A robust courage
Under the impacts of climate change, extreme-weather events will increase, as will fires, floods, and other challenging and potentially terrifying circumstances. Citizens of that world will regularly face very real fears and must draw upon significant courage not to close down as a result.
But is the courage needed for empowered, hopeful and even joyous engagement with the climate crisis entirely about the ability to face fears? Or, like hope, are we talking about a more robust and nuanced understanding of what it means to be courageous?
Vulnerability and the courageous life
Maya Angelou once said: “Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest.”
Positively engaging with climate change will require all of these virtues and many more. Citizenship that is simultaneously empowered and rooted in compassion and respect requires authentic living aligned with our values. This type of living is rooted in both self-knowledge and openness to others with emotional intelligence flowing through both.
Why is courage fundamental to so many other important qualities? Because, as explored in depth by renowned researcher, writer, speaker and teacher Brene Brown, it takes courage to be vulnerable and vulnerability is essential to living a life compassionately aligned with our truths.
Brown’s understanding of courage, grounded in years of research, describes a courage that threads through every moment of our lives. This courage focuses on our ability to be vulnerable and face uncertainty. This courage enables us to show up fully and authentically, even in moments of great challenge and unpredictability. This type of courage is a necessary component of creativity, as the most creative are those not held back by a fear of failure or thoughts of how others will judge their offering. Innovation, entrepreneurialism, true leadership – all require a willingness to put something out in the world and risk judgment and failure, a willingness to stay connected to and expressive of our deepest selves. In other words, what is involved is a willingness to be vulnerable.
Brown identifies a lack of vulnerability as the “most significant barrier to creativity and innovation” (Brown, B. (2012) Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books. 187). This lack of vulnerability fosters a fear of change and close-mindedness.
Robust courage and climate change
Engaging in a world with climate change in an empowered manner will involve creativity, innovation and true leadership. We desperately need leaders committed to speaking and addressing difficult truths, leaders who are not wetted, above all else, to being popular.
To fully address the climate crisis, we must acknowledge our true place in the systems of nature and the limits of our power, control and what we can take. This type of reckoning will absolutely require the courage to be vulnerable to the deeper truths of the natural world and the truths of the current systems of oppression that allow some of us to prosper at the expense of many others.
Facing the impacts of climate change while building systems based on respect for all living beings will also depend on our ability to really connect with others. If we are to face challenges like mass migration, food insecurity and the healing required after extreme weather events without dissolving into war, we must not harden further into lines of otherness, separation and competition. Instead, we must soften into the realization of our interbeing.
We must build the courage needed to acknowledge our limits, whether the limits of what we can control, what we can take or what we know. We must embody the vulnerability required to connect to, learn from and embody respect for all of life – humans and nonhumans alike.
So, courage in the face of climate change is certainly about an ability to face fear and proceed. But it is also about an ability to be vulnerable, to face uncertainty, to speak truths, show up authentically, and invite others to do the same. Climate change, in other words, asks for the most robust courage we can muster.
How is robust courage cultivated?
The ability to be vulnerable is rooted in a sense of love and belonging. This is the foundation of Brown’s work and teachings. People who experience their personal worth as intrinsic and therefore not dependent upon their accomplishments or other external factors are much more able to be vulnerable and therefore courageous. These people are willing to take risks. Their sense of worth, identity and connectedness are not tied to whether they succeed or fail.
What does this mean for our role as parents, caregivers or teachers of young people working to form their own sense of courage? It means that we must focus on developing that sense of worth in the young people we love. We must root our interactions in unconditional love. Much as we might be tempted to focus on academic, athletic or extra-curricular successes, the more we do so, the more we communicate that worth is connected to those things.
If we shift our focus instead to commending the act of taking a risk or expressing ones-self, rather than the result of the risk taking or self-expression, we affirm the courage it takes to be vulnerable. We recognize the value of the risk-taker independent of any assurance of success.
We communicate and validate intrinsic self-worth in so many ways every day, both big and small. For example, when your child comes downstairs for breakfast before school, do you scan their appearance, checking to see if their hair is brushed, their clothes clean and presentable? Children are sponges and read our faces in a second. How we treat them in everyday simple moments sends powerful messages about self-worth.
Perhaps most importantly, our job is to model vulnerability and a sense of intrinsic self-worth ourselves. In her book Daring Greatly, Brown’s chapter on parenting is titled “Wholehearted Parenting: Daring to be the Adults We Want Our Children to Be”.
Consider that for a moment. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s no small task. It asks me to be very honest as I look at how I treat myself, my inner dialogue, and the way I’m showing up in my life. Am I modeling the courage to show up authentically? Am I taking the risks involved in following my heart and living in alignment with my truth? If not, I’m not modeling for my children the approach to life I want them to take. And there is no question about it, they are watching me and learning from what I do much more than they are learning from what I say. If I believe I’m worthy just as I am, my children will notice. If I believe my worth is dependent on external factors and goals, that’s what my children will learn.
Other ways we can help young people build courage:
Not surprisingly, one of the most powerful tools at our disposal is communication. In an age-appropriate manner, talk about courage with the young people in your life. Ask them to describe a courageous person or act they admire. Then ask them to think about a time when they did something that scared them. How did they feel before that action? How did they feel during the courageous act? How about afterwards?
Courage often looks different than it feels. When we are being courageous, we often feel uncomfortable in the moment. We rarely know exactly what the outcome will be. To those around us, we may look strong and powerful, but that’s often not how we feel. After they reflect on how their own acts of courage have felt, ask the young people in your life to apply that reflection to consider how the courageous person or action they admired might have felt.
Additionally, it is important to speak to your child’s bravery even before it shows. Acknowledging their capacity for courage will help them believe in it themselves.
Finally, provide the space for your child to try, fail, and try again. Reflect on their experience. Commend the courage it takes to be persistent.
As we face an incredibly uncertain future, here’s to the power of showing up vulnerably, open to trying and failing, and willing to speak our truth.