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Cultivating Courage

There is not enough darkness in the world

to extinguish one candle.

           Saint Francis of Assisi

 

   Where and when do we need courage?

It is often in the darkest moments of our lives that we need courage.

What comes to your mind when you think of a “darkness in the world” in your life? What were the circumstances? Who was involved, either by being present or even by being absent?  What did you fear? What challenged you to go on? What allowed you to stay focused on the candlelight?

   What does courage look like?

What images do you associate with courage? Do you think of Covid front line workers, soldiers facing overwhelming odds, cancer patients “fighting” for their lives?

Our ancestors left all that they knew, taking all that they had, in a single small suitcase to a new land where they braved long winter nights in sod huts. That takes courage. Women of the suffrage movement and those who took part in civil rights protests changed the destiny of many of us.

When you think of specific people you would call courageous, who comes to mind? Nelson Mandala? Wyatt Earp? Desmond Doss as portrayed in the Hacksaw Ridge movie? Or someone that you know:  a grandmother who raised her Down’s Syndrome grandson from the time he was two? Perhaps you know a young man, who as law student became a quadriplegic, and went on to become a judge.

   Who is most likely to be brave?

Courage is not limited to the old or the young, to the civilian or the soldier, to the nobleman or the peasant. Even the young can teach their elders.

____

A 9 year old boy, a member of the Junior Pilgrim Writers club, was facing unjustified corporal punishment from his father. The boy found the courage to say to his father with compassion and directness ,

“When I grow up, I don’t want to be like you.”  

The Dad instantly aborted the flogging.

The next day the father met with his son’s school principal and said to her, “I want you to teach me what my son is learning.”

____

It is sometimes easier to face physical danger if you are strong or have a weapon. A strong faith may help during the grief of a painful loss. A strong medical team is a definite asset when facing a threatening illness. All of these situations, though, have the backdrop of fear.

Take a moment now to remember someone who you feel has courage.  What fear were they willing to face?  What is it that pulls them forward despite challenging circumstances?

   Prerequisites of courage?

Courage is not a single act, but rather a mental set sustained over a longer period of time.  At least three factors enter into the mindset of courage, whether it be a specific moment of bravery or an ongoing commitment.

Firstly, there is a momentary or a sustained fear. There is a potential to lose something of value, whether it be life, limb, a valued relationship, or something as abstract as democracy.

Secondly, there is a deeply held belief. The stronger your belief or value, the more it guides behavior.

Thirdly, courage doesn’t come with a guaranteed outcome. Courage arises from giving it our best efforts despite dismal odds. Courage unfolds by holding on to what we believe and letting go of the uncertainly of an outcome.

   Called to courage – examples

  • While hiking with their mom, a cougar lunges at her son and young daughter. Mom instinctively intercedes without thought of possible circumstances.
  • A young father of two is told his leukemia is not responding to treatment. He is informed that increased doses of chemotherapy could be fatal. With little hesitation, he says “let’s go for it”. He understands there is no guarantee.
  • A young widow holds two jobs to make ends meet. Somedays she wonders if one day, she will fall short of what it takes to provide for her family. Her commitment though never waivers.

In each example, there is a fear; there are values and beliefs that guide behavior; and the outcome is uncertain.

   What courage do you need?

Think of a situation in your life that you are reluctant to confront or deal with? What kind of courage does it call for? What do you need the courage to do or to stop doing? Do you need the courage to speak out or the courage to be silent? Do you need the courage to stand alone or to ask for help? To say “yes” or to say “no”? To stand your ground or to admit you are wrong?

What is required may be something major, or it may be to simply do what you can with what you have, where you are at that moment.

   Courage and writing

It  is often said that writing itself takes courage. For those who use writing to explore beliefs and values, writing can clarify and strengthen commitment. Looking into our souls and asking ourselves, “What do we stand for?”, is an act of courage.

For writers or “wanna’ be writers”, it can take courage to accept a challenging writing assignment, to persevere with a creative project or to try a new genre. Pursuing publication requires the courage to face rejection or criticism.

Writing has the power to affirm courage.  A veteran of three wars gave his first Armistice talk honoring the 21 men with whom he served who did not return. Tears came to his eyes as nine year old Melissa presented him with a bundle of thank you notes from her grade four class thanking him for his sacrifice and his courage.

Many veterans of many wars violated military regulations by keeping personal diaries, often openly writing in quiet periods at the front lines. Letters to and from war zones were reminders that there was something to fight for, something to return to.

