Did you know the word courage comes from the Latin cor, which means heart? I didn't, until I read Mark Nepo's book Finding Inner Courage. I also didn't know "the original use of the word courage means to stand by one's core."
Nepo's book changed me in one of those quiet, soul-nudging ways. There is a tremendous amount of breath in the book, slow spoonfuls of wisdom and care. I wanted to read it in one sitting, so rich and satisfying it was. But I couldn't. My mind literally felt full after the first few chapters. So I rationed it out to myself at night for a week, and in retrospect, I think this was best.
This past year for me has been a test of my courage. I've said no to things and taken risks and flown on planes a lot (I'm terrified of flying) and made some big life decisions. And all the while I've been interested in courage, how one cultivates it, sustains it, nurtures it in others.
So Nepo's book was attractive to me from the start. I thought that reading about courage as a concept would help me cultivate more of it for myself. What I love about Nepo's book is that it doesn't talk about the concept in some unattainable philosophical way. It doesn't hit you over the head with platitudes and dogma. Do this. Imagine this. Feel this. Just go for it. You have to believe in your own true nature. All the talk that comes with people who preach about courage and how to get some of it.
Nepo's embodiment of courage comes from his long, trying battle with cancer. Courage is there earlier in his life, too. But it's his battle to stay alive - to meet his life and the purpose of living - that he revolves around and returns to in the book. His finding of courage is a reckoning that rises out of pain, sickness, loss - the real stuff of human suffering. This is what makes the book true. Nepo writes about all those dark, vulnerable, achey parts of being human that feel uncomfortable and unspoken. It's in these places where one starts to cultivate real courage, suggests Nepo. The places where one meets their life and looks it in the face. For we all have different hardships and different lives, therefore our own experience of courage is unique to us. But it's the willingness to look and question, to not know but try, that breeds an inner reserve of braveness.
The order of the chapters is not always logical and sequential... it's not a cause and effect or linear argument, I should say. It's an unfurling of experience, story and poetry that you peel back as you read, much like the peeling of the orange featured on the cover. And as you peel, you get to the soft core of courage, the tender center where strength and a sense of understanding comes from.
My feelings while reading the book moved from a yes to another yes to an even bigger yes. YES! I've been there and wow, how eloquently and simply you address it, Nepo. Like this passage:
"You arrive after years like a broken bird.
You are finally a breath away from everything." (pg.54)
"Why face ourselves? Because the self is the only opening through which we can know the stuff of life and how it makes up the world. Being human, experience clogs up the sacred opening of self. Without facing ourselves, the self remains filmed over and small and very little gets through...What saves us from ourselves is the power of our own honest gaze, which remains a cleansing agent that can wash out whatever thickens us and wash off whatever grows over us... the cleansed self is the transparent self, the one who feels aliveness and pain in everything. This is the self that serves as an inlet to the world, always feeling what moves through." (pg. 64-65)
"Each time courage finds its face in the middle of fear, the world grows." (pg. 86)
And it's with this sense of the world that the book really rises to the occasion. Nepo makes it clear how one's sense of personal courage is about standing by one's core, one's center. And that turning again and again to one's core when faced with difficulties and hardship turns courage into an agent of change, not just for yourself and your world but for the world at large. Individual courage leads to communal courage which can lead to political and social change. And that's why we all need to cultivate it for ourselves.
I also realized reading Nepo's book that my search for courage and what it is is really a search for myself. For Nepo gets at this - it is not something you can teach. It is something personal and private, cultivated on one's own time. Developing courage is truly an education in the self and one's life. You must take on more than concepts and platitudes. It doesn't happen in a day, either. In fact, it's one of those things that should happen everyday, over and over again, for it to be true and influence the world around you.
Finding Inner Courage is a beautiful book. It's something you want on your bookshelf for the day when you need the poet's soul of someone like Nepo to speak to you about how you might live a more courageous, inspired life, starting from your core, not someone else's, and moving through your hardships to find your own sense of center. A gift is what Nepo has given us. A gift.