When the Critics are Loud, May Our Courage Be Louder

the courage to jump

Photo Credit: RHiNO NEAL via Compfight cc

Sometimes, fear is a good thing. Sometimes, fear is a sign of courage. Because sometimes, courage propels us right into the fear at the edge of our comfort zones.

Last month, as dusk descended and the shadows began to stretch across the local park district pool, my oldest son did his cycles on the high dive. Sometimes he’s happy to do so quietly and anonymously. This time, he wanted us to watch (of course, what he really wanted was a little applause, and we were happy to oblige).

As he waited his turn in line, the little boy before him slowly climbed the rungs and timidly edged his way out to the end of the board. He stood there, looking down. His knees bent and then straightened. He put his arms out and then clutched them in, hugging himself. And then he scrambled back down the ladder and to the back of the line.

My heart ached for the little guy.

My son was up next. He jumped off and swam over to us, where we were clapping like he was Greg Louganis. I asked him about the little boy ahead of him, and he told me the kid was just too afraid to make his first jump off the high dive.

I cringed and asked a question I already knew the answer to: “I hope the other kids were kind to him?”

My son grimaced and shook his head slightly, “No, they weren’t. They called him ‘chicken’ and ‘baby.’”

The Timeless Competition

Chicken.

Baby.

The shaming words of kids who are fighting for their own sense of worth, kids who have come to believe their worth exists in comparison to everyone else, kids who believe they look better if everyone else looks bad.

I watch my children do it to each other—they compete for love and belonging, as if my love for them is a finite resource and only one of them can have it. I watch playground bravado—the “athletes” shame the “nerds” for their lack of physical prowess and the “nerds” shame the “athletes” for their poor scores on the spelling test. I watch as friends and foes and peers send the continuous message: you aren’t good enough—I’m better than you, which makes me good enough.

Kids clutching at their own self-worth by slapping at everyone else’s.

I’m a big kid now, and at my age, we don’t call each other “chicken” or “baby,” but the peer competition, while more subtle, is still intense:

Murmurs about how this person parents, and

what job that person lost, and

who so-and-so spends time with, and

why Jack’s beliefs are wrong, and

how frequently Jill posts to Facebook.

Life feels a little bit like a minefield—at every step we risk stepping on someone else’s landmine of shame. At every turn, the lie waits for us on the tongues of friends and foes and strangers: “You aren’t good enough.”

And it shuts us down.

We quit taking steps. We quit putting ourselves on the line, because it is scary and we think fear is a sure sign we’re not up to the task. And so our words stay bottled up and our hopes are suffocated and we bide our time, just trying to get through the days and weeks and months and years without getting stung too badly.

What It Means to Have Courage

The same summer evening, as we threw on towels and headed home to the air conditioning, my son gave me an update: “Daddy, that boy got up on the board four more times tonight, but he never jumped. Every time when he came down, the kids made fun of him. The lifeguard finally told him he would have to wait and try again tomorrow.”

And then my son said something else that made my heart tremble. He said, “Daddy, that boy was really brave.”

That boy was really brave.

Because he had the courage to keep trying, even as his friends and peers tried to shame him into not believing in himself. They tried to tease the lie right into him, “You are a chicken, a coward, you aren’t capable of living your hopes, you aren’t capable of jumping into who you want to be.”

That boy was really brave.

Because courage is ignoring the jeers and feeling the fears. Courage is returning to the edge of our comfort zone and choosing the place where our fear dwells, because we are worthy of another chance at life. Regardless of what the critics say.

Will We Climb?

I think many of us have spent our lives listening to the voices of our peers. We’ve been unwitting victims of the implicit playground and household and workplace competition for worth. I think many of us have had the lie teased right into our hearts and minds.

But I also think many of us have a breathtaking amount of courage buried just beneath our shame. I think many of us are standing at the bottom of the high dive ladder, and we are dying to climb it, to defy the catcalls of the other “kids” and to walk to the end of the board.

Will we jump?

Does it matter?

Because the real question is, will we keep climbing? Will we keep putting ourselves in the position to jump into our hopes and dreams and everything we might be.

We are defined not by the criticism we receive but by the courage we live.

And nothing is more courageous than trying again, amidst the failure and the mess and the fear, when everyone else is trying to convince us to quit.

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This post is adapted from the rough draft of a book manuscript I am writing. The book is in its early stages, and I want your help conceptualizing it. The conversations on this blog are an indispensable part of my thinking and writing process, and I want to expand the conversation. So, as I’ve mentioned one time before, I will be hosting periodic Google+ Video Hangouts, which will serve as focus groups for various ideas related to the book.

The first Hangout is scheduled for Friday, September 13, at 10am CST. The focus question will be: “What are the differences between shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment?” I have some ideas, which I will share, but I want to hear yours!

