Working with Youth Frontiers for the past three years, I’ve spoken to thousands of students on retreats about the values of kindness, respect and courage. The last of these is particularly dear to my heart, as I’ve taken many healthy risks in my life. I love feeling the thrill of courage, and I love to talk about it with young people. Anyone who’s ever been 13 years old — the approximate age of most of our Courage Retreat participants — will understand how appropriate the topic is at that developmental stage. You are beginning to shape your personal identity, to identify the ways in which you are unique — but simultaneously, all you want to do is blend in with everybody else.
Earlier this year, in celebration of my 30th birthday, I wanted to challenge my own sense of courage. I wanted to gift myself with a new, thrilling — and at times scary — experience. I packed up my bicycle and hopped on a plane to Paris. For the next three weeks, I cycled, sweated, camped and ate my way through Western France.
I had a general destination in mind but wanted to take things day by day. When I started to get tired around mid-afternoon, I would begin to look for a campsite to rest up at. This ability to carry all I needed with me and set up camp wherever I happened to be was one of the best prospects of my trip, and the kind of moment I had been dreaming of for months. Back home in Minnesota, I live a fairly routine and orderly life. But on the road … I felt free. However, that sense of freedom was not without fear and anxiety.
I worried so much. I worried that something would go very wrong with my chain or brake cables in the middle of an uninhabited stretch of woodland. I worried that I would get to a town and there wouldn’t be a campsite and I’d have to carry on for 20 more kilometers, into the dusk. I worried that my phone battery would die and my backup navigation would be lost. I worried about so many things that never once happened.
I don’t speak much French, but — bless them — plenty of French-speaking people still engaged with me. They struggled through my limited vocabulary and used many visual aids to communicate. Folks wanted to know where I was from, where I was going, where I’d started the day, and sometimes they’d ask my favorite question:
“Vous etes toute soule?” (“You are all alone?”)
Invariably, I smiled and gave a hearty, “Oui!”
These different people approached me in various emotional states. Some seemed interested and excited. Some seemed concerned for my safety. Many times, I was met with admiration. Several times I heard from the people I encountered, “Très courage!” … “Very courageous.”
When I heard this praise, all I could think of was all the many, many times I was stricken with worry and fear. Every day, I longed to fit in with the language and culture around me. I poured energy into not drawing attention to myself, as if it were a real possibility with my Lycra outfits and my American bike laden with gear. I poured over my pronunciation, rehearsing the lines for shops or cafes over and over in my head. I observed others first, always, before acting. I walked past the same café three times, too scared to go in because I couldn’t tell if there was table seating or not, and I was afraid of talking to the waiter. I even went without adequate amounts of water because I couldn’t find a single public drinking fountain (P.S. – what’s up with that, France?).
Courage is not the absence of fear
Even before my trip started, I felt the fear. I can recall my plane rumbling down the runway in Minneapolis and wondering if (perhaps even hoping) there might be a mechanical issue with the plane, forcing us to stay grounded, deplane, head back to our homes and stay put on this side of the ocean. “Oh well,” I imagined I’d think in a rush of relief. “I tried!”
In moments like that, I didn’t feel très courage. I felt scared. I felt weak. I felt like there was only a thin and pitiful string towing me towards the adventures I hoped for and the adventurer I wanted to be.
I’m so grateful for those people I met, with their admiring (and sometimes slightly alarmed) looks, and their kind (French) words. I longed to hear them because I longed to feel courageous, when so often I didn’t. Most of all, I reveled in being reminded by them that courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is what you practice when you feel afraid. The opportunities for courage come from moments of losing sleep and having a quickly fluttering heart and being drawn forward into the fire and continuing to take the next step, and the next, and the next.
Though I tell students every week how normal fear is, and that it can be the motivator you need to act in a way that inspires other people, the best teacher is experience. For me, the very best way to become a person who acts with courage has not been to avoid my fear, but to boldly walk towards it.
By Julia Lawler, Youth Frontiers Lead Retreat Facilitator
This year, on The Character Movement, we are trying something new. We’ll be delving into one of our retreat values each month, examining it on our blog and in our Character Challenges. This month’s theme is courage.