My sophomore English teacher kicked off the school year by reading Anne Sexton on the first day of school, a poem called Courage. Fifteen-year-old me did not care much for poetry or even English class. Poetry has grown on me over the years, but I don’t miss memorizing Shakespeare or taking standardized tests or my huge literature book that took up most of the real estate in my maroon JanSport backpack. I wrapped my book carefully with a brown grocery sack that by the end of the year was covered in markers, drawings, and scratch-outs of boys’ names.
Before I turned my book back in at the end of the year, I took a box cutter and carefully cut out one page. I carved out the page with the poem we had read on the first day. I’d never intentionally defaced a textbook before. I always tried to erase my stray marks, and I never dog-eared the pages. I’m not sure what exactly motivated me to carefully cut out an entire page. I liked the photograph, a close-up of a girl full of freckles. She did not look that different from me, but likely it was the way the poem felt in my mouth when I read it.
“Your courage was a small coal you kept swallowing . . .”
Looking back, I think I wanted to take that courage with me.
I wanted to fold it up and put it in my back pocket.
I wish finding courage was as easy as landing on the right page in my literature book. I wish that it could be stolen or tucked away. I lost that torn page somewhere between 1993 and today. I’ve lost courage over and over again, but I’ve also found it. Often like that day, in someone else’s words.
When my own children went to school, I’d often repeat the same thing when I dropped them off each morning. I’d remind them to be brave and kind and do more than the minimum. Now they just roll their eyes, so I don’t say it as often.
I always listed brave first, but I had it wrong. I figured bravery and courage were one and the same. However, they are not interchangeable. Bravery is often associated with instinct or a lack of fear, doing a hard thing without thinking or being afraid. Courage is being afraid and doing the hard thing anyways.
I’ll take courage over bravery any day.
If you try to find verses on bravery in the Bible, you will find that verse after verse tells us “to be of good courage.” When his followers see Jesus walking on water, he responds by telling them in Matthew 14, “Take courage! It is I.”
I’m not exactly sure that ripping words out of textbooks is exactly what Jesus had in mind, but I love that verse says to “take” courage. Courage is not always something we have innately inside us but a fuel we can find, borrow, and keep. Sexton’s poem tells us that courage is love and comfort and shown in little ways and these are the things I now tuck away.
I’ve faced some difficult seasons that the 15-year-old me never would have imagined: chronic illness, loss, and uncertainty. Most often I did so with someone else’s figurative courage in my pocket. Their prayers. Their belief in me. Their encouragement. Their comfort.
Recently I had to have a few hard conversations in an area of my life where I do not feel brave. I worried about this conversation for days trying to strategize my best approach.
My pockets were empty.
I felt like that high school, freckled girl again in literature class stealing words because I did not know how to find my own. I printed out a poem and I put it in my pocket, but I didn’t stop there. I wrote down a verse reminding me to take courage. I printed a kind email from a friend. I felt their edges as I asked the difficult questions. These words were not magic. They did not get me the answers I was hoping for, but I realized that if I can take courage, then maybe I can also give it. Give love and comfort and kind words.
Give courage and take it. Steal it if you have to.