Deciding To Take Action

The leap from inclination to action can be a large one. The daring soul who always wanted to skydive finds his moment of truth while staring face to face with a cloud. The dream may have gotten him this far but now he must decide whether or not to make the dream come true. Between a dream and an act lies a choice.

The fellow who jumps and the one who stays on the plane may have had a lot in common up until they made their decisions. But they took different paths after that point and, consequently, became very different people. One realized a dream and thus became stronger and more alive.

He encountered the thrill of flying through fear. The other gentleman either cowered from the opportunity to fulfill a vision or, perhaps, learned – while at his moment of truth - that this act was not worth the risk, that this dream was not as important as he had thought. We are not in a position to judge. What looks like cowardice may he reason (and, of course, vice versa). Discretion may indeed be the better part of valor.


I used to wish I could travel in a submarine. I though it would be exhilarating to journey beneath the sea in that silent fascinating world. This childhood fantasy lasted for years… up until I had the chance to enter the dream. While visiting a Navy yard.. I toured a partially submerged submarine. To my astonishment, I hated the experience almost as soon as it began. I felt like I was stuck in a tube of toothpaste. It just wasn't the way I pictured it. Did I “chicken out” or did I learn something? Well, I don t know, But I'm glad I went down into that sub. I came out with room for a new dream. Maybe this is what growing up is all about.

There comes a time when you must act on your dreams. Sometimes you can plan for this act, other times not. If you want to be an honest person, your honesty will be tested again and again, suddenly and unexpectedly. So too If you hope to be a generous or a kind soul. Life will ask you to act like the person you desire to be.

We live in a time when “self-improvement” has become big business. We find ourselves surrounded by experts advising us on everything from how to lose weight to how to gain confidence. We are led to believe that if we abide by their advice we can be more productive, more assertive and more relaxed. And if your first set of gurus can't remove all your faults, another group will offer their views on how to live with your indelible flaws. At no time in history has there been more advice given. Consequently, we have more confusion fusion than at any other point in time. We live in the age of advice and confusion.

An individual who wants to improve herself need go no further than the local bookstore (or so it seems). There she can study under the masters of happiness, slimness and other noble intentions. Although these authorities frequently disagree with each other, they can be quite effective in persuading audiences that their message is the answer.

As a result, we see a new breed of consumers who buy the “self-improvement” books and read them through and through, find every available audio and video tape and listen carefully to each word and then, if they can find no new material, go back and read and listen to the same old information again. They hope. They dream. But until they begin to act there is little improvement. Unfortunately, many self-improvement addicts spend all their days in the planning stage.


To fulfill a dream, we must be prepared to fail. Then, should failure occur, we are better prepared to pick ourselves up and reconsider the dream. If the dream remains, we must refocus on how to approach the act.

“Activity must not be confused with courage, although there is no courage without activity,” suggested Alfred Adler. When afraid, we may try to engage in safe yet useless activity such as pacing, fidgeting or nail biting, but these are hardly courageous. Courage involves acting on what you believe to be right, not just acting aimlessly. It takes gumption to dream. It takes even more fortitude to test the dream by moving to realize it.

Moving to realize a dream can mean moving into uncertainty, uncertainty that can lead to rejection, humiliation, failure or other sour experiences. Still, we feel called to fulfill our dreams. “We have to face the fact that we must constantly make decisions on the basis of incomplete evidence,” insists philosopher Joseph Fabry. “Columbus never would have discovered America had he waited for all the information on which to base his decision to start out on his journey…. Our life is not regulated at every crossing by a red light that tells us to stop or a green light that tells us to go ahead. We live in an era of flashing yellow lights that leave the decision to the individual.”

In this era of flashing yellow lights we encounter a plethora of advisors who point us in every direction. We know we have to move somewhere in order to find or create a purpose in our lives. Ultimately, however, if and how we move is up to each of us.

Where were you, Comrade Khrushchev?

When Khrushchev made his famous denunciation of Stalin, a solitary voice in the Congress Hall was heard to say, “Where were you, Comrade Khrushchev, when all these innocent people were being slaughtered?”

Khrushchev paused a moment, looked around the hall and said, “Will the man who said that kindly stand up?”

