On Courage

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It’s been a week-ish full of reminders and living examples of what courage looks like. Whether global in impact or local in scope, these last ten days at the start of the month of June have provided a kaleidoscope of images and sounds along the entire scale of courageously facing the human condition.

June 2: Professor Bret Weinstein

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name, you’re probably familiar with the story coming out of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. At the center of this Animal Farm meets Lord of the Flies spectacle come to life is Bret Weinstein. He is the evolutionary biology professor who sent an email voicing disagreement with the university’s restructuring of its “Day of Absence” practice. For decades, students and faculty of color at TESC have observed the “Day of Absence” by voluntarily abstaining from entering campus and participating in classes in order to highlight their importance in the university community. This year’s dynamic was much different. Instead of using their own absence to make the point, organizers this year instructed white students and faculty that in order to participate in this event, they had to vacate campus for a day, thereby using directed racial segregation as a tool for enlightenment about the principles of racial justice.

To this, Professor Weinstein objected. In the words of his email that he sent to a university administrator (the “Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services”):

There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles (the theme of the Douglas Turner Ward play Day of Absence, as well as the recent Women’s Day walkout), and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.

Weinstein’s email objection took place in mid-March. The event’s activities occurred as planned and without incident in mid-April. It wasn’t until late May, when Weinstein’s email was obtained by a student and circulated, that all Orwell broke loose: campus protests, loud and profanity-laced angry confrontations of Weinstein and other faculty/administrators by large groups of students, threats to Weinstein and his family (his wife is also a biology professor at TESC), roving bands of students armed with baseball bats (yes, really), vandalism, terrorizing other students, administrators essentially imprisoned by protesters, and the now obligatory phoned-in threats to come onto campus and murder a bunch of people with a gun.

In his June 2nd appearance on Joe Rogan’s YouTube show/podcast, Weinstein calmly discussed all of this for the better part of 150 minutes. I don’t normally listen to 2.5 hour long podcasts, but the grace and dignity with which Weinstein carried himself through this discussion were as captivating as the facts he described were unsettling.

Standing as one against the many is a courageous act, in matters of principle no less than matters of physical threat. What I found especially interesting about Weinstein’s situation, however, was that it wasn’t an example of a singular individual standing against his ideological adversaries. In situations like that, hard as it is to be outnumbered and alone, the natural juices of “Us vs Them” kick in to help the individual stand tough.

But, when standing up for what you believe in means standing against your own team/tribe? That’s a tall psychological order, indeed, and it produces feelings of betrayal and bewilderment to go along with the standard fears about sticking out from the herd. You can hear these themes throughout his interview with Rogan. Weinstein describes himself in the terms and by the beliefs that made him a perfectly safe member of the Left. He was a Progressive member in good standing with all the appropriate ideological bona fides … until the moment he saw his own ideological tribe take a terrible turn. His courage in calling his own team’s foul and risking the shaming consequences (and worse) as a result is nothing short of noble. Our country would be so much better off with more courage like this across the entire political spectrum.

 

June 5: Tankman Anniversary

28 years ago, the world watched in horror on June 4, 1989, as Chinese soldiers cracked down on the students who had been protesting for three weeks in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. During the government’s show of force, hundreds were killed and thousands arrested.

Then came the next day, and with it, a remarkable moment of courage.

On June 5th, as Chinese government tanks began rumbling out of the Square, a single man walked into the street and stared down the tanks until they stopped right in front of him. Here was this lone man standing against the military armor of the repressive communist regime that had slain so many just the day before. An image of the moment taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener and sent out over the AP wire quickly became a global icon. While other media entities captured the moment, included the below video footage from CNN, Widener’s photo of the still unknown man became one of the most recognizable and impactful images ever taken.

 

June 6: D-Day +73 Years

Words simply aren’t up to the task of capturing the horror of what the men of D-Day would end up facing on the sands of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. Of the more than 4,000 Allied troops who were killed during the landing invasion, roughly half were Americans cut down under the withering fire of the German defenses on Omaha Beach alone.

Where words fail, art remains to communicate the things we must never forget. In this case, the cinematic art of the opening scene of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan comes as close to perfection as there is in its depiction of the assault on Omaha Beach.

 

June 6: Mandy Harvey’s Got Talent

This past New Year’s Eve, Mariah Carey showed an audience of millions what happens when a singer (or lip synch-er) doing a live public performance is not able to hear the music. It was painful.

