlight by the Charles River.

As I was driving, lost in thought and thinking about resilience, I saw a young man running along the sidewalk.

Seeing a man running  on the banks of the Charles River is a usual sight in our area. No matter what the temperature, and it is definitely getting colder, you will see runners of all sizes, shapes and abilities.

But this man was different. Because he had no legs.  He was running, faster than I ever could, on two metal prostheses. In an instant, my day changed. I sat at a traffic light as the man ran past. I caught up with him, but just barely, in my car going 35 miles an hour. His strength was incredible. I wanted to stop and ask him his story. How had he lost his legs? When did he get the prostheses? What was the recovery like? How? Why? When?

I slowed down, just so I could see him in my side mirror a bit longer. It was this incredible picture of strength in the midst of adversity. This guy wasn’t sitting at home whining, angry at life and at his circumstances. He was out on a beautiful fall day, using his artificial legs on his God-given body.

I thought of the article I had read earlier, and of the man who I had observed running. It all connected. Resilience, strength, moving past your circumstances and forging ahead with what you have.

Alain de Botten says that “A good half of the art of living is resilience.” I think about this and realize that I tend to focus on the trauma, on the hard, on the seemingly impossible. But those whom I’ve recently met, they focus on the strength. They know their stories, they are not in any sort of denial, but they also recognize that they survived their stories The trauma was significant, their resilience more so.

One of my closet friends is a gifted counselor. She specializes in kids and teens – those who are the most wounded in the population of children. She has seen and heard about more horror, evil, and trauma than I can imagine.  Yet she remains calm and gifted in her work. I asked her one time how she does it, how she continues to counsel those who are so hurt. She responded “In the worst of situations, I see and am amazed at the strength and resilience of the human spirit. And that reminds me over and over that we are made in the image of God.”

It reminded me again of how much I have to learn about resilience and hope on a Monday morning.

The Courage to Begin Again – Peshawar School Reopens

For 16-year-old Shahrukh Khan, who was shot in both legs while pretending to play dead in his school’s auditorium, going back was traumatic.

“I have lost 30 of my friends, how I will sit in the empty class, how I will look to their empty benches,” he told AFP before the school reopened.

“My heart has been broken. All the class fellows I had, have died, now my heart does not want to attend school,” he added.

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I happened on the article unexpectedly. It wasn’t a front page story, rather it was a reprint from Associated Foreign Press in Al Arabiya News and to date has only been viewed around 900 times. But it is an important story. The headline shouts to me of courage and vulnerability, of people who even in their grief are moving forward.

“Peshawar schools reopen after Taliban massacre”

The attack was almost a month ago – December 16 – and captured the world’s attention for a record 24 hours before another major event took its place.

Trauma has a domino effect. It not only affects those who were directly impacted, but moves on to third, fourth, fifth degrees. Millions of children, parents, teachers, and school administrators, as well as the general population were affected by the attack on one school. Schools around the country were closed as the government discussed strategies on how best to provide protection for children.

Though difficult for any school to open, the Army Public School where the attack occurred has faced the most trauma and pain. So the courage to begin again, the courage to put fear aside and to move forward is huge.

Why do I think this is particularly important in the case of the Peshawar attack? 

Because Pakistan is never in the news for their bravery. Never in the news for those millions who continue to get up day after day and display tremendous courage doing things that most of us dismiss because they are so mundane – going to school; going to work; going to the bazaar.

An old article in Psychology Today highlights some attributes of courage and four of these resonated with me:

  • Feeling fear yet choosing to act
  • Standing up for what’s right
  • Persevering in the face of adversity
  • Facing suffering with dignity or faith

All of these are present in the decision to open the school where the attacks occurred. Every parent, every child displays these qualities as they enter the doors of a place where they saw and experienced trauma and violence, where classmates died and life changed. They are choosing to not succumb to paralysis. They are defiant in the face of terror, daring it to stop them. They are courageously moving forward.

Malala Yousafzai has rightly won the world’s respect, admiration, and attention for surviving an attack by the Taliban in Swat Valley. With the opening of the Army Public School we see more and more with the same spirit and courage as Malala. Let us commend these students, these teachers, and these school administrators for their bravery. Let us salute them for their courage to begin again.

“I am not scared, no force can stop me from going to attend my school, I will go and will tell the attackers, ‘we are not afraid of you’,” 16-year-old Zahid Ayub, who sustained minor wounds, told AFP.

