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Living Fearlessly and Being Courageous: What Does That Mean?

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Living fearlessly is not about being tougher than the next guy, or being immune to feeling afraid in the grips of a perceived danger, or feeling overly confident in the presence of the unknown. It is not about overcoming fear, either. It is more about befriending fear and loving yourself just the way you are, really.

Living fearlessly is also about being courageous. It is about being fearlessly courageous. Courageous. Courage. What is courage?

Let's go to my computer's dictionary and see what it says about courage. It says that courage is "the ability to do something that frightens one." Courage is "having strength in the face of pain or grief."

Courage is the ability to act on one's beliefs despite danger or disapproval. Courage is also called daring, audacity, boldness, grit, true grit, hardihood, heroism, and gallantry, among other things. Wow.

Now we know what the dictionary says, but what is the lived experience of being courageous?

The first time I was intellectually introduced to the origin of the word "courage" was in the summer of 1976. I was a 23-year-old on a Hurricane Island Outward Bound course.

The mysterious and mighty waters of Penobscot Bay and the tidal rivers of midcoast Maine were my training ground. My group was called a "mobile watch," which meant we travelled from island to island and river to river rather than being stationed on Hurricane Island itself. We were never indoors the entire month. I was immersed in the natural world and I was never happier or more scared.

During the course I learned many things that guide me still. I learned that the word "courage" had roots in old French: coeur ("heart"), from the Latin word for heart, cor.

So, therefore, to have courage meant moving from my heart in the face of being afraid, and I was often afraid. Prior to that, I thought of courage merely as bravery and believed that one needed to be big and strong to be brave.

Well, I wasn't big and strong. In fact, I felt pretty tiny in the marine wilderness. Yet I was humbly calling for courage daily as I was challenged to complete our tasks. I have shared some of them here: maneuvering an outdoors ropes course, jumping off a pier into the cold Atlantic, rapelling granite cliffs at the ocean's edge in Acadia National Park, weathering powerful rainstorms in a 26-foot open pulling boat (a row boat), and being physically, emotionally and spiritually vulnerable with strangers.

Trusting strangers with my life was the most challenging by far. Yet I found my personal courage to do these things as I mastered the fear that tried to stop me.

Since 1976, life has offered me countless opportunities to practice being courageous, and I confess that I don't always find my courage. In fact, I am still learning about it every day.

Today, whenever I am curious and want to understand courage more deeply, all I have to do is go outside and turn to the natural world all around me.

There, I see the baby bird stepping off the edge of the nest to fly, because that is what chicks do -- they find the courage to fly.

I see the seed surviving drought and sprouting after the summer monsoons finally arrive, because that is what seeds do -- they find the courage to sprout.

I watch the ducklings following their mother downriver without thought of where she might be leading them, because that is what ducklings do -- they find the courage to float downriver, following their mother.

I see the cottonwoods bend with the fierce wind that precedes the thunderstorm, because that is what cottonwoods do -- they find the courage to yield to a power greater than themselves in the moment.

I see the willows growing again after being trimmed back, simply because that is what willows do -- they find the courage to grow again.

I see the chipmunk pup emerging from the underground sanctuary called his nest for the first time, because that is what chipmunk pups do -- they find the courage to pop out of their nests and run around.

I see the goslings take flight and practice the V formation in preparation for a long migration south come autumn, because that is what geese do -- they find the courage to go south.

I see the doe with her fawn crossing the river in search of new tender leaves, fully exposing herself and her baby to predation, because that is what deer do -- they find the courage to risk their lives and munch everything they can munch to fatten up for winter.

I see a tree that grows from a barren and cracked rock sucking nutrients from imperceptible soil, because that is what trees do -- they find the courage to defy the impossible and reach for the sun.

How about the first day of school for the kindergartner, or the first steps taken by the infant-soon-to-be-toddler? That is just what they do -- they find the courage to grow up.

The modeling of courage in nature is an endless stream of purposeful and courageous action that offers lessons on the lived experience of courage every day and every night.

But don't believe me. Go out into nature and see for yourself. Go with courage. Go with confidence. Go with discernment. And as Rhonda Britten would say, be fearless.

For more by Martha Pasternack, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.