Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Meaning of Courage

Note: this post discusses trauma, loss, death, and the fear of those things.

Within minutes of arriving, I was walking the path through the dune grasses to the beach. I breathed in the salty air, reached up my arms to the expansiveness, and reveled in the sunlight warming my face as I started a slow saunter into the cold wind. 

I’m not sure how long I’d walked before I noticed that it did not feel familiar, which was odd. I had walked or jogged this beach twice a day for a year and a half, in every kind of weather, at every hour of day and night. I must have been on it at least a thousand times. The wide beach, the dune grasses, the beach approaches, even the silhouette of the outcropping that the lighthouse sits atop – all of this should have stirred feelings of nostalgia, or a sense of returning.

It wasn’t unfamiliar, but it garnered no such remembrance. It all felt like a lifetime ago. I wondered if that was the reason – I am such a different person than I was when I lived here over a dozen years ago, or again half a dozen years ago, bookends to my park ranger days.

In many respects, I was aggressively pursuing my best self at that time, and striving to build an extraordinary life. I worked for minimum wage at the park, stretching a summer position into one that lasted over a year, as I trained outside of work to become a park ranger. I didn’t have a TV in those days and wondered how anyone ever had the time to watch TV. When I wasn’t working, I was doing physical training – slowly increasing pushups from one to twenty and more, timed sit-ups, running and sprinting, and lifting weights. I would tour the state, visiting different parks to find out which ones appealed to me as possible job locations. My dog and I would make our way to the beach at least twice every day, even on days when the wind and rain were so fierce I could barely move forward as I bent and strained into it.

I had a rich social life in those days as well, spending time with people who had a welcoming community and chose to raise their families in an area surrounded by nature and lacking in big business, big money, or big highways.

But in truth, it was an anguished time for me. My goal was single-minded: I wanted to become a park ranger at the park where I was doing seasonal work. It checked off all my boxes – it was fairly close to my extended family, it was a beautiful yet inexpensive place to live, and I felt completely safe. I expected to become a park ranger here.

And yet I sensed that the park manager was not going to let that happen. Mostly it was the absence of encouraging comments, or suggestions of how I could strengthen myself as an applicant. And on occasion, he would suggest that I shouldn’t want or expect to work at my chosen park right out of the gate. But instead of fully accepting his consistent message, I second-guessed my intuition and pushed even harder to become their ideal choice.

I wanted so much to belong, to be an accepted member of the park team. And yet time and again, I was the one left to manage the park office while everyone else went to the birthday and retirement parties; and I was the one left behind while everyone else scrambled to see the orcas swimming just off-shore. I chose this place, and it did not choose me back; I lived in the tortured space between what I wanted, and what really was.

I had an on-again, off-again best friendship, which I found perplexing and distressing. And I had an on-again, off-again romance with a man. We both knew there was no long-term potential, but I wrestled inside, switching from accepting the companionship for what it was, to trying to convince myself that we could make it work long-term, to thinking I needed to end it so that I’d be available for the right relationship.

And despite my best efforts to stay out of the fray, I was ultimately and unwittingly drawn into several work dramas, all of which I found exhausting and demoralizing.

Through all this I was living on a meager wage, never more evidenced than when one of my bedroom ceilings started to leak, and the property manager told me the owner was not going to fix it – that I should move everything out of that room and close the door. Or perhaps it was when mushrooms started growing in my bathroom, in the crevices between floor and wall, and my toothbrush grew pink mold.

So while my body was becoming stronger and stronger, and as the ranger finish line was approaching, I was wracked with struggle, conflict, and self-doubt.

I often try to reconcile who I’ve become since then and whether the person I am now is better than the person I used to be. Am I stronger or weaker? More courageous or more frightened?

Most of the time I feel less than who I was before. Physically, I’m 50 pounds heavier, have lost all the hard-won muscle strength, and feel entirely unattractive. Where I had developed a profound confidence that my physical and mental strength, along with my determination, would carry me through anything; my body, brain, and soul then failed me so many times I lost all confidence in myself.

I’ve developed a social anxiety that prevents me not only from trying to make new friends but also from reaching out to old friends because I’m embarrassed by my awkwardness and ugliness.

And I’ve developed such a deep fear of loss, a fear of the bad things that might and sometimes do happen in life, I can’t imagine rising above all that in order to find intimate and committed love. With the exception of my extended family, the risk of loss that comes with love does not seem worth it.

Back then I was in my prime. I was becoming the most physically fit I’d ever been. I was reaching and risking and striving to find my dream job and dream life. And I was living wide open to the experiences and changes that defined that time in my life.

The person I am today seems so much more frightened; my life so much smaller.

And yet – sometimes I wonder if my definitions of strength and courage must change. Between that time and now, I have seen over and over again the perils of life and death. I have seen life end, of both strangers and loved ones. I have been scared for my life. I have been traumatized, and then retraumatized.

Blessed innocence gives way to wisdom. And while everything feels less certain, self-confidence is replaced with compassion. Instead of running and hiding from death and pain, I can now hold space for those enduring it. I can connect with that rawness; I can feel it, and I can sit with it.

Often I do not want to get out of bed in the morning because I'm not prepared to accept all the day might bring. There are days that I simply cannot get out of bed, because the risk feels too great.

And yet when crisis hits, I rise to it. Again and again, I go where there is trouble and I do what I can. I draw on the training I received, and skills I developed while I was a park ranger. Whether a kitchen fire, or a loved-one in danger, or a grieving mother asking me to help bathe and dress her child who died of cancer, I show up.

Sometimes I am terrified. Sometimes I am resentful that this has happened “to me.” Most times I cannot manage my harder emotions, so I push them down until the crisis has passed. And sometimes the toll it takes is significant and lengthy. Yet I show up.

My bravado, my self-assuredness, is gone. My swagger has become a cautious walk, adrenaline surging and heart racing when anything new approaches – even a woman with her small child coming my way on the sidewalk.

And still, I show up. Not all the time. Sometimes only in very small ways, like getting out of bed, or finding food. And not with a body held tall and a powerful voice. But I show up when it really counts, when I’m really needed. And I show up even knowing my hands may shake, and my voice may quiver, and tears may well up or even spill over. Knowing how painful and uncertain the world can be, and still covered in the scars of this knowledge, courage and strength look like showing up.