Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.
The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.
By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.
In the book The Obstacle is the Way Author Ryan holiday has a great quote about courage and action reading, “We talk a lot about courage as a society, but we forget at its most basic level it’s really just taking action — whether that’s approaching someone you’re intimidated by or deciding to finally crack a book on a subject you need to learn.” I enjoy this quote because it is not just a trite saying that we use in situations where we know we need to take action to do something, or where we know we should take a risk and put ourselves out into the world. The quote from Holiday shows that we can have courage by simply deciding to act, especially in challenging situations.
When I think about taking action on things I often dream about, I don’t always think about courage, in fact, courage is probably the last thing I think about. I consider whether or not someone will ever respond to an email or phone call and I usually procrastinate on reaching out to someone for as long as possible before finally putting words down in an email or punching the numbers into my phone. When I think about courage in Holiday’s view, I better understand what is going through my mind during those moments, and I think I may be better able to adjust in those moments simply by saying that I had courage to act, rather than criticizing myself for having delayed action for so long.
Holiday is definitely correct in his reflection on the way society thinks about courage. We currently love superhero movies (at least I do and I’m going to assume anyone reading this is like me and enjoys them as well) and our idea of courage is displayed and possibly shaped through the story of the heroes in our movies. The courage to stand up against a bully, fight a foe in a glorious battle, and speak out against injustice are the forms of courage we are familiar with and can identify in real life people like firefighters and veterans. The problem with this courage is that it is in many ways out of reach for most people. Looking at courage as Holiday does shifts the way we use the word, and makes courage more accessible to more people in their daily lives.
Simply speaking with someone you have been avoiding or that is not part of your group is an act of courage. Emailing someone with decision making power and letting them know that you have a great idea or observation is an act of courage. Even a decision to step away from a comfortable night of television to be involved in a class, art project, or community event is an act of courage that we should recognize. These examples are just actions pulled from the perspective Holiday illuminated, but I’m sure there are more acts of courage running through your mind. Ultimately the thing to remember is that courage does not have to be something defined by heroism, but rather by simple action, by the decision to do something, even if it is small, and the fortitude to cary out that action.