Tension mounted in the hall. No one spoke. No one moved.

Then Khrushchev said, “Well, whoever you are, you have your answer now. I was in exactly the same position then as you are now. ”



It seems we have run into a paradox. That's right, a paradox. You know, a contradiction of sorts that somehow makes sense. Acts of courage are paradoxical in that we must be committed to the act, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong. In other words, real courage has a humble nature. Whereas fearlessness is often rooted in ignorance, courage acknowledges danger and uncertainty. We can move in the face of uncertainty. What we believe is right is not always the same as what we know for sure. This world provides precious little certainty

In order to find total surety, we would first have to achieve narrow-mindedness. So we're probably better off to accept some confusion and then look for the courage to act in spite of the bewilderment.

Perhaps one of the most confusing paths is the road to becoming a good person. We don't have to own the road to travel it. We simply have to follow where we believe it leads. And eventually, if we stay on this path, we find that the destination has become a part of us.

Shortly after I had moved to a new city, I came across a very troubled bear. He lived in the bear section of the zoo right next to the entrance.

The locals are justifiably proud of the zoo. To those who have never seen it I can only describe it as beautiful. The accommodations for the animals seem better than home as they each have plenty of room to roam, good food and no predators. To human visitors, it looks like a splendid place for an animal to settle down and raise a family. But even in the best places problems can arise.

On this particular day I came across a most unusual event. I entered this magnificent zoo and the first creature I saw was a bear whom I will call Maurice. I found Maurice in the midst of a completely natural setting consisting of rocks, foliage and a rather large pond. Maurice's home appeared natural… but Maurice did not. He didn't stroll around his small forest like the other beasts. Instead, he paced back and forth, back and forth. Six and a half steps forward, a sudden turn and then six and a half steps back, on and on. He must have been doing this for quite a while because the other bears looked bored by it. They weren't giving him a second thought.

I, however, was fascinated. Why would Maurice pace so? And why wouldn't he take advantage of all the space provided? Prior to this, the only zoos I had ever known housed their animals in small cages. For that reason, I never really liked zoos. I saw nothing appealing about animals' confined to cages so I stayed away from them for quite some time. Then, upon my return, the first creature I encountered acted as if he didn't want the freedom after all.

Certain mysteries never get resolved and such was the case with Maurice, for a time anyway. No one I knew could explain the pacing bear. I didn't give up easily but, as the years passed without a clue, I came to accept that either Maurice was simply crazy or this was just another example of God's sense of humor.

Long after I had stopped pursuing an answer - and over five years after I had first met Maurice - the light came on. Miraculously, and quite unintentionally, I came across an article on animal behavior that explained Maurice. While reading the paper I also came to understand why it had been so important for me to understand this peculiar bear.


Maurice, it seems, was making a point about courage. When certain animals are raised in cages, they have a tendency to view their world as being the size of their quarters. If they remain caged long enough, the cage becomes a part of their psyches. Then, should they be released, the pattern continues. Hence Maurice's repetitious pacing. He lacked the courage to move any further.

I don't know what happened to Maurice. The next time I visited the zoo - about a year after I had first met him - he was gone. Maybe he ended up too stressed out and needed to be returned to a safe little cage. Perhaps the zoo decided he wasn't their kind of bear. In a setting that cost millions of dollars to appear natural, Maurice's behavior looked mechanical. Another alternative could be that he died. Maybe he felt inescapably trapped in his mental cage and lost the will to live.

I think I was supposed to meet Maurice. Carl Jung once postulated that if you trace coincidence back far enough, you will find it was inevitable. Meeting Maurice and then stumbling on to the explanation of his behavior struck me in hindsight, as somehow inevitable. I don't know if this lesson was necessarily preordained but I always suspected that it was supposed to happen. If a psychology professor had taught me about mental cages, I doubt if the point would have taken root as deep as it did. The message needed a demonstration. And the fact that it found expression in such a simple way added to its power.

The lesson becomes even more powerful when we consider that at some time or another, there may be a little Maurice in all of us.

A little extra push

At those points when we need to act in the face of fear, we can benefit from a little extra push. We don't always need a tornado-like force to move us, but rather a nudge to get us rolling. This gentle shove can begin, with a special set of words. Words that carry strength.

