The word “courage” comes from the French word “coeur” for heart. To exemplify courage means to see one’s heart triumph over fear.
Over Easter, I had a tussle with a bat. I have since become on a first name basis with the folks at DHEC. For those of you who are not up to date on the oldest disease of all time: No one in the history of humankind has ever survived rabies. Needless to say, I spent over six hours in the Spartanburg, SC emergency room to start the rabies protocol on Good Friday. (You really cannot make this stuff up!) As I surveyed the waiting room, I felt the fear creeping in. And it wasn’t for the mother needle necessary to give the rabies immugobulin inoculation. It was the palpable despair heavy in the room. There was a woman throwing up in the corner, a pair of men (both with police ankle bracelets) being treated for stab wounds, two heart attack victims, a teenager coming off of some scary opiate, a deranged woman in the throws of a mental illness episode (the cops would eventually have to wrestle her to the ground), a young baby limp in her mother’s arms, several flu victims, and a wife holding onto to her husband’s arm as EMT’s rushed him in on a stretcher from a terrible car accident. And that was just my observations from hour one.
It didn’t register immediately, but right around hour three I realized that God had placed me smack dab at the foot of the cross on Good Friday and I was frightened. Not only was I witness to humbling poverty, grave sickness, and tear-jerking heartbreak, but a resolved hopelessness reflected in so many of the eyes.
Speaking to a women’s group last month, I confessed that my greatest fear is that one day I would look out from my life and feel no hope. I have stood at that frightening edge of despair myself and by the side of others more than I would like. The day I had to perform the funeral for a friend who took his own life, sitting with a family as the doctor explained the cancer was terminal, walking behind the casket of a child whose life was cut much too short. Each provided me with a toe dip into the abyss of hopelessness.
Yes, it requires daring to climb Mount Everest, to speak in front of hundreds of people, or to sky dive. But true courage happens at the dark edge of spiritual despair. It is one’s ability to holdfast to hope when all signs are pointing otherwise. It is a willingness to stand at the scary brink with another, furiously speaking words of hope, so they don’t fall off into the abyss.
If I am honest, I must have said to my husband a dozen times in the emergency waiting room, “Let’s get out of here.” It’s much easier to keep despair at a safe distance than to walk bravely into its center. Secretly, I was afraid the despair might be contagious. Many of the people in the waiting room looked as if they had spent their entire lives at the cross, and had long since given up on redemption.
Sitting in the emergency room, I was reminded yet again how tenuous, unpredictable and often unjust life can be. My husband’s nickname for me is, “Sunshine girl.” You see, I much prefer basking in the light than muddling in the dark. But that’s just not reality. One day each one of us will find our seat in one of the plastic chairs of a hospital emergency room. And we will have to dig deep for courage.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a true spiritual mentor of mine, said courage is not being afraid to walk in the dark. We human beings are wired to survive and therefore we will do anything to avoid pain, suffering, and being alone. We will run, ignore, get angry, or turn to dangerous distractions. Anything in the name of self-protection. But the darkness remains.
Thankfully, although we may be afraid of life’s darkness, God is not.
You know when you get up in the middle of the night and nearly sleep walk to the kitchen for a glass of water? How many times have you stumped your toe because you couldn’t see your way forward in the pitch-black? But if you are patient and allow your eyes to slowly adjust to the darkness, you find light enough to find your way. I believe it is the same with suffering. We have to give our souls the time to adjust to the “pitch-black” of hurt, loss, grief and heartbreak. What we find if we are willing to brave the dark is a quality of light that is not of this world.
Barbara Brown Taylor said, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again.”
As much as I hate to admit it, the best of me is revealed when I’m sitting at that dark edge.
There will be times in our lives when we will not have the answers, when no amount of muscle or steely grit will change an outcome, our toes hanging dangerously over the edge of despair. And this is when by faith, we must dig in. The courage is there. God designed our hearts so they would triumph over fear. Just as I needed an inoculation for rabies, our souls need regular “boosters of hope” to face life with valor.
We are all in the waiting room of life together. It is our honor, responsibility and gift to be messengers of hope to whoever, whenever. We cannot be afraid to enter the emergency room of other people’s lives because one day we will need someone to have the courage to sit in the waiting room beside us, speaking words of hope into our darkness until our souls adjust and find the light again.
On hour four of the bat debacle, I decided to face my fears with prayer. Silently, I whispered a prayer for every single person sitting in the emergency room next to me. I prayed for the schizophrenic, the baby, the octogenarian with his tank of oxygen, the lady throwing up in the corner, even the nurse with her foul humor. Nothing fancy. Just a little boost of hope.
Archbishop Tutu said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite it.”
Life is an adventure. There are unexpected visits with bats. We will stump a toe or two trying to find our way in the dark.We can expect our hearts to take a real bruising, but given time the heart will reveal a beautiful resilience. It is in the struggle that we often find God. As the French say, Bon Courage! Beginning to the end, that’s what it’s all about: The triumph of the heart!
Live in Hope,