We live in a culture that views success as a process of steadily moving forward, while moving backward implies failure. The title of this article was a phrase used by President Obama in his farewell speech to the nation; he was referring to the historical forward and sometimes backward movement of our country’s progress. Let’s put aside the debate as to whether the U.S. is currently moving forward or backward and consider the phrase as a metaphor for our personal lives. While time marches on linearly, as much as we may wish it to be different, our lives often fail to progress in the same manner, and discouragement may prevail.
Just as tides ebb and flow, there is a continual back-and-forth movement in the trajectory of our lives. Our best-laid plans can fall short or, for whatever reason, not come to fruition. Taking a step back periodically is a natural and sometimes necessary component of life. It can help us replenish and build the inner strength and courage to meet life circumstances. The key to our growth as human beings is the ability to welcome the backward movements when they come—as they inevitably will—and learn from them, rather than allow discouragement to stifle our spirit and motivation.
Backward steps, as well as side steps and twirling, add intricacy and enjoyment to social dancing. But when it comes to our personal lives, going backwards generally doesn’t feel good. We may even try to avoid it at all costs. It may be a cliché, but whatever we resist persists. Resistance in fact may be hazardous to our well-being and ultimately cause much pain and suffering.
When obstacles block our path, a knee-jerk reaction may be frustration, anger, dismay, or outright grief. There are times when the backward movement seems far greater than just one step. Many people are bitter about the outcome of the recent election. But losses are inevitable and come in many forms. We have all faced the loss of a loved one or relationship, a job or opportunity, or an investment in a dream. I’ve personally had my share of such losses. But rather than let our losses put us into a tailspin, I’ve learned that at least initially it is best to surrender to the emotional plunge rather than resist it.
In the midst of a backward movement, old beliefs and fears may surface. The situation may require not only a step backwards but also a side step into uncharted territory where we don’t feel safe. We may become overwhelmed and think “I’m not good (smart, capable, strong) enough.” We may ask “How did this happen?” “Why me?” “What did I do wrong?” We may feel alone, unloved, unseen, unheard, or unappreciated.
Worst of all, we may succumb to being a victim and just give up. But giving up only stifles the spirit. When we surrender to the “poor me” syndrome, which can give rise to addictive behaviors as we seek ways to numb our pain, we tune out from life.
The Latin word for courage is cor, which literally means “heart.” The original meaning of courage is “to stand by one’s core.” The prefix dis signifies a moving away from or a reversing force. When we continue to feed our discouragement with negative thoughts and emotions, we move away from our core, our heartfelt values, and aliveness.
When fear and other negative emotions take over, we “dis” our courage. Power is taken away from what truly wants to emerge—our inner wisdom and strength. While our physical body constantly seeks the homeostasis of health and harmony, our emotions and thoughts can be examined and soothed to enable them to reestablish harmony. We can benefit deeply when we step back and just be present with what is. When we take this opportunity and set judgment aside, we create space to be open and understand what is getting in the way of our emotional harmony.
Mark Nepo, author of Facing the Lion, Being the Lion: Finding Inner Courage, teaches us how to face the lion, our inner core of courage, and then stand by it, live through it, and encourage others to do the same. We admire those people who summon up the courage to help in life-threatening situations, stand up to an abusive partner, or bounce back from a major life setback. Those people, Nepo says, have an inner courage. “By inner courage,” he writes, “I mean the ground of quiet braveries from which the more visible braveries sprout.”
We all have this inner courage that can help us meet the disappointments in our life without overreacting to them. When we connect with our inner core, we are better able to meet our life circumstances in a grounded way. We stay open so that we can be engaged with life.
Heart of courage
The human spirit has an amazing resiliency; we truly want to be happy. Yet, it’s easy to get stuck in the muck of our setbacks.
One clear way to access our inner core is through love and compassion—not just through our feelings for others but through self-compassion. Many of the people I work with find it a tall order to be kind to themselves, especially those who are struggling to recover from trauma. But by accessing our inner core of courage and learning to stand by it and live from it, we honor our values and can be true to ourselves.
Having learned to step back and both face and listen to my core of courage has enhanced my ability to encourage others to do the same. You too can find your heart of courage and once again take big steps forward.