Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection February 16, 2020
“Courage Is Critical” - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Last evening (Sunday, February 9), I began reading Your Inner Will: Finding Personal Strength in Critical Times by the Italian psychotherapist and philosopher, Piero Ferrucci. I’ve read and enjoyed two of his previous books, The Power of Kindness and Beauty and the Soul.
I was drawn to his chapter on “Courage: Challenging Fear.” I’ve preached and taught often on fear and the problems that accompany fear. It seems clear that our country is in the process of a fear-fueled freefall. Courage is hard to find.
From Ferrucci: “Sometimes we feel engulfed by our own fears. As if it were our fears, apprehensions, and terrors that decided what was and wasn’t permissible for us to do and to be. We fuss about health; we fear making a bad impression; we worry about impending failure; we dread losing control or getting lost … Usually we move within a comfort zone and avoid situations that may turn out to be tricky. As soon as we draw near a danger zone, an alarm goes off and we stop.
“Risk, on the other hand, helps us grow and renew ourselves. It allows us to get out of the cramped space we live in and open us to new and wider domains. It’s a multiplier of possibilities.”
Heroes are those who take risks on behalf of others. I’ve always enjoyed movies where heroes abound. Heroes are those who face fear and do something in the face of the fear.
As a counselor, I’ve been well-educated about how the brain works. To keep my Illinois state license, I must take 30 hours of continuing education every other year. Much of the education I seek out has to do with the physiology of the brain, how to expand the brain’s possibilities and have a healthier brain.
We all possess a part of our ancient brain evolution known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain’s limbic system that emits alarm signals and generates fear.
“The amygdala acts as the brain’s fear center. Imagine watching a snake through a glass display at a zoo. If the snake suddenly rears up and the strikes at the glass, the amygdala’s alarm bells start going off.
“The amygdala sends messages to the hypothalmus, which triggers the stress response, readying your body for fight, flight, or crying like a baby. Meanwhile, the amygdala sends messages to the frontal cortex (the higher-thinking part of the brain), which gets busy assessing the threat, determining whether you really need to run from the snake.
“This system operates slightly more slowly, however, which explains why your heart will start pounding before - and keep pounding after - your brain figures out that you’re protected by a sheet of glass. The brain will sometimes causes the body to respond to nonexistent threats, but if you’re facing a real danger in which every second counts, you’ll be glad your heart started racing right away ... The human brain is wired to be particularly responsive to human faces, especially those wearing expressions of fear. Research reveals that we process images of fearful faces faster than those that are happy or neutral … People with higher anxiety levels are more likely to notice anxiety in others. (From Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind)
I bring this information because I see so many in our country and our world using fear-tactics to keep us afraid and always on guard. It’s always easier to control people who are afraid than those who are less afraid. Fear underlies most politics. Fear underlies most religion. Fear underlies most family dynamics. Fear underlies most troubled marriages. Fear fuels so many addictions. There are so many things to fear. Most of us are slowly roasting in the great cauldron of fear.
What are we to do? We must face fear. We must learn to risk appropriately. We must allow the courage within each of us to grow deeper and wider in our psyche, in our soul, in our heart, in our collective humanity.
We see failures in courage all around us. We’ve become greatly risk-aversive as a people. But this stunts our common humanity. Too many of us live in dread and constant alarm.
I was amazed when I did a four-part series of noon-time presentations while pastor of Saint Peter’s in the Loop. The series was titled “Facing Fear: Finding Faith.” The response was staggering. Literally hundreds of people came to the presentations. We could not fit them all in the large church auditorium. Fear plagues us almost everywhere we look.
Fear grows when courage is not pursued, when courage is not taught to our young, when any and all risk becomes unacceptable. As Ferrucci writes: “Our society contributes to our predicament by fueling our fears and profiting from them. Thus, we drive huge, tank-like SUVs; close our doors with ultra safe locks; and insure ourselves against earthquakes, fire, burglary, illness, accident. We do not speak to strangers because the world is full of delinquents … we all live under the sword of Damocles.”
