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The Heart and Soul of Courage
by Katherine Martin

"Celebrating Women of Courage and Vision" is the theme of Womenís History Month, March 2001.

For much of my life, I never thought about whether I was courageous. Maybe more honestly, I didnít think I was. As first a child and then a young woman, I admired it when I saw it in others or heard about it or read about it. Donít get me wrong, I would have my moments of chutzpah. But courage. Thatís a big word. Powerful. Intimidating. It's a word for heroes, for those who brave the impossible, who live bigger than life.

Women of Courage

Armed with my shallow definition and traveling as a self-described "courage voyeur," I set out to write Women of Courage, the first of my series of books about people who dare. I began looking for courage "warriors," wanting to vicariously feel that rush of victory from challenges conquered against all odds. I wanted to know what it was like to slay the dragon.

I interviewed women like Anita Roddick, the fiery founder of The Body Shop, who makes a habit of stirring up controversy in the name of human rights and environmental preservation. And Barbara Trent, who risked her life to make her Academy-award winning documentary about what really happened during the U.S. invasion of Panama. And Heather OíBrien who, at age nineteen, went alone into Cambodian refugee camps to bring out stories and was captured by the Khmer Rouge.

Listening to these women, I felt a rush of empowered dignity. This is who we can be, what we can do. Internally, I triumphed with them. Yes! If they can go so boldly, take a stand so bravely, then I too can stand up, maybe not risking my life, but risking being more than I am now.

Over the months that followed, I interviewed bold and defiant women whose triumphs have rippled across our culture, like Sarah Weddington, who was twenty-six years old when she argued Roe vs. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Senator Patty Murray, who was told by a legislator that her voice didnít count because she was "just a mom in running shoes" and rose up to win a bid for the U.S. Senate. Like Judy Chicago, who boldly stood the art world on its head and Dawn Steel, the first woman to head a major motion picture company.

When I asked Polar explorer Ann Bancroft about courage, she obliged me with a thrilling story about taking the first all-womenís expedition to the South Pole, but then said, "If Iím truthful, though, I have to say that wasnít my moment of courage." What on earth? "Let me tell you about being dyslexic Ö" she began, telling me about how she had taken a stand with an intimidating college counselor who was trying to talk her out of getting a teaching credential because her grades were poor. "Give it up," said the counselor, "Get your B.A., go on with your life, be happy." To Ann, it was her defining moment of courage, standing up to her advisor and saying, "You donít understand, that B.A. means nothing to me if I canít teach." As difficult as it was for her, she prevailed in making her dream real by becoming a teacher. Later, she said, "in the bitter cold at the North Pole, I had the distinct thought, This is not worse than school. When I was having a bad day on the Arctic ice, thatís what I would dredge up in my mind to keep me going: School was harder."

Courage has many faces and we lose much when we dismiss it in ourselves, thinking we don't measure up to the narrow definition of "conventional" courage. "The way our culture is defining courage is so ridiculous," says Mary Pipher, author of the bestselling Reviving Ophelia about adolescent girls and The Shelter of Each Other about families. "Courage has become Raiders of the Lost Ark, or riding in spaceships, killing people, taking enormous physical risks. To me, the kind of courage thatís really interesting is someone whose spouse has Alzheimerís and yet manages to wake up every morning and be cheerful with that person and respectful of that person and find things to enjoy even though their day is very, very difficult. That kind of courage is really undervalued in our culture. We need to redefine our dialogue about courage."

And thatís where my study took me. To a new dialogue about courage. I spoke with Dana Reeve, who talked about how life shifted cataclysmically after her husband, Christopher was paralyzed in a riding accident. And Marianne Williamson, who persevered in the face of intense public scrutiny. And psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff who grew up in fear and confusion as a result of being psychic. And Barbara Brennan who left her life as a NASA scientist to begin an internal exploration that led her to create a revolutionary form of spiritual medicine. And Salle Redfield, who spoke intimately about her journey from "delicate southern magnolia blossom" to empowered woman.

And then, I interviewed Isabel Allende. I had no idea it would be the pivot point of my study. Isabel was raised in Chile, a deeply patriarchal society, and as a young woman was on the vanguard of a risky feminist movement, becoming a recognized journalist and television personality. And yet, when we sank into her big white couch and I let the word "courage" pass my lips, she, who had just sat down, got right back up, saying "Yes, but Iím not a very courageous person." And she walked across the room and briefly busied herself at her desk. I waited for her to return, wondering how a woman who had risked her life over and over helping strangers reach safe houses and embassies following the military coup that left her fatherís cousin, Salvador Allende, brutally murdered and her country in the throes of unspeakable atrocities - how could it be that this woman would say, "Yes but Iím not a very courageous person"?

