Over the past couple of weeks I’ve looked at the catalysts for change as well as the role choice plays in igniting the transformation process. And though our failures often inspire us to make a change, motivation alone will not be enough to nurture and sustain our goal over the long-term. Transformation requires more than just the spark of inspiration, it needs fuel, and this energy source must come from within. No external source – whether family, friends, or institutions – will ever be strong enough, will ever last long enough, to see us through to the end. This elemental fuel comes from within and when it is purposefully applied leads us from good intentions to meaningful actions. These elements are courage, risk, and honesty.
Courage is almost always understood in the context of fear, and whereas courage is understood as a virtue, fear is usually regarded as a weakness. Courage, however, is not the absence of fear and without fear courage has no value. A. C. Grayling makes this point in his book, Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age. “Moreover, courage can only be felt by those who are afraid. If a man is truly fearless as he leaps over the enemy parapet or hurls himself into a rugby tackle, he is not courageous. Because most people fail to recognize this simple fact, the true quantum of heroism in the world goes unrecognised and therefore unrewarded. The quaking public speaker, the trembling amateur actor, the nervous hospital patient submitting himself to needles and scalpels, are all manifesting courage. ‘This is courage in a man,’ Eurpides further said, ‘to bear what heaven sends.’ Actually he said ‘to bear unflinchingly’, but by this addition he spoils the sentiment, because if courage requires fear, then flinching is perfectly in order.”
Fear, I think, is a gift and like failure it is often a great motivator. But motivation is not enough. We have to act and acting requires courage. Most of us fear change; but if lasting, meaningful transformation is our goal then we must stand our ground. We must courageously – not fearlessly – face each new day. We must act in spite of our fear and not make the mistake of waiting until we are unafraid.
Closely allied to courage is risk. Risk is frequently associated with chance or with what we cannot see or anticipate; and I think the underlying emotion tied to risk is vulnerability. Vulnerability, like fear, is often seen as a weakness. It is something we work very hard to hide from others. A thousand years ago this was part of our survival instinct. Living behind walls of stone was far safer than dwelling in a thatched cottage in the middle of a wheat field. But there’s also a positive, even necessary, side to vulnerability, which I only just discovered this past week while browsing through the presentations on TED.com. Quite accidently I stumbled upon an inspiring and deeply insightful presentation by Brene Brown on The Power of Vulnerability. If you have the time I encourage you to listen to this presentation. In fact, if you’re short on time, I suggest you stop reading right here and just head over to TED.com. The central idea in Dr. Brown’s presentation is that without vulnerability we cannot be whole, we cannot feel connected, we cannot ever fully be ourselves, and I would add, we cannot really change. Here again failure presents us with an opportunity – not for shame, which is far too often the case – but an opportunity to be open, to be vulnerable, to risk taking a different path. But if we shun this feeling, if we reject openness, connection, compassion and courage, then the opportunity for change will be lost. We will remain stuck in the routines and patterns that lead us back again and again to the same failures. Courage, then, is not only a friend to the fearful, but also to all those who would embrace vulnerability and risk change. But courage alone will not be enough.
Vulnerability also requires honesty. Self-awareness is the key to our ability to be honest, both with ourselves and with others. What we do not know about ourselves we cannot possibly hope to change. In the first act of Hamlet, as Laertes was setting off for France, his father Polonius enjoins him, “This above all: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans’t not be false to any man.” But from the day we are born we are taught the very opposite of this truism: Follow the rules. Be like everyone else. Don’t be different. Go along to get along. And sadly we do, without even realizing it, until we no longer know who we are or what we want. And we spend our lives chasing only the shadow of our dreams because we have come to believe that our real dreams are too ambitions, to unconventional, too silly, too impractical, too whatever. But coming to truly understand who we are, and what we want, and why both of these things are important, opens us to the possibility for real change. James Hollis makes the following observation in his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.
Some of us, understandably, do not wish to hear even this message of hope and personal growth. We wish to have our old world, our former assumptions and stratagems reinstituted as quickly as possible. Most of us live our lives backing into our future, making the choices of each new moment from the data and agenda of the old – and then we wonder why repetitive patterns turn up in our lives. Our dilemma was best described in the nineteenth century by the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard when he noted in his journal the paradox that life must be remembered backward but lived forward. Is it not self-deluding, then, to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results?
For those willing to stand in the heat of this transformational fire, the second half of life provides a shot at getting themselves back again. They might still fondly gaze at the old world, but they risk engaging a larger world, one more complex, less safe, more challenging, the one that is already irresistibly hurtling toward them.
Paradoxically, this summons asks us to begin taking ourselves more seriously than ever before, but in a different way than before. Such self-examination cannot proceed without, for instance, more honesty than we have been capable of. Living within a constricted view of our journey, and identifying with old defensive strategies, we unwittingly become the enemies of our own growth, our own largeness of soul, through our repetitive history-bound choices.
Change – genuine, meaningful transformation – is hard and often requires heroic effort, which is why the virtues so often associated with heroes include courage, risk, and honesty. Fear and failure may prove to be the motivation behind our efforts to change, but without these other essential elements we cannot hope to maintain the commitment – the fire – required over the days, weeks, months or years it may take to reach our goals. Be courageous and stand your ground; choose risk over comfort – embrace vulnerability; and be faithful to yourself and to your dreams. These are the elements that will sustain and nurture your transformation.