Suggested reading

The Train in Winter is a truly chilling portrait of ordinary women who found the courage to do extraordinary things as part of the WW2 French resistance.

In Writing to Change the World, Mary Pipher draws our attention to how writers have helped reshape our society.

Research

The website This I believe is an international organization that shares people’s writing about their core values. There are over 100,000 essays written by people from all walks of life and categorized by theme. They also have a weekly featured podcast.

Writing strategy of the month – The essay

Please read several of the essays on the “This I believe” website, then write your own essay espousing what you believe about some aspect of life. The site has generously provided guidelines which are as follows:

   Tell a story about you. Explain the circumstances that shaped your core values.  Be specific. Describe moments when a belief was formed or tested or changed. Think of your own experience, work and family. Your story need be neither heartwarming nor gut-wrenching. It can even be funny but it should be real. Tie the story to the essence of your philosophy of life.

   Be brief: Your statement should be between 500-600 words.

   Be positive: Write about what you believe, not what you don’t believe. Avoid statements of religious dogma, preaching, or editorializing.

   Be personal: Make your essay about you; speak in the first person. Avoid using “we”. Tell a story about your own life. This is not an opinion piece about social ideals. Write in words and phrases that are comfortable for you to speak. The recommendation is that you read your essay aloud to yourself several times, editing it until you have the words and tone that truly echo your beliefs and the way you speak.

Photo question of the month

 

 

What do I need to remember as I pass through the war zones of my life?

Please  write an essay in response to this question.

Staying in the Calm Zone

Quiet the mind, and the soul will speak.

Ma Jaya Sali Bhagavati

“Staying in the Calm Zone”

 

Is stress optional?

Unfortunately not. Life in ordinary times has its stressful events. In this unprecedented time of COVID, the stressors are multiplied and magnified. The challenge is to listen to our inner voice, the one voicing what is happening in our inner life. What do you hear when you ask these questions?

What are the challenges of COVID in your day to day life? What are the increased demands? Or, is there decreased stimulation. How would you describe your response to the demands and restrictions imposed by COVID?

As you approach the holiday season, how is your “joy” meter? What is the level of “good cheer” in your heart?

What is the Calm Zone?

The Calm Zone is the emotional zone in which you feel comfortable, safe, composed, even relaxed. Flanking the Calm Zone is a Red Zone and a Blue Zone. The Red Zone is where you feel restless, tense, unsettled, perhaps irritated or anxious. In The Blue Zone, you are likely to feel disheartened, discouraged, even demoralized – and for sure, stuck.

In the Calm Zone, we still have, if needed, the capacity for the fight or flight response. The Calm Zone is not passive. We still experience ups and downs but we return to a stable emotional state relatively quickly despite external stressors. In the Calm Zone, we can have our feelings, but our feelings don’t have us.

Zones are not just attitudes. They are physiological states that indicate the level of arousal that our bodies are feeling.

How does stress affect our bodies and our well-being?

To oversimplify, we are designed for short term stress. Our bodies react to a threat and then reset to a state of balance.

Chronic stress keeps our arousal levels too high for too long. Being outside of the Calm Zone for long periods of time has substantial consequences on our bodies, our feelings, our thinking and our relationships.

Each of us is unique in the way that we experience chronic stress. One person may develop high blood pressure, while another develops fatigue. Irrational thoughts and fears are common. Some people become cranky; others feel overwhelmed.

How do I  know what zone I am in?

Being aware of your body is key. How relaxed are you? How is your energy level? How well are you sleeping? Are you over eating or losing weight? Is there a bounce in your step? Is there delight in your voice? Are you finding yourself  ‘short’ with friends, family or strangers? How is your sense of humor?

Does your mind turn to what you are missing, or does it focus on how to navigate challenges with courage, creativity and kindness? Are you feeling powerless or empowered?

Under stress, would you say you are inclined to the red, blue or calm zone?

How do I maintain or get into the Calm Zone?

First, step away from the stressor – physically if possible, and mentally. It takes practice. Our grandmother’s advice to “Count to ten before you react” was wisely given.

Secondly, in study after study, stress research over the years has pointed to the need for “a pause button”. The brain needs to go into neutral. There are many ways to induce the “relaxation response” and enter the Calm Zone. What works for one person may not for another.

Thirdly, Canadian D. Meichenbaum coined the expression “stress inoculation”. The list of stress inoculators is long. Quilting, music, meditation, journaling, writing poetry, art, walking, deep breathing, yoga. The list goes on. The essential element is that the activity is predominately quiet; it is truly a time out from a slow or accelerated pace. It is free from judgment, strain or compulsion.

