Living Courageously: a guide for the cowardAnja van Kralingen
When I was a kid goddamn I was scared of a lot of shit. I remember one of my best friends in primary school, Ronald, and I developed this fantasy that one day we would run away from home together. We were around 11 or 12 years old at the time. Being of a pragmatic nature and knowing that we would need to “live off the land” I advised Ronald that we should pack a lot of spices and herbs, so as to make our harvests (from god knows where!) more edible. Even at this tender age the Lebanese blood was strong. I knew the importance of eating well, not just any old berries and roots, but well seasoned, tasty, berries and roots.
One day after months of fantasising and speculation about our planned break from the governing convention of our lives at the time, middle class white suburbia with its ticker tape of parents, school and the mind numbingly boring daily routines, on a whim we decided that today was the day and we should go for it! This, despite that fact that we never quite got around to gathering the logistical items we needed for our trip. We were filled with the spirit of ‘now or never!’ We took our satchels off our backs and threw them under a bush, a symbolic act of breaking with the status quo, of disavowing our indentured status as slaves to the middle class, mediocre, mainstream, lives we had been handed, with all of its hidden anguish.
By taking off those satchels as we did and, in my memory of the event at least, flinging them under the bush in a cavalier John Wayne style, we made a statement. A statement to the big Other, to God, to ourselves, to each other and to anyone who happened to witness our act. I am not sure exactly what the statement was. We were after all only about 12 years old at the time. But I imagine it was something along the lines of a declaration of our spirit; that although young, inexperienced, stupid and disempowered, we were alive. That we were alive despite being born from parents who were cowards. Parents who had sold out to the man. Parents whose spirits were crushed by the inexorable banality of their lives. Parents who had tasted failure, compromise, inadequacy, fallibility and fear until they choked on it. Parents who truly understood the finitude of their beingness. Parents who in their turn had been born from parents who were also cowards. And their parents, and their parents, going back to Job perhaps, who had been so well taught by God the meaninglessness of his individual life. In this simple act we leapt, or at least prepared to leap, into a new life, one defined by courage and by rebellion against everything that diminished us, in the belief that we could in some small but significant way pen our own destinies.
How I would love to share with you the great adventures we undertook and adversities we overcame on this new road we now travelled. Alas the price our imagination demanded could not be paid by our parsimony of our hearts. Our courage failed us. Our nerves were not made of strong enough stuff. We didn’t make a mile. We didn’t make 500 yards. We didn’t make 100 yards. We froze within 10 yards! Yes that’s right, 10 yards was all it took for fear to freeze us in our tracks and send us whimpering back like dogs with our tails between our legs to fish out our satchels, somewhat dirtier from their very short tenure on the earth, and once again to pick up the load that had been given to us, not of our asking, but by the coarse unfeeling hands of those who had placed them on our shoulders in the first place. Perhaps it was at that moment that I first realised I was a coward. Perhaps. It was by no means my first failure; god knows I was an awkward child. But if I have to trace my cowardice back to its foundational statement, to its mission statement as it were, that moment seems appropriate to me, inscribed as it is in my soul; inscribed in my own very personal akashik record.
Our friendship did not endure long beyond this dismal reach for freedom with our foreshortened limbs. We hid our shame from one another and from ourselves by going our separate ways shortly thereafter. Each of us enslaved in his own unique way. Each carrying his own unique load fashioned for him by fate.
I lost touch with Ronald and do not know what has become of him. Mayhap he went alone to Valhalla and banged on the Gates, demanding an audience with Odin, an explanation, some justification for Odin’s thriftiness with him. He may well have swum the seven seas, ascended the highest peaks and slept in the deepest valleys under the cool moonlight, with only wild animals and a heart filled with sublime pathos to keep him company. He may well have won the hand of a fair maiden and bested the local dragon. I pray that he has, and that he did not make a profession out of hiding as we did that day, hiding from ourselves, hiding from all we could become, hiding from all the love we had had and all the idealism that constituted our dreams.
For my own part that was, in retrospect, an unfortunate misstep. Not not running away, we were never destined to get very far and no doubt upoun our return a good hiding would have been the order of the day, befitting such an audacious act, but being too fucking chicken to try. Life gives us these moments were we either seize our destiny, where we rise above ourselves, our smallness, our finitude and act with courage, with belief in our essential value and our right to exist, or not. In that case I choose not to, if choice it was. And I paid heavily for my smallness, for my rodent like nature that insisted that survival was of more valuable than life and won the day. Regrettably it started a trend, an orientation of small mindedness, of pragmatism, of calculation, of cowardice if we must speak openly. Fear became the ruling paradigm in my life. Fear in all her guises, as rationality, as compromise, as reasonable behaviour. She had my ear and when the world was quiet I could clearly hear her brittle voice whisper, “not now”, she would say, “not today”, “not this one”, “not here”, “not too far”, “not too much”, “not too high.” Her motto was simple: stay small, stay low and stay out of sight. Most importantly she advised that I never extend myself; to regard the lines drawn in the dust of my imagination as absolute limits. And when the world got loud and an opportunity arose for bold act, a significant choice, she would scream if she needed to, in a dry screeching voice, and in the noise I was not always able to differentiate her voice from my own.
I grew from a young boy who was scared into a man who was terrified. A man or let me say a type of pseudo man, a cardboard man, a tin man in search of his heart (and no doubt a goodly sized pair of balls would not have gone amiss either). As a young adult I was plagued by fears, fears of my ineptitude, my inadequacy, my manhood and my cowardice. I grew up in a culture where men were men if they fought and hurt and dominated other men. Like any animal if you got me into a tight enough corner I would fight my way out, but I walked away from too many contests, too frequently I chose negotiation or compromise above mortal combat. And every time I walked away from a fight, I left a part of my soul behind.