We all need our own favorite inspiration passages Statements that aim to inspire exist in ample supply. But finding the right one - the one that really encourages us to be true to ourselves - can take some doing. Words have power, a power we can overlook. Finding a favorite quote or a list of favorite sayings, however, is a time-proven means of finding courage. For centuries people have looked to particular passages from the Bible or other venerable sources to provide the strength to do what they believe is right.

There are plenty of inspiring lines. We need to find the ones that speak directly to us. And if you cannot find them, maybe that means you need to write your own. As George Bernard Shaw once observed, “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want and, if they can't find them, make them.”

For years I kept in my wallet a little passage I had clipped from a magazine that read: “People don’t fail, they only stop trying.” Fortunately, by the time the wallet was stolen I had committed these words of wisdom to memory. I just hope whoever took the wallet noticed the words and understood their value. Maybe that scrap of paper found its way to the person who needed it most.

Football coaches scream, “No guts, no glory!” and “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going!”. Catchy phrases can certainly energize. But to maximize the power of a passage, we need to look for one that has a special meaning to us. Maybe it's something your grandmother used to say or a line from a poem that no one else seems to notice. It's the statement, or statements, that seem addressed especially to you.

Find the words that give you courage. Keep them with you. Put them in your memory and, when necessary, put them in front of your eyes. Hang them on your walls or put them in a locket on a c around your neck. Repeat these words often but never take them for granted. Make them a friend and you won't be intimidated by their power. More than anything, stay close to words that move you.

You're only young once

“You're only young once.” Or so they say. And everything we do motivated by this slogan seems to make us age. But that's O.K. After all, we're only young once. The happiest among us, though, seem to be young once and for always.

One of the best ways to stay young is to try new experiences. See new places, meet new people, read new books, ask new questions. True, new experiences have a way of causing anxiety but they also tend to bring happiness. Among our lists of funny memories, we have a knack for recalling all those awkward “first times” such as the first date, the first drivers' license test, the birth of one's first child, buying that first car, the first house, and the first time you became convinced that the world was coming to an end. We can stay young at heart as long as we provide ourselves with significant first time experiences. It's another one of those peculiar paradoxes: the courage needed to grow older is much the same as the courage required to remain young.

Folks can be frightened by challenges that are not “supposed” to be met by people in their age group. Intelligent, curious, middle-aged individuals, for example, often deny their dream of finishing college because they feel too old to start. For instance, a forty-five-year-old man who has always wanted to attend college might say, “Since I can only go part-time, it could take me eight years to get my degree!” If you ever meet this man, ask him how old he will be in eight years. Then, ask him how old he will be in eight years if he receives a college degree along the way. The only difference is that if he does not attend college he will still be eight years older but without having fulfilled his dream.


Saying “I'm too old” - though at times accurate - can be a socially acceptable form of cowardice. No one ever became too old to find courage. So no one need retreat from excitement and exploration.

Since we live in the age of insurance, we can add to our policies whenever life gets a little frightening. Insurance represents a popular modern day form of security. This is why the salespeople come out of the woodwork when we come to the verge of a major life change. College seniors approaching graduation and “the real world” meet, usually for the first time, the life insurance vendor offering an unexpected form of protection. Then, as the wedding nears, more sales people try to tempt you to insure everything from your life to your lunch money. And so it goes in the days before the arrival of your first-born. I'm not sure how it works when one approaches retirement, but I won't be surprised to find myself, once again, surrounded by the insurance people. I can only conclude that this must be a fact of human existence. Whenever we come to a crossroads in life, we can be sure to find at least three things – opportunity, some anxiety and someone trying to sell insurance.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if, at these pivotal points, we could also find someone or something willing and able to give us courage? Hopefully, by now it has become clear that the question is not, “Is that someone or something really there?” Rather the correct question is “Can we find it?”

A tribe of worriers

I wonder how many hours the average person spends worrying during the course of a lifetime. If such a statistic could be accurately measured, the figure might be staggering. In fact, it might even prove that worrying is one of our most popular activities. Maybe things were different back in “simpler times” but we have evolved into a tribe of worriers.

