On Being (A Little Bit) Courageous

Our eleven-year-old son still likes being read to at bedtime. Right now he and I are making our way through The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. I’m a die-hard fan of the movies—various scenes have made it into countless sermons and writings over the years—but I've never made it through the books. Last time I tried, I got mired somewhere in The Two Towers. We’ll see how it goes this time.

We’re still pretty early in the story. Frodo has barely made it out of the Shire on his epic quest when he encounters a group of elves, including Gildor Inglorion, a friend of Frodo’s uncle Bilbo. Frodo and Gildor spend the night discussing the journey ahead and the perils that are sure to come. Gildor says:

I do not think the road will prove too hard for your courage.

Such a beautiful statement! On one level, it’s a flowery way of saying, “You have what you need.” (I wonder how to say “You’ve got this!” in an Elvish language?)

But I’m also thinking about it from the other direction: 

If the road you’re looking at seems way beyond your courage, maybe it’s a sign that it’s not your road. 

I don’t think I’m being overly partisan when I say that we’re living through a very challenging age. Climate change looms largest in terms of high-stakes emergency, but I can easily think of a dozen runners-up to it. Everything feels urgent to me right now, and way beyond my capacities. 

As I continue to ponder my trip to Israel/Palestine, I keep thinking about the people I met doing justice and peace-building work. Like Suhad Jabi Masri, the Muslim woman whose organization serves several hundred children living in Balata refugee camp, a space designed for 7,000 in which 30,000 currently reside. Or Mitri Raheb, the Lutheran pastor who went from small-church parson to running a college that trains artists and leaders under occupation. Or Gerard Horton, the former Australian lawyer who now tracks and advocates for the rights of Palestinian children being detained by the Israeli military. (Read also about the Nassar family, whom I highlighted a few weeks ago.)

I’ll be honest: I felt pretty small, even cowardly, in the presence of these people. My faith—my courage—feels so paltry next to their example. They would probably hate this, for at least two reasons. First, because I suspect they don’t see themselves as heroes. (As Dorothy Day is quoted as saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”) But second, the people we met have been at this for years, if not decades. They didn’t start out with fully-funded NGOs and daring, well-developed vision statements. They simply saw a need, and a road toward meeting that need in ways that were probably small and modest at the time, but that flourished once the journey got under way. Once their capacity for courage grew.

The Quaker writer Parker Palmer has a podcast with singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer called The Growing Edge. I was struck by this great image from Parker a few months ago:

“They say, ‘Don’t run ahead of your breath,’ or ‘Don't get ahead of your skis.’ My growing edge is full of potential. But if I try to go beyond it before I’ve grown there, before I’m ready to be there, I’m gonna start doing some damage to myself or other people, because I don’t belong there yet.” 

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The problems we face seem so large, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I suspect many of us would benefit from “right-sizing” our work: to find those tasks that scare us just enough to energize us, but don’t scare us so much that we never get started. To find the roads that are just right for our level of courage.

I laugh every time I pass this sign on one of the trails where I run. It’s so… sensible. So antithetical to the Lean In, Just Do It mentality that permeates our culture. But it’s wise. As André De Shields said in his acceptance speech at the Tonys this week, “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be.”

This may sound like a bummer of a post. Be courageous… but not too much! Don’t dream big, dream small! But I think Gildor is on to something. The road Frodo took was incredibly hard, but it turned out not to be beyond his courage… partly because he started simply and slowly. Right now, he’s just trying to get to Bucklebury. From there, who knows?

What might your courageous road look like?