In the article I wrote titled “We Are Open to Unity” I wrote about three ways in which we can open ourselves up to peace amidst a swirling sea of violence and tension. I followed the article with a motivational photo I created called “Courage” which included the statement, “In the Light I find Courage.” The picture portrays a man standing at the edge of a chasm and across the divide there is the rising (or setting) sun. A reader of mine suggested correctly that you don’t need to leap over the chasm to find courage. Considering the image may suggest that that is the case I wanted to write on courage and chasms in greater detail.
Each and every one of us will, at some point in our lives, face a chasm of some sort that leaves us to question everything it is we believe. This is also known as the “dark night of the soul,” a term which was coined in a Spanish poem written by St. John of the Cross in the 16th century. The poem allegorically describes the soul’s encounter with darkness as it strives to become closer to divinity. Carl Jung expanded upon the idea describing the stages that one goes through during this “night sea journey” as a transformative journey both spiritually and mentally. I have worked with and been close to many people who have gone through this experience. In fact I have gone through this experience myself and have been very open about what that process looked like. In every instance where someone has faced the chasm they have had one of two experiences — they reacted out of fear or faced it with courage.
The fear response to that gaping chasm is essentially a fight-or-flight response. At every turn we are seemingly faced with the unconquerable. “I’m not good enough.” “Without my career I am nothing.” “Without my family I am nothing.” “I am fat, poor, unlovable and even my children despise me.” These are very real negative pieces of self-talk that we embrace when facing the chasm. When we choose the flight fear response we are running away from what it is we need to do in order to change those thoughts. We run away from looking deep and exploring the roots of our pain. We cover up the pain with sarcasm and bad habits. Sometimes we fight, but the fighting isn’t a righteous fight to conquer our fears. Instead the fight is a horrible lashing out. We abuse others. We embrace cynicism and nihilism. We embrace vanity, self-indulgence, and narcissism as if there isn’t a problem in the world that is our responsibility. No, the problem must belong to someone else.
Barbara L. Fredrickson Ph.D. writes in “Love 2.0” about the calm-and-connect response that is the precise opposite of fight-or-flight. This is a state of inner being is one of complete trust and, in many ways, is a state of vulnerable surrender. When you feel that level of connectedness with your partner after a long sensual lovemaking session that is what this state of being is like. It is entirely possible to exercise the calm-and-connect response when facing your own personal chasm but it does take courage to do so. The reason that courage is the primary driver, in this instance, for experiencing that feeling is because courage is about willingness. When you confront your darkness are you actually willing to face what needs to be faced and do what needs to be done?
Courage opens up several pathways to peace simultaneously — acceptance, gratitude, gnosis, and compassion. With the willingness to face our darkness a certain level of acceptance sets in automatically. As an example from my own life, when my depression reached it peak I swallowed two bottles of pills and proceeded to take a nap that lasted 36 hours. When I awoke and began to recover I had made the conscious decision to be done with my depression — to stop letting it define me and control me. I faced a lot of pushback from people I had met during my hospitalization who claimed that it simply wasn’t possible to be doing what I was doing and that I was stuck with my depression. Yet that courageous decision to stop being owned by my depression led to acceptance that though I have a sickness I am not my sickness. The funny thing about sickness is that it is really just a collection of symptoms. Thus there was an acceptance that I will show symptoms from time to time. This entire process of acceptance led immediately to gratitude. I was grateful for the signs of strength within that I saw. I was grateful for life. I was grateful for the understanding and gnosis I had found about myself.
That is why gratitude further leans into gnosis — or the knowing of a mystery. We are, individually, mysteries as much to ourselves as we are to others. With courage we are able to accept our dark night of the soul, find gratitude for the opportunities it presents, and eventually find meaning and understanding through it. Gnosis is experiential knowledge and the chasm we find before us is the greatest source of experiential knowledge we will ever encounter. Mentally we know and understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that there is solid ground beyond the chasm we face. In spite of that knowing we react in fear as if the light and the land do not exist. I knew a woman once who fell out of love with her husband. She found herself in love with another man. During the year of their relationship she sunk deeper and deeper into her depression being hospitalized twice. On the one hand things with her husband were safe even if it was absent of deep love and understanding.On the other hand she had full love and support and understanding from her lover but the entirety of her life was challenged by her affair. She was filled with guilt over her “sin.” She was filled with fear over whether the choice she would make was the right one. She was filled with fear over losing both her family and the new man that she loved. Ultimately she wanted the best of both worlds. When the affair had ended it was because she had given in to fear. The chasm she faced was too vast and the light not bright enough on the other side for her to cross.
There are always going to be risks in life. We risk losing those we love by adhering to our higher purpose. We risk death by going into war. We risk happiness by going to work. We face risk after risk and yet we continue to do what we must day in and day out. This is courage! Sometimes the risks are dire and sometimes they are small. Sometimes the chasm seems wider and deeper than anything conceivable. Sometimes the Light is dimmer than we thought. With courage we exercise the understanding that the Light is there even if we cannot see it and the chasm is only as deep as we imagine it.