Behaviorists tell us that people will maintain a particular behavior if adequately reinforced for doing so. At first glance we can miss the rewards fretting brings. Only after a little thought does it become apparent that many worriers see benefits in this activity. You have to understand that the vast majority of the things we worry about never happen. So inside themselves, many worriers believe that if they worry about a catastrophe, the misfortune will be prevented. Let me give an example.

When I was in third grade a religion teacher with a flair for the dramatic described for the class the events that will occur when the world “comes to an end.” She told us it could happen suddenly, by fire, when no one was thinking about it. Now the part about the fire set even the

most angelic kids fidgeting. But it was her afterthought (i.e., “when no one is thinking about it”) that hooked me. For the longest time after that I thought constantly about the end of he world, reasoning that if I kept it in mind it wouldn't happen. I figured I was doing humanity quite a favor. (And no, no one ever thanked me. You see, fortunately, I kept my delusion to myself. I did, however, learn about worrying.)

If we could remember all the things we've worried about in our lives we would have a lot to laugh about. The new house didn't collapse the day after you bought it nor did the new car get stolen. The baby was born without a mermaid's tail and then began to walk and talk right on schedule. People didn't notice your perspiration or the fact that you couldn't remember if it's “who” or “whom.” In all likelihood your friends don't know that embarrassing secret you're keeping and, what's more, they probably wouldn't like you any less even if they did. The dentures fit perfectly and were not nearly the trouble you feared they might be. And through it all, you've managed to keep your dignity and sense of humor.

We may not be able to avoid all worry. But the trick to surviving it is to do something about it. If you're worried about a lump on your arm, go to the doctor. If your job is killing you, start looking for a new one. Worry feeds on excuses. If at all possible, do something about the cause of your fears. When you walk through a fear, you walk to courage. We build courage by facing, and dealing with, fear. There certainly is power in positive thinking. But the power comes through the doing.

There are, however, times when it seems no action exists that can correct a situation. Parents, for example, waiting outside an operating room while their child undergoes surgery can feel helpless. They can’t assist in the operation. They can't go back in time and prevent the malady. They feel paralyzed.

When people feel desperate, they frequently end up praying. Maybe there are no atheists in hospital waiting rooms either. In any case, I've noticed that spiritual people are never helpless. They always have something powerful to do.

Sometimes spiritual folks pray for miracles, especially when miracles appear to be their only hope. But at other times, it seems that praying for miracles is not as helpful as praying for courage.

Life and Pain

Life can hurt. No one has found a way to change this. Courage, no matter how strong, cannot make our lives pain-free.

Certain hurts, the small ones, last only a short time. The swelling goes down, the frustration turns to humor, the day ends and a new one begins. The pain fades, just as we knew it would.

Then there are the events so devastating that the possibility of recovery looks, at best, uncertain. A friend struggling through a difficult divorce described it this way, “You wake up in the morning, sit up in bed. You feel the floor underneath your feet. And then it hits you…. Oh, God! It wasn't a dream.”

Nightmares surrender to alarm clocks. Real tragedy takes it own time. It lingers and builds waves of emotion that crash into feeble plans to “get on with” one's life. Every time one tries to get up, along comes that force to test one's stability.

Perhaps the most common form of serious tragedy comes through the loss of a loved one. The grieving soul tends to wonder if things will ever get better. Some experts say that after a major loss you have to go through the seasons (i.e., at least one year) before life returns to normal. Other authorities insist that three years is a more accurate estimate. Still others suggest that grieving is such an individual experience that we can learn little by discussing “norms.”

Recovering from loss means facing a great deal of sorrow, anger and uncertainty. Bereavement represents one of life's most difficult monsters. We face most of our other dragons knowing we have the support of the people closest to us. Not so with grief. After the death of a loved one, we meet the devastating aftermath without the support of that special person.

The devastation is no mystery. Even those who have never experienced such a loss can imagine the torment. What remains an enigma is how people survive such experiences and then, eventually, return to a caring and productive lifestyle. Although grieving people rarely feel courageous, they offer true examples of courage.

