Courage is every day

Commentary From The Optimist Magazine
Summer 2014

It’s easy to get pessimistic. We have large-scale terror attacks, the environment might have reached a “no going back” tipping point, and there’s always the next health crisis around the corner. In these moments, the critical voice within might even tell you that it’s naive to reach for optimism, because the problems are far too big for us to solve.

These are the moments when courage is most called for. Practicing courage, which I define as working with the tough stuff of life rather than hoping to tap-dance around it, creates the resilience needed to confront pessimism and cynicism. We often think of courage as the stuff of heroes who have something bigger and braver than the rest of us—the Gandhis and Mother Teresas of the world—without seeing that this mind-set only expands the problem.

Cultivating a practice of daily courage is what builds resilience in the face of pessimism, and the courageous people that we’re waiting for are ordinary, everyday heroes: ourselves. “When I talk about courage, I’m not talking about heroics,” said Brené Brown, shame researcher and bestselling author of Daring Greatly, when I interviewed her. “I’m talking about everyday acts of being who we are. In a culture where we associate being vulnerable with being weak, I don’t think there’s anything braver than being honest and telling the truth about how we feel.”

Pessimism is another form of fear, and getting honest about our experience of pessimism and fear is what paves the way to practicing regular, ordinary courage in our daily lives. Here are three ways to get started.

1. Be honest about pessimistic thoughts.

We often judge ourselves when we cop to the pessimism, so either we try not to think such thoughts, or we force positive affirmations that feel inauthentic. This can be a major energy drain. Instead, get
honest: “What exactly am I feeling pessimistic about? What’s the chronic thought? What fear underlies this thought?”

2. Practice the courage to be vulnerable.

It’s hard to watch people suffer, even when they’re far away on the news. Rather than shutting down our hearts, the courageous act is to fully see the truth of their experience. When you’re willing to practice this kind of courage, you discover an astonishing thing: Instead of the pain shutting you down, if you work with it, it actually opens you up. The kindness and compassion the world needs stems from honestly looking at the truth of another’s experience.

Next time you want to turn away from seeing someone suffer, try breathing with it. Notice where you start putting up barriers to truly witnessing life’s hard stuff and how that shuts down the potential for joy, love and finding solutions to big problems.

3. Confront the pessimism as an illusion.

Even in the face of an overwhelming challenge, such as a health crisis or environmental disaster, it’s an illusion that your small part doesn’t make a difference. Maybe it’s true that you can’t fix your friend’s cancer or stop hunger, but by turning away from the feeling of impossibility, you can come up with new, creative solutions that do make a difference. Maybe all your friend needs today is five minutes of your kindness. No doubt every disaster-relief organization appreciates every dollar, even if you’ve got only five of them to spare.

Remember: From civil rights to environmental awareness, every movement has had a time when no one believed change was possible. Buck the trend. Believe in the possibility of change, and more becomes possible. 

Kate Swoboda is a life coach and author of the Courageous Living Program. She writes weekly at

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