When I was in 4th grade, I completed a homeschooling curriculum on World History. I had a fantastic history book that was easy to read and did not read at all like a text book. I remember reading the chapter on Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. There was a section on the city-state of Sparta and the culture of the Spartans. When I read about the Spartans leaving babies that seemed weak (i.e. those unlikely to succeed as soldiers) on a hillside to die, I went to my mother so distraught I couldn’t even explain to her what I had learned through my tears.
That memory serves to remind me that, perhaps, I am indeed hardwired to be the person I am. From the time I was tiny and my mother had to glue together pages of my wild animal picture books because I was upset about the picture of the lion killing its prey, I have been rather unnaturally sensitive. Over the years, I have learned how to better harness that energy. How to manage it so it does not overwhelm me. I have learned to channel my passion for caring. I would be lying if I told you this has been an easy road. Time changes you, though, and painful personal events shape you and change your ability to tolerate comfort and discomfort. Your life perspective, and who you are as a living, loving person in the world changes.
I work in a job now where my heart could—and sometimes does--break on a daily basis. I have worked to be able to handle the stories I hear because, just as I was born to cry about Spartan babies dying on hillsides, I was born to hear stories. Through stories, through interpersonal connection and dialogue, through contact with other human beings, we come to understand our world. Through living and engaging with others honestly, we open ourselves to change our souls, or bodies, and our minds. When we engage ourselves with honesty, the possibilities and potential for change is endless.
There is a certain vulnerability that comes with honesty that makes it frightening. Professionally, I fear that “this child’s story makes my heart hurt,” can sound like “I can’t handle what this family is telling me.” I worry that “this family stays on my mind long after I see them. This is a case I bring home with me,” sounds like “I have poor boundaries and can’t separate my personal and professional life.” I assume that statements like “I nearly became tearful in session as the mother described her current circumstances” sounds like “I cried because I felt so bad for her” or “I became overwhelmed with my own personal reaction and couldn’t handle mom’s affect.”
But I hold strong in my conviction that it takes courage to love the world. It takes courage to wake up every day and walk out into the world, ready to love again. Putting oneself in a position where your job requires you to extend that love on an intimate and interpersonal level, in all the myriad of ways we can show our love for humanity, is an act of bravery. Hearing stories, sharing lives, moving towards healing and health and wholeness, whatever that means, is a radical act of compassion and love. Acts of courage and bravery leave battle wounds and scars. These wounds leave our perceptions of the world irreversibly changed, and yet, the bravery that is valued seems to be the bravery to carry on as though you are unshaken.
The courage that I live is simply the ability to hear it all, and to love the world again. The bravery I live is the ability to soak in stories and continue to be open to holding them, to telling them, to making them and breaking them down to deconstruct them. The bravery I live is the ability to sit with the people the world seems to have ignored so long they have been forgotten. The wounds I carry are sometimes physical, but more often and more substantially, lie in the intimate knowledge I hold of the pain in others’ hearts. The battle scars are in my eyes as the lenses with which I view the world become obscured with knowledge I’d rather not have.