What takes you to that place of quiet, to that sense that “this too shall pass”, to a confidence that you can handle life?

Why is being in the Calm Zone so important?

There are two main reasons:

The first reason is that outside of the Calm Zone, our judgment is impaired. The zone we are in influences the choices we make. For example, imagine that someone just rear ended your vehicle. Now you will be late for an important appointment! How would the responses differ depending on which zone you were in?

The second reason is that you need to be in the calm zone to experience joy.

Dr. Grant McLean, long time friend, responded to last month’s newsletter on Joy with this:

“I stopped to truly listen to the sea, and feel the peace, and let go the tensions and fatigue that were part of my life as a physician in the modern world. The joy was not out on the waves, or in the gulls that soared above on the sea breeze, or behind me in the trees, or the green hills. I found the joy inside myself. It was waiting there to be rediscovered, to be acknowledged, to be treasured. … The secret is to take precious time, now, to focus on that tiny flower, or to listen to a favourite song.”  (shared with permission)

Where does writing fit in?

Whether we write the occasional poem, pour our heart out onto the pages of a journal, are writing our memoirs or crafting letters to influence the world, writing slows us down. It takes us to the Calm Zone. When we slow down, we can listen to our inner life.

Writing is a form of deep listening.  When we listen, we quiet the mind. If we quiet the mind, our soul will speak.

 

Suggested Reading

Listening Below the Noise by Anne D. LeClaire

A personal favorite of mine, Anne LeClaire chooses two days a month for silence – for 17 years. She documents the transformations in herself and her family as a result of learning to listen to her inner life and body.

Find a Quiet Corner: Inner Peace, Anytime, Anywhere  by Nancy O’Hara

Are you unsure what activity you might help you enter the Calm Zone? If so, Finding a Quiet Corner is for you. The author offers a near endless menu of options available in our day to day lives.

Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson

“What flows through your attention sculpts your brain”. This book is an excellent starting place for understanding the need for and the pathway to the Calm Zone.

Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo

The author asserts that “Listening is the doorway to everything that matters.” Every chapter ends with a “Reflective Pause” that includes a mediation, questions to discuss with others and journal questions.

8 Minute Meditation by Victor Davich

This is an easy to read guide to alternatives that might fit your busy schedule should you decide to experiment with meditation.

 

Research

  1. Smyth, J., & Helm, R. (2003). Focused expressive writing as self-help for stress and trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 59(2), 227-235. doi:10.1002/jclp.10144

Smyth and Helm report the value of workbooks used to guide the writing of asthma patients. They used a procedure called Focused Expressive Writing (FEW) concluding that self-administered manuals represent a promising avenue for the use of FEW as a self-help technique. A case illustration is included in the article.

  1. Elisabeth Christiana & Vryscha Novia Ningsih (2017). Effectivity of Expressive Writing Technique to Increase the Emotional Anger Management to 10th Grade Electrical Engineering Student in State Vocational High School. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, volume 118. 9th International Conference for Science Educators and Teachers (ICSET).

This is one of numerous studies focusing on practical applications of writing beginning to appear in the international literature.

 

Writing strategy of the month

The Dialogue Strategy (December 2020)

This month’s strategy is credited to Ira Progoff who developed the intensive journal process.

The dialogue strategy involves having a conversation with some aspect of our life. For the purposes of this newsletter, a dialogue with your body is the assignment. Ask your body a sincere question. Record the question.

The strategy guidelines involve three steps:

  • Using only phrases or short sentences, list a 8-10 individual events or periods of time that capture a brief history of your body. Refer to individual events or periods of time that suggest how your body has arrived at how it is now.
  • Summarize your reflections, capturing your present relationship with your body.
  • To begin the dialogue, sit in silence, perhaps with eyes closed. Begin to feel your body as if it has a separate identity, as if it is a person in and of itself. Say “Hello” to Body and listen for its response. Continue the dialogue, simply listening to each other (recording both participants – you and your body). When the dialogue seems to have gone as far as it wishes, let it rest.

Sit quietly. Reread the dialogue. Reflect on and record your reaction to what you and your body were discussing.

Be willing to resume the dialogue if it seems that conversation could continue.

 

Photo question of the month (December 2020)

What have you locked yourself into or out of for too long?

Use the “dialogue writing strategy” to respond to this image, in writing.

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