This past week, an audience of millions saw another singer who couldn’t hear the music, and it was an unforgettable moment:

 

When a performance like that occurs on such a public stage, it’s easy to recognize the courage of that moment: the bright lights and big stage, an auditorium full of people, the celebrity judges and television audience. But what Mandy Harvey’s story makes me think of is the courage needed to start her journey — the very first steps Mandy had to take towards no longer accepting a fate without her music.

Having been singing since she was four years old, Harvey was studying to be a vocal music teacher in college when an illness took her ability to hear. Think about the psychological hills one would have to climb in that situation to find your way back to being a musician. Of course, there’s the physical and mental challenges of relearning how to create sound correctly without being able to hear it. Beyond that, though, there would be the additional emotional challenge: what if she could learn to sing again, but the result was a thin shadow of what she used to be able to do? The prospect of not being able to measure up to one’s own expectations has caused many journeys and endeavors to be aborted before they even begin. It takes no small amount of courage to face that prospect and to press forward anyway, running the risk that those fears will be proven true.

June 6-7, 9: TEDxDayton Auditions

A year ago at this time, I wrote about the anxiety I experienced leading up to my audition to be a speaker at last year’s TEDxDayton conference. This year, I got to sit on the other side and judge the applications and auditions as one of the members of the Speaker’s Committee.

After sifting through over 130 applications, we invited about 1/3 of the applicants to audition: 3 minutes on the stage at the local improv comedy theater and fielding the committee’s questions afterward with one goal — make us on the committee want to hear more about their “idea worth spreading.” This year’s group didn’t disappoint, as they brought deep study, deep experiences, and deep emotions to the audition stage.

Putting oneself “out there” takes something we too often don’t recognize for what it is: courage. Public speaking is among the things most people fear the most that doesn’t involve mortal danger. As Jerry Seinfeld hilariously put it:

 

But, of course, there’s more to the fears of a TEDx audition than simply public speaking. It’s the bringing of an idea that one finds important enough to find ways to tell others about. Often, these insights are born out of tragedy, pain or failure. To be willing to stand in front of a group of strangers and serve up one’s stuff like that with the expressed purpose of having it be judged good enough (or not) to become a TEDx talk is … brave. Brene Brown’s “Manifesto of the Brave and Brokenhearted” captures the spirit of many who bravely shared themselves with us in the audition process:

There is no greater threat to the critics
and cynics and fearmongers
Than those of us who are willing to fall
Because we have learned how to rise.

With skinned knees and bruised hearts;
We choose owning our stories of struggle,
Over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.

When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we run from struggle, we are never free.
So we turn toward truth and look it in the eye.

We will not be characters in our stories.
Not villians, not victims, not even heroes.

We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.

We craft love from heartbreak,
Compassion from shame,
Grace from disappointment,
Courage from failure.

Showing up is our power.
Story is our way home. Truth is our song.
We are the brave and brokenhearted.
We are rising strong.

June 8: Comey Day

James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday was billed as the “Super Bowl” of Washington D.C. intrigue. Regardless of your politics, the pressure of sitting in that witness seat can’t be denied. First, Comey’s efforts as Director of the FBI had made him both a hero and a villain to both political party’s faithful at different times, depending on whose ox was being gored. Second, although Comey had been at the center of multiple such newsworthy events within the crucible of last year’s presidential election, the intense glare of those moments paled in comparison to the attention focused on Comey’s name this time around.

Here’s the thing: knowing all of this, Comey volunteered to sit as a witness, under oath, and face the questions, the likely political grandstanding, and the endless media opinionating thereafter. That’s not a decision any lawyer anywhere would relish making under normal circumstances, let alone when the testimony’s focus will be the words and actions of the President of the United States.

June 10: 22-Years

Yesterday, my Wife and I celebrated our 22nd year of marriage. There are lots of things that go into a successful marriage over a long period of time, but courage?

Absolutely.

It takes courage to commit. It takes courage to sign up for life without any out clauses. It takes courage to trust when you’re hurting. It takes courage to put another’s feelings ahead of your own. It takes courage to forgive. It takes courage to apologize. It takes courage to stay.

Why courage?

  • Because you might end up being the only one who commits and takes it seriously.
  • Because there are out-clauses aplenty that offer off-ramps away from the hard work that lay ahead, if you want to take them.
  • Because there’s no guarantee you won’t be hurt again. If there’s any guarantee to be had at all, it’s that you will.
  • Because your sacrifice may not be reciprocated in the future.
  • Because your spouse may not be as sorry as you believe they should, and that means it might just happen again.
  • Because sometimes admitting the other person was right is even harder than admitting you were wrong.
  • Because staying means the pain will not go away until you fix the problem.

Here’s to the courage to stay for 8,036 days and counting…