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Courage Can Change the World—and You!

Courage for Social Change




One morning I wrote down everything I could imagine to be afraid of: my dog could run away; I could get really sick, be a bad parent, not be able to pay bills; I could be fooling myself; people may laugh behind my back; the Middle East could erupt into even more chaos; someone could die; a tornado, another 9/11, a giant meteor. The possibilities flowed like the Mississippi (which could run so dry barges can’t move). I quit after a page, but the exercise was way too easy.

Consciously or not, we too often live out of our fears. Some we can do something about, others not. But as we take on the big challenges, theworld needs us to be more courageous.

You may have seen this Venn diagram showing where “your comfort zone” and “where the magic happens” overlap (they don’t!). For me it’s true. Every positive thing I’ve ever done, big or small, began with leaving my comfort zone. Magic comes from stretching, risking, being a bit (or a lot) more courageous.

So how is our fear today keeping us from something important, something magic? Sometimes we just need to realize how irrational our fear is. In Getting a Grip Frances Moore Lappé points out that even though Indians outnumbered their British overlords 300,000-to-one, it still took Gandhi’s reframing for them to realize they could oust them.

Sometimes, it’s just taking that first step. Do something! “Inaction breeds doubt and fear,” said Dale Carnegie. “Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

In You Have the Power, Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins say that the old way of thinking is “I’m just a drop in the bucket. My effort might make me feel better, but it can’t do much.” The new way to think is,  “Every time we act, even with our fear, we make room for others to do the same. Courage is contagious.” They tell the story of the women in the rain.

Thirty years ago, Women Strike for Peace helped achieve a remarkable victory: an end to above-ground nuclear testing that rained radioactive fallout worldwide, even showing up at dangerous levels in mothers’ milk. Journalist Rebecca Solnit recalls hearing of a middle-aged member of the group talking about feeling utterly “foolish and futile” as she stood in the rain one morning, sign in hand, protesting at the Kennedy White House.

Futile? Many years later, she would hear Dr. Benjamin Spock – then one of the country’s highest-profile opponents of nuclear testing – say that the turning-to-action point for him was seeing a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. According to Solnit, Spock concluded: “If they were so passionately committed, he should give the issue more consideration himself.”

Courage often means little more than taking an action, even if we’re not sure it’s going to work.

Folks at the Case Foundation created a most excellent website on Fearlessness in context of social change. They explore five principles: Make big bets. Experiment early and often. Make failure matter. Reach beyond your bubble. And Let urgency conquer fear. You can download the PDF here.

Every time you leave your comfort zone, it’s scary. Or at least uncomfortable, like getting up 30 minutes earlier to accomplish a goal, or reaching out to someone for the first time. It may not always lead to magic. But reaching magic is less likely without it.

So here’s to stretching, to adventure, to courage, to magic!

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