When I was a little girl, I was sure that there were monsters in the basement. I remember running full speed up the stairs, away from the dark cellar so that the monsters didn’t get me. They were huge, scary and dangerous. Avoiding it kept me afraid. Had I faced them, I would have discovered it was just the furnace making a weird noise. Slightly unsettling but not scary at all. Certainly not unmanageable.
Sometimes when we don’t want to feel something, it’s easier to compartmentalize our emotions. We run away from them so that they can’t hurt us. The problem with this is that our fear of them is usually greater than the pain they can cause us. We feed our fears by looking away. They get their power from silence and being ignored or hidden.
They say courage is born on the battlefield. That may be true, but I think just as often it arises in the aftermath, when we work to face our emotions. Anyone in a service profession knows about putting a “game face” on. You know it, showing no fear even when you are about to walk into a situation that is dangerous, frightening or threatening. Joe Frazier knew it when walked into the ring to face Muhammad Ali, arguably one of the greatest boxers of all time. Ali had a total of 56 professional wins, 37 of them by knockout. So when Frazier walked in the ring, he likely knew that he had a 50% chance of being knocked unconscious. Yet he did it anyway.
Shoving our emotions aside in times of distress is important and often necessary. It allows us to remain functional. The challenge is knowing when and how to take our game face off, and look deeper to discover what it is that we are actually feeling.
In treatment groups I’ve had Special Forces Members, Police, RCMP, Firefighters, Paramedics, EOD Techs, Corrections Officers and Trauma Counsellors say the same thing. Coming to treatment was one of the hardest, but most important things they have ever done.
So perhaps courage does take many forms. The obvious ones, and the more invisible form as we all come together to regroup, recalibrating our central nervous systems, and reclaiming important aspects of self that may have been lost along the way.
In my mind, that is indeed the face of courage.
Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych. Executive Director, Landing Strong
My husband recently took a group of 30 students, aged 11-18 to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Every one of them made it to the top. Braving the cold on that last difficult night, the students dug deep to find the resources to keep going when their bodies were shrieking at them to stop. There is no doubt in my mind that if they were walking in isolation, very few would make it. With support, encouragement and companionship of others in the same predicament, the venture somehow feels less daunting. There is, indeed, strength in numbers.
This week I came off an intensive week working with veterans and first responders recovering from Operational Stress Injuries. Even though they are only four days into a ten day program, I already see a difference: a lightness in their faces; straightness in their back; and a shift in the manner they speak to one another. What originally started out as a journey of isolation has transformed into a group effort. Accessing emotions that have been long buried they push forward in their desire for recovery.
Initially avoiding eye contact, they now meet each other’s gaze with respect and admiration. Trained to view expression of emotions as a sign of weakness, they are coming to understand it is, in fact, the opposite. Facing that which we fear is the ultimate act of courage.
“We are alone in this together.” One of them affirmed. With these words I know that something important is shifting. For what started out as a solo journey, has now become a group expedition.
My husband Joe recently shared a few “promposal” stories with me, reminding me of the intense joy, courage and compassion felt by adolescents. For those of you unfamiliar with this time-honoured secondary school custom, promposals are the delivery of heartfelt sentiments, generally performed in a very public manner. I felt touched by the thoughtful ways people were asking someone special to be their date.
Expressing our affections for another can make us feel vulnerable, especially if we are unsure how the other person will respond. Rejection is a risk. To put oneself in a vulnerable position publicly takes even more courage.
Joe told me about a female hockey player who wished to ask out a member of the boys hockey team. His team was scheduled to practice immediately after hers. She secretly enlisted the help of both teams… even the coaches were included. It was their task to distract the intended recipient while both teams lined up their sticks to make a path to a message spelled out in pucks on the freshly cleaned ice.
My goal is to score a date with you for the prom.
Luckily for both parties involved, he accepted. I imagine a great roar of cheers arising from all those who helped orchestrate this wonderful event.
Another story involves a fellow who was in charge of thanking a particular girl during a school assembly for her role in organizing an event. He got up in front of the entire school, acknowledged her effort, and then with only the slightest of pauses, presented her with a bouquet of roses, adding,
There is one other thing I would like to say…
With the entire school watching, he took the plunge:
I don’t have anyone to go to the prom with me. Will you do me the honour of being my date?
Over 400 people held their breath as they waited for her reply. After what must have seemed like an eternity to the young man, she broke into a huge smile and gleefully accepted.
These young people inspire me. How often is it that we have the opportunity to witness such grand acts of courage? I don’t know about you, but I found the adolescent years excruciating. I stand in awe of the fortitude it takes to stand on a mountain top and declare one’s love or admiration in such a bold manner.
That, my friends, is living. This week, I chose to think about how inviting others to share powerful emotions can bring us together.
Warm thoughts from the Landing Strong Team,
Belinda Seagram, Ph.D., R. Psych. Founder, Landing Strong
It’s not uncommon that we see the best of people in the harshest conditions. It shows up in a number of ways: volunteers laying sandbags to fight floodwaters; communities taking in strangers to offer shelter from a storm; or in more extreme conditions, bi-standers risking their lives to protect or defend people they don’t even know.
It’s those critical moments when people show up when it counts the most. When we think back to those times, it is the moments of courage and compassion that strike us the most.
They say that North America is consumed by the search for happiness. Research studies reveal that it is, in fact, purpose, meaning, and social connection that are most important.
If you are reading this, chances are you are in some form of community service: military, policing, firefighting, corrections, paramedical, or medical. Perhaps your service is supporting those who have taken on these difficult roles. We take on these challenges for different reasons: to create something better for ourselves; to establish purpose or meaning in our lives; or even to be of service to our country. What’s interesting, though, is that ultimately when people are under fire it isn’t their country they are worried about – it’s the person standing next to them. It’s in social connection that we find the greatest meaning.
We all need someone who will have our back, in good times or bad. We all need a tribe, a family, or a group to call our own. Sometimes it takes something awful happening for us to figure this out.
Landing Strong is about creating a tribe: a place where we are all connected by our united sense of meaning and purpose. Our goal is to create opportunity for connection and movement for those who are tired of being where they are at and ready to move forward.
I was deeply touched last week when I read an article about Skippy, an 10-month-old barn cat, who crawled home ten days after going missing. He had three broken legs and puncture and talon marks on his back leg. Carried away by an owl, Skippy fought furiously for survival until the bird of prey dropped him, leading to the broken bones. With his one good leg, he somehow managed to drag himself home.
Like Skippy, many of us have an equally strong desire to find our way home; even when it may seem impossible. Although the breaks and injuries might not be visible, invisible wounds can prevent an easy return. Once we have arrived at our destination, that’s often when the real work begins. Will we ever be the same? Is recovery possible? What must happen for us to fit into home as we previously knew it?
This is the work of Landing Strong. It takes incredible resilience to make the journey. We hope that you will join us on September 27th in celebrating the strength, courage, and fortitude it takes for service men and women, veterans, and first responders who are struggling to find their way home.