Risk is critically important for us to grow as humans. Again from Ferrucci: “Very few think that risk may be a basic element of growth and personal renewal. Yet it is. There are several kinds of risk. First there is physical risk, in which you jeopardize your personal safety.
“Clearly, endangering your own or another’s life in a foolish and unprepared way is a reckless and childish act. But it is also true that many sporting activities … can bring about a profound transformation that does not happen to those who just sit in an armchair. These activities necessitate a trust in one’s own capabilities, a watchfulness and a stretching of limits … Sporting activities with an element of risk increase self-confidence and put in perspective our everyday troubles.”
One of the large regrets I have after almost 12 years as pastor of our beloved church is that I was unable to grow a Tae Kwon Do class. I found in my own many years of Tae Kwon Do practice, competition, and teaching the great values of martial art training.
Martial art training forces one to face fear and confront real danger in fighting opponents, many of whom are significantly more skilled and stronger than you are. Becoming a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do was not an easy journey by any means!
I’m, frankly, still mystified why we could not maintain a martial arts class. The discipline involved in such training is an enormous blessing for children and young people. Courage is generated in most martial art settings.
Courage is such an important dimension of a life well-lived. As Aristotle noted so-long ago, courage, as a virtue, lies in the middle between two extremes. Too much courage is rashness, being foolhardy. Too little courage is cowardice.
I certainly would like to see more courage among us all. Our political leaders, trapped by fear-mongering and bullying, lack critical courage. Our religious leaders, fearful of dwindling congregations (and dwindling finances) often shy away from anything that might upset or trouble anyone.
In my life, I’ve tried to be as courageous as my fearful heart allows me. It was not easy to walk away from everything familiar and secure when I left the Franciscans at 59 to marry. It was not easy to write down my beliefs and ideas in my two books which led to my being “silenced” by the Vatican for those writings.
I await with some trepidation, what lies beyond my up-coming “retirement.” I wonder how many years I have allotted to me. But one thing I can say with certainty is that I wish to live whatever time remains with as much courage as I can muster.
Back to Fierrucci. “Emotional risk is about moving beyond our comfort zone into areas of our inner being that are scary and embarrassing. It means opening to another person, risking exposure and ridicule; putting ourselves in situations in which we feel vulnerable.
“And then there is social risk; to express publicly how we feel and what we believe in, even if it does not comply with the norm … To be part of a group is our evolutionary destiny: we cannot survive on our own. But sometimes the price demanded is too high … conformism is present in all age groups. Sometimes the only was to feel well is to rebel. It seems a risk (to rebel), but the real risk is the opposite: to conform, and become a walking mummy.
“Intellectual risk is analogous. It means to adopt unfamiliar ways of thinking - or at least explore them. To look at the world from other points of view, instead of being shut in our own prejudices … To ask uncomfortable questions and allow ourselves to be wrong.”
In my time at our church, I pray that I have on occasion shown some courage and took some risks. Nothing more important can be asked of any pastor. Let me end this reflection with these vital words from Ferrucci:
“Risk is a multiplier of possibilities. Many risks, many possibilities. Few risks, few possibilities. No risks equals death. Paradoxically, to never take risks - to give in to our fears, never leave home, refuse new ideas, steer clear of new and unfamiliar people, spurn new challenges, never accept any tests - is a protective shield that puts us in a state of imaginary security. But it means the atrophy of all our functions, in other words, death.
“Courage and risk help us take ourselves a little less seriously. If we make a fool of ourselves, so what? Otherwise, we become like those children who cannot bear to lose. They play at checkers or hide-and-seek, and when they lose, they throw a tantrum, cry and scream, because they experience a tiny defeat as a catastrophe, an annihilation - an evil to be avoided at all costs. This is a fairly common and understandable childish attitude - in a child! Courage is one of the highest spiritual qualities, an affirmation of life.” May we grow in it!