Friday, October 29, 2010

Practicing Courage

One way to conquer fear is to exercise courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the will to act in the face of fear. Someone has pointed out that only cowards say they have no fear. Everyone has fears. The issues in fear are: are we going to allow our fear the power to prevent us from doing what we should? Will our fears restrict what we can and should do in life?

One way to gain courage is to practice. Yes, I said “practice.” You develop your courage muscles by exercising them. The way to practice courage is to get outside your comfort zone. Everyone has a comfort zone—a familiar place where you feel safe and secure. A comfort zone isn’t just a physical location, like a home, but has emotional and behavioral components as well.

For example, something outside my comfort zone is going into a room full of strangers and striking up a conversation. In this situation, I tend to become as passive as a wall flower and wait for someone to talk to me. I am envious of extroverts like my wife who find it enjoyable to talk to strangers.

Yet, over the years, I’ve conquered my fear of talking to strangers by simply doing it more. The first few times were difficult, but I got better (and less anxious) the more times I stepped out of my comfort zone and spoke to a stranger. What I discovered is that most of the persons I spoke to were, like me, waiting for someone to speak to them. I’ve had many good and meaningful conversations that I wouldn’t have had if I had stayed firmly planted by the wall.

This is a minor example of getting outside a comfort zone, but it makes the point. When we step outside of our comfort zones enough times, our fear of doing so diminishes and courage is developed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Prayer and Action

There is a strong connection between prayer and action. There is an African proverb that goes, “When you pray, move your feet.”

We aren’t called to be totally passive in our praying. If discouragement takes the wind out of our sails, prayer is the wind at our backs. Prayer can move us to take action. Praying for something motivates us to do something about it. If we pray for the hungry, then we’ll be more motivated to donate money to the local food bank or prepare and serve a meal at a soup kitchen.

Prayer isn't reciting flowery phrases, but is a connection with God that moves us in a direction. To pray isn’t to motivate God to take action for us. God already wants the best for us. God isn’t going to do something for us that we should be doing ourselves. Prayer motivates us.

The chaplain of Cambridge University once wrote, “Prayer as Jesus taught isn’t just a private matter. It’s not personal therapy or a crutch for the weak. Prayer is about refusing to believe that the way things are has to be the way they always will be; prayer is about imagining how the world could be, and gaining the wisdom and energy to bring it about. “

Prayer changes the one praying. Praying can help us discern what we can and can’t control. It can give us the motivation and energy to do the positive things within our control. Praying can also give us the strength and courage we need to not give up and persevere in trying and difficult times. While prayer itself is an action, it also moves us to live as God intends.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Filling Your Tank

I've been reminded again of the importance of refilling your "tank" when it is on empty. Last week, I had too much to get done in the allotted time and, by the end of the week, was running on fumes.

Having too much to do is only one of the things that empties our tanks. Anything that is stressful or energy-sapping can lead to the need for a refill. Pain, disappointment, loss and failure are some of the main culprits of draining energy and will. When our tank is empty, we can become discouraged and lose heart.

Fortunately, I know what fills my tank. So I took time to go on a hike with a friend. The hike was both challenging and scenic because of the fall foliage at its peak in color. For the time I was hiking, I forgot about all of things that were causing me stress. When I returned, I was better able to deal with all the tasks ahead.

Each of us needs to discover what fills our tank. We can't run on fumes for very long before we're totally out of energy. A synonym for "filling your tank" is "feeding your soul." When we learn what refreshes and rejuvenates our souls, then we will have energy, vitality and will to tackle the tasks that life throws at us.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Over the weekend I received the tragic news that the 15 year-old daughter of a colleague took her own life. There were no obvious warning signs that she was in such deep distress. She was an outstanding student, athlete and person in every way. She was lively and outgoing and had a wonderful smile.

All of us who knew her and her family are devastated and in shock. Everyone is heartbroken. Of course, we're all asking the question "Why?" We ask this question as if there is an explanation that would satisfy us and we could say, "Yes, now I understand."

Yet, I don't believe there is such an explanation. We search in vain for a rational answer to an irrational act. Suicide, especially for a young person, doesn't make sense. It's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Yet, in a 15 year-old mind, temporary problems can seem overwhelming and unsolvable.

When we ask "why" maybe what we're really doing is crying out for help, comfort and consolation. I believe that comfort can come from the Divine Comforter. However, grieving is a process that is painful and takes time. The deeper the wound, the longer the healing process.

I believe that even the deepest wound can heal. Yes, the scar still remains, and the ache and longing linger, but we can discover a resilience in tragedy that enables us to survive and, over time, embrace life once again. The name I give this inner resilience is faith. When tragedy strikes it is faith that gets us through it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some Trips Take Us

I just finished reading Bearfoot A Northbounder: Emails from the Appalachian Trail by Patrick Pittard. My nephew sent me this book because Mr. Pittard was one of his professors at the University of Georgia.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this pithy account of hiking the 2,200 mile AT. I've hiked several sections of the AT in NY, CT, VT and ME and found the descriptions in the book accurate and sometimes insightful.

At the conclusion, Mr. Pittard quotes from John Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie: "We find that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us..." Although I read this book more than 40 years ago, this sentence still resonates with me.

Some journeys we take end up taking on a life of their own and we find that we are passengers rather than tour directors. I felt this way about hiking the Inca Trail this past June. On that trip, I morphed from observer to participant and found myself immersed in an adventure and spiritual pilgrimage.

The difference between a trip we take and a trip that takes us is a shift in perspective, understanding and engagement. There is also the issue of control. When we hand over the reigns of a trip, we relinquish control and can focus on living fully in the present moment.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Balanced Life

The Northeast U.S. had been hoping for rain because of a long dry spell over the summer. Lawns had turned brown and reservoirs needed replenishing. We got much more than we had hoped for with Tropical Storm Nicole, which has brought flooding, power outages and even death. This is a case of "too much of a good thing."

The extremes of weather provide a helpful analogy for the spiritual life. Spirituality is fostered by avoiding the extremes and embracing balance, stability and harmony. Buddhism calls this "the middle way" and Confucianism calls it "the golden mean."

In the spiritual life there can be too much of a good thing. It's great to commune with nature, but spending too much time communing shortchanges other soul-nourishing activities. The same is true of every dimension of the spiritual life. Too much emphasis on one area diminishes the wholeness of a balanced spiritual life.

Like a well-balanced meal, we need variety in our spirituality in order to be well nourished. Even good things, when taken to an extreme, can turn into negatives.