“It is the miracle of movement.  People who have experienced severe accidents with trauma to the spinal cord will often say that learning to walk again is one of the hardest things they have ever done….It’s learning how to walk in a new way, learning how to live differently, first in baby steps, gradually gaining strength and momentum. It takes time and it takes work.” from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging 

Picture Credit: Tim Irwin taken in Pakistan 2010

The Courage to Call Out Evil

Conscience and law

“There’s a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’.” Laurie Penny

I was a block away when I saw the crowd of teenagers. There were at least 20 of them on the corner of a city street. I hated going home this time of day. Packs of city teens traveled the subway together and reflected all the insensitivity and crowd mentality normal to that age, and unbearable to those looking on.

My heart beat faster seeing them. They were surrounding someone, something. Taunting, laughing, not a flicker of emotional IQ showed. I suddenly realized they were surrounding the disabled man who usually lay, prone, in a motorized wheelchair in a spot where on sunny days the sun would shine, a spot where he wouldn’t be too cold.

The wheelchair was tipped over and he was on the ground. On the ground surrounded by teens, being taunted and mocked. Because he couldn’t fight back. He was an easy target. 

He was a nothing to them, good as dead, a piece of skin and bones that could be pushed around, shoved to the ground. He had so little dignity to begin with that it was easy to rob him of the rest. Rob him of the honor of what it means to be ‘made in the God’s image”. The words ‘Made in the image of God’ were not something this group understood.

I breathed hot rage and started to run-walk to the scene. At just that time, police officers showed up and began dispersing the crowd and helping the man. The teens muttered profanities and walked off – looking for their next victim.

Had I been closer would I have had the courage to call them out? To call out their behavior for what it was? Evil in its dismissal of humanity? Evil in its demonstration of superiority and cruelty? Would I have faced 20 or more teens, most taller (and arguably stronger) than me?

Do I have the courage to call out evil? To call evil for what it is? No excuses? No “well … those who did this come from bad backgrounds”. No “they’re just being kids!” No “I’m sure they didn’t mean harm by what they did! They just didn’t think!”

None of that – just plain calling out cruelty and evil. Using words that are politically incorrect in a society that justifies all sorts of bad behavior. Calling out behavior that dismisses others as ‘less-than’, strips them of their agency, and attempts to dismiss the image of God within.

On Tuesday I read an article that had the courage to call out Evil. On Wednesday I read another article; another essay that called on courage, called out evil.

The women behind these article couldn’t be more different – but both used their voices and called out ‘evil’.

In ancient days prophets had the courage to speak truth and call out evil – and they paid, sometimes dearly. The Prophet Isaiah had harsh words for people who dismissed or failed to recognize evil: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

And this was and is a picture of redemption – to see and hear evil called out in a world that dismisses and justifies, to read past accounts of courage to confront evil — to know there are those still willing to call it out today, reflects a Good God – a God that redeems, a God that cannot tolerate evil.

A God that loves his creation too much to let them wallow without consequences in a pig sty. Could it be when we call out Evil, we call up Good? 

But the question remains: Do I have the courage to call out evil? 

Yar darr mat, Malala bann (Don’t be scared, be a Malala).

Saturday, November 10 was proclaimed Malala Day in honor of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for her ongoing activity in support of  education for girls within Pakistan.

The photos posted on BBC News document vigils, demonstrations, and prayers throughout Pakistan. Men, women, and children bound together in support of this little girl and hope for the future.

Just days after the shooting, a short article published in The Express Tribune had an update on Pakistan’s reaction summed up in a phrase:

Yar darr mat, Malala bann (Don’t be scared, be a Malala).

It was a collective response to feeling helpless in the face of evil and wrong doing, and it was, and is, powerful! Throughout Karachi, one of the largest cities in Pakistan, this phrase was used and people responded.

Hearing about this response in Pakistan is heartening, it’s good news. Everyday our media sources bring us bad news from Pakistan, bad news delivered with smiles that show off perfect white teeth; bad news given with bad pronunciation of the word Pakistan; bad news delivered with no empathy or understanding of this country.

And then comes a Malala and we are given a glimpse of tremendous courage, a glimpse of someone who believes in something beyond her circumstances, and is moving forward in a trajectory that cannot be stopped. Moving forward and now carrying a country with her.

And it’s happening within Pakistan, by Pakistanis  — without another country trying to impose an agenda and values and push change that would inevitably die. Change that comes from within is lasting change. Change imposed from without is not change at all, it’s imperialism.  It’s arrogant thinking that walks in front of and not beside. 

And this change is led by a 14-year-old girl who has a purpose and courage to carry out that purpose.

“Don’t be Scared – Be a Malala” is a call to courage for all of us, no matter where we live. A call to change what needs changing in our communities, in our towns, in our work places, in our places of worship — but most of all in ourselves.  Because change comes from within. 

 *Photos courtesy of Tim Irwin and Jason Philbrick – fellow Third Culture Kids who share a love for Pakistan.