Isabelís is a life of courage. Not a moment or an event, not a single strike but a series of events, an accumulation of dared moments. You see it etched in her discipline, her candor, her vulnerability, and yet her unassailable confidence. It comes from the courage to constantly stretch into places demanding an uncompromised presence. Courage is magnificent in this way. It changes us - gives us presence, makes us humble. I saw it in woman after woman. Talking with Isabel, I was struck by how emotionally available and authentic she remained in the ever more glaring light of fame. Courageous people tend to be this way, as though they have no time for pretense. "If you ask me what has been the most difficult moment in my life," Isabel said, "the moment that has required the most strength and courage, I would say it was the illness and death of my daughter, Paula." In that moment, I saw that courage had a far deeper reach than I had ever imagined.

"So many of the models of courage we've had, ones that are still taught to boys and girls, are about going out to slay the dragon, to kill," says Riane Eisler. "It's a courage that's born out of fear, anger, and hate. But there's this other kind of courage. Itís the courage to risk your life, not in war, not in battle, not out of fear . . . but out of love and a sense of injustice that has to be challenged. It takes far more courage to challenge unjust authority without violence than it takes to kill all the monsters in all the stories told to children about the meaning of bravery."

Riane had the audacity and the guts Ė the courage - to challenge the gods of history and culture in her groundbreaking book The Chalice and the Blade. Her audacity to take on "our most hallowed and sanctified norms" is borne out of her love for humanity and her flagless will to right injustices flowing from the far and near past.

Challenging tradition can be risky, as Rita Dove learned when she became the youngest and first black Poet Laureate. "At first, I thought I hadnít done anything courageous in my life," she said. "But then, I realized that so many women do things that I view as brave without consciously setting out to be courageous. It made me rethink what I had asked of myself as Poet Laureate, the places and times when I had held my breath and jumped. Courage has nothing to do with our determination to be great. It has to do with what we decide in that moment when we are called upon to be more."

Often, in the telling of their stories, people tap into a part of themselves theyíve ignored and are moved to tears. "It made me really uncomfortable, ," said one, "because it brought up all this unfinished business with my family and I had to go back to them and work out some things that we hadnít resolve." Another said, "It was more arduous and painful than I expected. Traveling back, if only in my mind, was like scraping off layers from a nightmare I wasnít eager to revisit. This story is entirely true which, to me, is what makes it so scary." Often the tears come when we acknowledge our goodness, our strength, and the gift we provide others when we live our lives with courage.

I am honored that people speak so vulnerably and openly with me and my life is bigger and broader for being immersed in their lives. I havenít scaled any mountains. I havenít slain any dragons. But I honor myself more as a woman. I am more authentic. I am willing to be strong, to seek out places where Iím nervous or afraid and purposefully go there, knowing how much I gain by so doing, not only for myself but for my husband, my son, those around me. I am finding my true voice, less afraid to make mistakes, more eager to see what Iím made of, inspired to seek new challenge and to not settle for mediocrity.

In the end, courage can be a fragile, vulnerable thing, a quiet moment. It can be a deep look into our souls, a stillness with our divinity. It can be found in the exhalation of love. In the speaking of truth. In forgiving and the making of peace. It is not only about climbing unscaleable mountains, crossing unfordable rivers, flying to unreasonable heights. Even in the most bold and daring acts, courage is a matter of the heart. And, more than anything, this work brings me home to my heart and home to myself as a woman. I continue to explore the heart, the mind, and the spirit of courage and to honor its many faces. To look into the eyes of the very soul of courage reminds us of who we are in all our magnificence. And in remembering, we become more.

© Copyright 2001 Katherine Martin.

Katherine Martin is a champion of the human spirit. She has been a magazine writer and editor, award winning screenwriter, author of two critically acclaimed books and is presently a columnist for women.com.

For the past six years, Katherine has immersed herself in the rich tapestry of human courage. Interviewing hundreds of people from all walks of life, Katherine has been inspired and moved by her discoveries. Women of Courage is the first in the People Who Dare Series.

Katherine speaks across the country, has produced sold out theatrical performances of her work and is producing stories for television. Her message inspires us all - that courage is a matter of the heart.

Learn More About Women of Courage at: www.peoplewhodare.com


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