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Growing Your Courage

© 2014 by Jennifer Read Hawthorne

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another.
Mother Teresa

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things that scare me: Having to get to the airport in Midwest winter weather when roads are icy; the stock market taking a dive—and my investments with it; realizing my mother is going to die sometime; and that I myself am closer to the end of my life than the beginning.

When I was in my early twenties, I was fearless. My family and friends were aghast when I moved from my hometown of Baton Rouge to Washington, D.C. All that crime!

But crime didn’t faze me. My apartment bordered on one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in the city, yet I wouldn’t think twice about walking home from a friend’s late at night by myself. Foolish? Possibly. Naïve? Probably. Free? Absolutely. I felt as if I had a radar system in place, an invisible shield of protection and security around me. In an entire year, I had only one potentially threatening encounter with the “‘hood” late one night.

Fearlessness served me well in the coming years. I joined the Peace Corps and went to West Africa for two years. I traveled around the world for another year, to exotic—sometimes dangerous—destinations: Yaounde, Dar es Salaam, the Seychelles. I have faced wild animals in the game parks of East Africa, been victimized by thieves in the streets of Rome, and kidnapped while hitchhiking across country. I’ve been trapped underwater, pummeled by unrelenting ocean waves on the West African coast. And I’ve been stranded in a brutal Midwest snowstorm. Each time, a quiet courage carried me through.

But what do we do when we can’t seem to find our courage? We may not be facing wild animals, but still we encounter situations every day that put us in fight-or-flight mode. A siren goes off, signaling that a tornado has been spotted on the ground nearby. A company downsizes and jobs disappear. An ice storm takes out a town’s electricity—and the temperature plunges to -10.

A “life partner” suddenly decides to move on. A family member is diagnosed with cancer. Someone close dies, and we don’t know how we’ll manage life without her. Our youngest child is suddenly ready to leave home, and the joy of seeing her happy about beginning her own life is accompanied by a sense of great loss.

In times like these, we may have to “grow” our courage by reaching out to others.

Dr. Pamela George learned this lesson when she almost lost her job and her calling. As a professor of educational psychology, she had become passionately committed to challenging standardized testing of children when her eight-year-old daughter came home from school one day having failed her standardized end-of-grade math test. Knowing her daughter’s strength in math and the pitfalls of standardized testing, she began searching for the truth—and discovered that technical difficulties with the scoring machine had led to a false score being reported.

Wanting to alert other parents and teachers to the problems she had found, she wrote a book, Testing Our Children, which received favorable review and sold out. Unfortunately, it also awakened a sleeping giant: the testing industry. A large publisher of a commonly used IQ test sued her for enormous financial damages, tried to have her book taken off the shelves and tried to make sure that she never be allowed to teach or write about standardized testing again.

Dr. Geroge was stunned. She did not yet have tenure at her North Carolina university nor would she make enough money in her lifetime to meet the demands of the lawsuit if she lost. For days she hardly slept or ate. Then in the wee hours of the morning, a small ray of light broke through when she realized that, for years, she had met colleagues around the country who shared her concerns about the misuse of standardized tests.  A ready-made coalition of like-minded educators and civil-rights advocates already existed—all she had to do was call on their support!

And call she did. Quickly the word spread that “the large testing industry was trying to set a dangerous precedent for copyright superiority by beating up on a well-meaning teacher from a public university in the south who was unlikely to fight back.” Ultimately the case was settled favorably out of court, and Dr. George continued to lecture and publish about the use of standardized testing.


What’s going on in your life right now that’s making you feel nervous or worried? Ask yourself if it’s something that needs to done alone, or whether others might help you.  Whom might you call on for help?

Armed with friends and like-minded advocates, we can regain our sense that we are not alone. So many of us are independent minded. We’re capable. We can even keep our terror under wraps, hardly letting others know we’re scared. But vulnerability is a powerful place to come from. A kind of grace falls upon us when we understand Helen Keller’s words: “When indeed shall we learn that we are all related one to the other, that we are all members of one body?”