THE BLOG
07/07/2014 10:03 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

Taking Cancer to Heart

I don't have to be a mega linguist to realize that the root of courage has within it the French word for heart. Lately I've been struck by just how many people in my life have told me how strong I am, and how courageous as well. I haven't seen it, it just seemed not only counter-intuitive and blatantly untrue but in another way, distancing as well. In other words I felt I was being idealized, not seen for my vulnerabilities and loneliness, and I protested: I was speaking my insides but that was not courage. Though I'm coming to think and feel I might be wrong about this.

Over quite some time in my own writing and reflecting and feeling, I've come to appreciate vulnerability as a gateway to courage. For me it has seemed that when a child or any of us can lay claim to real vulnerability and go on to protect it, this can lead to the strength necessary to dignify vulnerability. If the feeling of being hurt gets objected to and somehow validated, we can proceed to recognize danger and the dignity in both that recognition and in taking caution to defend ourselves. At the very least we can speak the truth, even if it is our personal truth. And in doing that we move further towards a sanity, of not being so easily seduced into belief systems that are based on shame, humiliation or dread.

Just days ago, I had a mastectomy, a bilateral "simple" one, though of course for anyone going through it, there is nothing simple about it. For me to be sure, it has been far from simple. Back in the day when I almost believed that grief, for one, could be divided into stages that sounded so discrete and thus more manageable, I might have bought into this abysmal set of complexities as being painted, well let's just say in the color pink. Now I see the phases are messier and more fluid and more dramatic and more connected. And despite the fact that I have resisted the term "journey" or any of the too pretty descriptions of these life events I am living, we do as it turns out learn or potentially learn, from everything that comes our way.

So I've learned how dependent I am on communication, which of course would not come as surprising to those who know me well, or perhaps any of you who have seen my fairly open and revealing blogs on this same subject. But even more so, I see that in speaking the truth that is in me, in defending my right to have it my way -- in that I claim not only my feelings but my need to process them in ways that are organic for me -- something that seems like courage does tend to grow.

I've read some of Brene' Brown on vulnerability, and I know that she speaks of the courage to be vulnerable, while I tend to think of vulnerability as leading to courage. However, we meet somewhere in the middle as she too talks of courage as speaking one's truth. So it is with synchronicity, we can encounter that which can surprise us and speak to us deeply when we open our minds and our hearts. And thus when I take my curiosity to Google about the roots of the word "courage" I find a quote from her (from I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame) in front of me. It doesn't echo mine, nor does mine echo hers; it is rather that we are inhabiting similar worlds that interconnect. She writes: "Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant 'To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.' Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences -- good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as 'ordinary courage'".

It isn't one way or the other, rather the pathways can go back and forth. I don't need to find Brown right or wrong, she adds to me and to my vision and to my life. As did my friend Caryl this morning when she sent me a blog by Dr. Kelley Flanagan, called "How Self-Acceptance Might Just Save the World". In it he speaks about our tendency to look for heroes whom we idealize and then throw off pedestals when we find and expose their flaws, their darker sides. He writes, " When we finally embrace the fullness of our humanity, we might also embrace the fierceness of our heroism".

And so it is again, that I might have been mistaken. In my speaking my truth and reaching out to connect in my fear, my stark vulnerabilities and my hope, on the eve of an unexpected operation for hematoma -- right after the mastectomy -- I might have been just that -- courageous. Maybe the cry for help was courage, because it was real. And maybe courage isn't the hero's call from the top of a mountain only.

Maybe weakness and courage are part of the same. And perhaps admitting the complexity and diversity within us as well as without, is part of the courage -- the freedom to claim our courage -- that not only I need but that more of us need, certainly if we are to tolerate, claim, and integrate the honesty about what it takes to live in a world where seeing the complexity may just be a requirement. Of course along with the supports we seek and we put in, so we can bear it.

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