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Courage in the Wilderness

Courage in the Wilderness

My feet were dragging across a rocky singletrack trail in the Superstition Wilderness east of Phoenix. It was nearly 90 degrees outside and I was 43 miles into a 52.4 mile run—a double marathon. The entire right side of my body was cramping, my legs were sapped of energy, and I could feel my heart rate climbing like a mountain goat up a scree field.

I hurt. I hurt bad. I was in what ultrarunners call the “pain cave,” and I was trying to claw my way out.

As deep as I was in that abyss of agony, it was about to get worse. Tired from the accumulated miles and stress of the heat, my legs faltered and my toe caught a rock. I tripped, face-planting into the dirt, crags, and cacti below.

It was then that I faced a choice: to pick up my sorry, spasming body and continue on — or, to slither into the scant shade provided by a lonely piñon pine and hope that a hiker or runner would find me before I shriveled up into dust, disappointment, and despair.

That moment called for courage, and I didn’t know if I had any to summon.

When most people think of courage, they think of bravery, fearlessness, or feats of super-heroic valor. And yet, despite what we think or imagine, courage is not about being impervious to fear, pain, or struggle. Instead, courage is something that emerges out of fear, pain, and struggle.

In fact, courage cannot exist without adversity.

We have seen it before. The runner that crumbles meters from the finish line and crawls across it to claim the win. The team that fights its way back to victory after a deep deficit. The amputee who not only learns to walk again, but also goes on to conquer mountains. The shy, awkward, nerdy guy who works up the pluck to ask out his secret crush despite being turned down so many times before.

What we see in these moments is courage. True courage. Courage forged in fear, built after burnout, and worked out in the wilderness of anxiety, pain, and loss.

This life is one that is full of struggle and pain, death and decay. Things go wrong. We hurt. We fumble, we falter, and we fall.

All of these difficult life experiences and tragedies threaten the very integrity of ourselves, our beings, our souls. At critical crossroads in our lives, we feel the weight of the world crushing in on us and we face a choice: to pick ourselves up and carry on in courage, or turn in on ourselves and shrivel up into the dust, disappointment, and despair.

Instead of trying to avoid anxiety or sidestep struggle, we should embrace these moments in our lives as opportunities for courage to be developed, practiced, and put to use.

Reflecting on the idea of courage, Paul Tillich wrote that true courage is not something that removes or rejects anxiety, but engages it and takes it into itself. Basically, Tillich argued, courage is embracing fear — not avoiding it, ignoring it, or pretending it doesn’t exist.

In fact, we could go so far as to say that courage is something forged in, through, and by our “wilderness experiences.” The Hebrew Scriptures’ book of Numbers tells the tale of the Hebrew people as they wandered in the desert between Egypt and Canaan after being freed from slavery. It was a place of terror and tension, of complaint and consequences, of danger and death. Thinking on Tillich and reflecting on the Hebrews’ wilderness experience, Rabbi Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote that this was the place — not the land of their enslavement or the promised land ahead — that served as “the stark theater in which human courage” was to be formed and practiced. Before they were to enter into the land promised to them, the Hebrew people had to learn what courage is by facing annihilation and anxiety.

So it is with us as well. When faced with the great challenges of life, we will need to pull on reservoirs of courage, miracles of audacity that emerge from our past experiences where fear has been transformed into faith, loathing into love, and hardship into hope.

What this requires is stepping out into the world. Going for it. Climbing that mountain, loving the unloved, asking that someone out on a date, standing against injustice, or finishing that run in the wilderness when your cramped legs and bloodied and blistered feet don’t want to carry you any farther.

So try. Go for it. Even in the doing of the thing that fills you with dread, you are courageous. And if you don’t feel courageous quite yet, your journey into the unknown wilds of this life will reveal it soon enough.

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on virtues like courage from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Religion nerd, rugby fan, runner, foodie, traveler, beer-ista. Ken gets to do a lot of these things as a religion scholar, pastor, and popular writer and speaker working out of universities, cafés, communities, and local pubs across the U.S.

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