This week I’ve had three drafts open in three different places, all titled ‘C is for Courage’, all empty. Turns out, courage is hard to write about.
I don’t have any great acts of legendary valour to narrate. I’m not a warrior. I don’t work for the emergency services or in a hospital. I’m not a very good campaigner (though I try). I’m a teacher, but that doesn’t take much in the way of conquering fear – I have what amounts to a script, and there are handy theorists to blame who are not me.
In fact, if you see me going about my daily life, you’ll probably never notice the massive effort of courage it takes to get from the beginning to the end of a day. I have a combination of impairments that mean I wake up in chronic pain, face intense anxiety every time my routine is interrupted, and have had times in my life when I questioned the point of going on. But that can all be hard to relate to. So I’m not going to write about it.
Instead, here’s a story.
It was last year, in the winter – never my favourite time. I was wading through life and my research, but mostly waiting for the spring.
And then an e-mail popped up in my inbox. “Research storytelling” was the title. The call was out for researchers who wanted to attend storytelling workshops, ending with a performance of the story of our research.
It was with quiet resignation that I realised She was poking me. (You know – the one whose name I don’t say much.) And when She tells me to do something, I don’t say ‘no’ unless I have a very good reason.
Well, I almost had a good enough reason. That severe anxiety I mentioned earlier – that’s related to a difference in my brain that, for now, I’m just calling ‘neurodiversity’. Before I give presentations for my PhD, I panic, almost without pause, for two or three weeks. It’s not stage fright. It’s more like a terror of being judged as inadequate, but that doesn’t define it well enough. But, believe me – there is very little in this universe that could persuade me to *tell a story* in front of a group of strangers, which would have included professional storytellers.
Do it anyway, She said.
I went to the storytelling workshops. They reassured me that I didn’t have to commit to anything, that I could just practice, for when I share my PhD research with communities of people. In a very small group, I told the story of my field of study, Disability Studies (which is awesome – ask me to tell it when you next see me). It wasn’t quite the right story, though.
And later, preparing, inevitably, for the performance of a story (don’t have to commit to anything – hah). Trying to discover whose story I am telling through my research. Because, with every sentence that I write and every chapter that I read, the voices of those who have been silenced come through. And they are Her people.
In the end, it comes down to one woman. A woman with a condition that could not be talked about, a social outcast, unnamed and barely remembered. In the tale, she came to Jesus and was prohibited even from talking to him, but still found a way to ask for help – she reached out and touched his cloak, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t notice. And though he helped her, her story is written in such a way that she is silenced, every time it is read in church, forever. In that silence, she speaks for all the outcasts in that society who did not make it into the gospels, whose little acts of everyday courage like just living were never, ever recognised.
It was her courage, not mine, that I drew on that day, when I got up in front of people and said “Once there a woman who touched Jesus…”
Everyday courage is not often recognised. It doesn’t change the world. We get up, every day, and we do it anyway. The ostentatious, high-risk courage of Cuchulain makes a person well-loved. The silent, long-suffering courage of Rhiannon is just as hard, but doesn’t.
I could still show more of the other, slightly more dramatic kind. I’m working on it. If I ever forget, She gives me a good kick in the backside.