And then there are those extraordinary individuals who find something special in these darkest hours. Something that transforms their existences by providing a mission. For instance, nothing could have prepared Norma Phillips for the sudden death of her daughter, Sherry, who was killed by a drunk driver at the age of sixteen. The event, however, gave her life a valuable new direction as she founded the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which seeks to impose stiffer penalties on those convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. Similarly, John Walsh, whose six-year-old son Adam was kidnapped and murdered, turned this senseless slaughter into a national network of child-finding services that identifies missing children and develops ways to locate them. Losses that may have destroyed many, led Norma Phillips and John Walsh into new dimensions that have saved, and will continue to save, others from the anguish they have known.


Poet Sam Keen once reflected, “I have learned one important thing in my life - how to begin again.” Each time we begin again we are different than we were at our last start. Every event and circumstance can teach us. The worst devastation can lead to miraculous results. Life can hurt. No one has found a way to change this. Somehow, some people find something in tragedy that points them toward their mission. Exactly how this mission is arranged, I can only wonder.

But I do know that there is nothing more marvelous than one who has known real tragedy and yet looks hopefully and lovingly upon the world. We have no right to expect this from anyone. It defies what appears to be logic. Still, courageous souls have taught us that devastation can lead to determination. Mourning can lead to a sense of mission. In short, sometimes people find courage and a sense of purpose while in a most, ravaged state.

Two kinds of safe places

A widow in her late sixties, who had lived in the same apartment for twenty-five years, came home one day to find that her apartment had been robbed. Confused and afraid, she decided to move. When the moving company arrived she became even more frightened. She felt they were stealing her belonging's and drawing strange cult symbols on her furniture. When her possessions arrived at her new residence, she left many of them in boxes.

The world continued to become more terrifying for her. She believed the people in her new neighborhood were following her and secretly signaling to each other. Finally, she was referred to a psychiatrist who prescribed tranquilizers, but her experiences did not change. A second psychiatrist diagnosed her as having a paranoid thought disorder and recommended hospitalization. She refused, however, because she thought this doctor might be trying to hurt her.

A third psychiatrist took an entirely different approach. He explained to the woman that she had “lost her shell” - her previous apartment, her old neighborhood and the people in that neighborhood. At this point, like any other crustacean that has lost its shell, she was vulnerable. In such a fragile state, she grew suspicious of just about everything. Until she find adequate protection, her condition would likely deteriorate.

The psychiatrist advised her to unpack all her belongings, hang up the pictures and other articles that decorated her previous apartment, put the books on the shelves and organize the apartment so that it became familiar. She was not to make new friends in her new neighborhood for two weeks but, in the meantime, she was to reestablish contact with her old friends. In brief, she was to build a healthy new shell.

The woman followed the doctor's advice and her symptoms disappeared rapidly.

When we stray from our avenues to courage, we become vulnerable. To those in this unprotected state, the world becomes a dangerous place, a place where we can easily become hurt and humiliated. We all need a home, a safe place, where we can retreat to build more strength. There are two kinds of safe places. One offers only a place to hide. The other - the healthy shell - provides access to courage. Here we find what we need to walk bravely into what can be a scary world.

So if you don't already have one, ask yourself, “If I were going to arrange a safe place for myself that contained as many roads to courage as I could find, what would it look like? What would it feel like?”

Brave enough to act

Few things bolster self-esteem more than the knowledge that one can act courageously when confronted by fear. We need confidence, not that we can remove fear, but that we can tap the courage that fills the universe.

Thus far we have found a number of avenues to courage. These routes are, however, unlimited. Just as we all have our own paths to travel in life, we each have our own tracks to strength. Folks find courage through laughter, a good cry, a special book, friendships, a hat and inspirational passages. Fortitude can also come to us by way of prayer, a family portrait, tragedy, a special symbol, a good night's sleep, memories and visions. The list could go on and on. No matter how long we the list, though, it will always be a simple list. All roads to courage are simple roads. Once we develop the faith that courage exists and that it can be counted on, we encounter life more honestly and with fewer distortions and defenses. We are then more likely to hear all the messages, not just the ones that keep us safe and unchallenged. Then and only then can we hear that special calling directed to each one of us. And then and only then will we be brave enough to act on what we hear.

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