If you are interested in participating in a Hangout and…

you are an existing subscriber, go to the bottom of your weekly email and click on “update subscription preferences.” On the preferences page, click the “Google Video Hangouts” box and then click “Update Profile.” You will automatically receive any future updates about the Hangouts, and you can unsubscribe at any time by changing your preferences again.   

you are not yet a blog subscriber but wish to be, you can click here to subscribe, and then check the “Google Video Hangouts” box on the subscription form. In addition to receiving updates about the Hangouts, you will receive my weekly post by email and free copy of my eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down.

Thanks, and I’m excited to connect in this way!

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Comments: You can share your thoughts or reactions to today’s post at the bottom of this post.                 

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “Making Marriage a Meditation: Becoming Students of the Ones We Love.”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Just Thinkin’

    Hi, Kelly
    Thank you so much for this post. My olest son is about to enter school and, inevitably, face the trials and challenges of making friends and being both rejected and accepted. We have tried to instill a sense of self worth that is independent of comparison and independent of others opinions, but he is only 4 and there is only so much one can expect of a little man.
    I hope and pray that the trials of school and of rejection and acceptance, build character in him and do not crush his gentle spirit. I suppose my deepest fear is that instead of trials imbuing him with strength, thy might crush some par of his beautiful spirit and I will not be there to see and tend the wound.
    But I have to trust that like strength is imparted to a butterfly’s wings as it struggles to leave the cocoon, the struggles of childhood will impart strength and grace to my son.
    Thanks for the encouragement and the beautiful perspective on the world. I look forward to every post.
    Vaughan

    • drkellyflanagan

      Vaughan, I feel you, brother. I remember dropping my oldest off at kindergarten and the word that kept coming to mind as he walked into the school was “exposed.” But take comfort, my friend, I think your son knows he has a place to return to, and that’s what really matters, not the wounds but having a place to lick them.

    • Stacie Schmidt

      Vaughan, my daughter is three, and I am already worried about that myself (yet we are a whole year away from it)! She has so much determination, creativity, and independence. I love that about her and it would hurt me to see anyone cause her to question the qualities that make her beautiful and unique. I just want you to know that you are not alone in that parenting worry. But I think the sheer fact that you are thinking of it will make you attuned to any hiccups that occur along the way. At least in that way you can be a great support to your son whenever he needs it.

  • Michele Bartlett

    I plan to print and bring this to my 92-year-old Mom today. She is in an assisted living home but to her, it’s 7th grade, not because she’s demented, but because everyone there talks about everyone else — their clothes, their haircuts, etc. (Well, what ELSE do they have to talk about?) And therein lies the problem — sometimes people actually DO judge and ridicule us like the kids in the dive line. But sometimes we think they are judging, when they aren’t, because WE JUDGE THEM! And if we, who are “good,” do that, then what must other people be doing but at least as bad as we are. Which is probably why Rabbi Jesus said, “Don’t judge others.” Not only is it unkind — yea verily, a sin (LOVE, not judge, your neighbor as yourself), but it also comes back and bites you in your own tush — or perhaps psyche would be a better word.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Wow, Michele, what a powerful reminder that we never escape the cycles of judgment, no matter how old we get, unless we choose to put an end to it ourselves. Thanks for this.

  • Julie Salinas

    What a great post! I have found myself being catty or snarky towards others. it’s truly something that hurts. When I hear others do it and then hear myself doing it, I dont care for that part very much of either of us! I have a list of affirmations that I’ve been reading. I think they really help. One of them is “I am gracious and giving to all”. (Afterwards I added “while knowing and respecting myself” – because I do tend to over-give.) I feel better about myself when I say this and I think it’s sinking in. I am starting to feel more light and more compassionate to everyone.

    To me, being able to face these parts of ourselves and own them is a courageous thing to do. It’s not the easy path that’s for sure, but that’s what courage is about to me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Julie, This is really beautiful. You are a great example of valuing something intentionally and then living ourselves into it. Thanks for having the courage to share it with us!

  • debbiebloch

    Loved this, Kelly. Great dinner table conversation piece for families with kids or even talking to oneself. Your son’s “brave” comment was very astute…love that kid!! Thanks, also for the audio option. Sometimes my eyes are too lazy to ready or I don’t have time and then your post goes into my “Untangled” folder….for a later (maybe never) time. At least I don’t EVER delete them.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Debbie! We’re grateful for the time and love you’ve put into shaping that kid’s heart. Glad to audio is helpful! I had to choose between being less wordy or recording it. I went with recording. : )

  • Vanz

    Because courage is ignoring the jeers and feeling the fears. Courage is returning to the edge of our comfort zone and choosing the place where our fear dwells, because we are worthy of another chance at life.

    Favorite lines that warm my heart. Thank You. 🙂