As an adult I learnt to fear adult things. What had scared me as a boy faded into insignificance beside the terrors of adulthood. I learnt new fears, fears that had not seemed possible when I was still a child. I learnt to fear nothingness, the nothingness of my life, of my statement to the world. I saw new possibilities for failure, previously undreamt of, to be a nobody, to do nothing, to inscribe the actions of my life, which once seemed so limitless in possibility, onto a very, very small piece of paper, one which would in good time be carried away on the wind and left lost and fittingly insignificant on a distant shore of an uninhabited land.
And when I met my great love, constituted of sterner stuff than I, I feared I would fail her. I would disgrace her and shame her and fail to provide for her, and in good time that fear extended to my whole family. I have been blessed with beautiful children. But that blessing is also a burden. I fear that I will fail them as a father. How can I hope to raise courageous human beings when my own courage is such a rare commodity? Does the Lord our God not say that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children unto the 7th generation? Not only do I fear that I will fail them, but far more importantly that they may fail themselves. And in this crazy messed up world we live in what does success even look like? What does a courageous life look like, I wonder? 
This question, what it is to live courageously, is one that I have been thinking on for a while. It came to me one evening over dinner with a good friend, a man I met just over a decade ago. Ours was initially a purely professional association. I contracted him to provide a service to a business venture I had just launched at the time. Over time though an initial congeniality grew into something like friendship and later more than that, the recognition of a fellow traveller, a kindred spirit, as one recognises in a few very special people. And on the evening in question my friend made a remark that he had a certain regard for me. That he in some way considered my life, my actions, or something along those lines, to be somehow exemplary. To be honest he never said “exemplary” exactly, but a sentiment in that rough ballpark anyway. It was not the first time he had said as much to me.
As you might imagine it was not without a degree of irony that I listened to this, knowing my own fallibility as intimately as I did. And usually when he had said something along these lines I would meet the remark with a laconic expression which did not brook further discussion. I imagine you may have had a similar reaction to being praised yourself, one where you are only too well aware of your shortcomings to take such praise too seriously. Not that one, or certainly not me anyway, does not enjoy being vindicated, but it would seem an act of hubris to identity too closely with such vindication.
On this particular occasion though something in his voice or the searching way he looked at me seemed to demand a more considered response to this commentary on my life. After a moment’s reflection I responded as honestly as I could,
“Well we all aspire to live courageously, don’t we?”
Having answered spontaneously, I was led to reflect quite deeply on the meaning of my rather off handed remark. A courageous life seems to me the minimal rental due on the lease of the living. Those busy with living mind you, not those who have given over to the clammy embrace of death, not those busy with hiding from life. In answering him in this fashion, I realised that somehow, despite my multitude of fears, I aspired to courage and perhaps not only aspired but had somehow managed to treat courage as my North Star. When I said, “We all aspire to live a courageous life, don’t we?” of course what I really meant was, “I aspire to live a courageous life.” And it was said with conviction. Where then, I wondered, had this capacity come from? Where had it begun?
This seemed an important question. I have been on a journey of radical personal transformation for about 22 years. I am able to trace it back so accurately because it coincided with the time I met my great love. Meeting Anja somehow galvanised me into action. Before that I was basically a berserker, a cowardly berserker, but a berserker none the less. When I met her and fell so deeply in love with her, something awakened in me that was previously asleep. I realised a state of lucidity in which my entire perspective on my life changed almost overnight. What was previously hidden not only about me but also from me revealed itself, at least to my own gaze, if no one else’s at the time. This is testament to the immense transformative power of the other. The other who sees in you that which prior to the encounter is hidden from you.
To be clear though, that was by no means the end of the story. The process of self excavation, attempting to engage and bring to the world that which was of some value in my personality, but which as a consequence of my fears and self doubts was so well hidden, was an arduous and at times painful journey. It most certainly was not a journey which described a straight line, nor is it a journey ever completed whilst one is alive. Along the way I also had the good fortune to meet a Magus who patiently schooled me in the art of individuation (the art of becoming who one is). So profoundly did these encounters and the journey they took affect me, and of such surreal character at times, that I wrote a novel about the experience. A novel that one day, courage permitting, I will publish, but whose primary purpose was to allow me to assimilate these events.
About 5 years ago I became actively involved in the transformation business. Since then I have had the opportunity to work with and witness the transformative experiences of a few hundred people quite closely. And through this work one of the biggest questions that we, that is Anja and I, have had to grapple with is:
What allows some people to transform and other not?
This question burns so brightly for Anja that she dedicated two years to researching and writing her masters dissertation on the topic. It is obviously a difficult question, not least because what exactly constitutes ‘transformation’ is itself somewhat ambiguous. Needless to say, I guess, it is a question which does not permit a conclusive answer. But in my evaluation a significant factor does seem to be courage. Individuation is a scary journey. We learn to hide from the world and from ourselves, as Ronald and I hid that fateful day. To then emerge from hiding takes guts, there is no two ways about it. To show up for your life is probably one of the scariest things any of us can ever do. And quite a few people’s nerves fail them in this. In this respect living takes a lot more courage than dying. It is not that dying is easy, only that living, really living is also bloody tough. The thing is with hiding, which is really a form of premature death, those who are busy with it frequently do not consciously admit it to themselves and so it seems easy, or at least easier than showing up. The tragedy of course is that they do not recognise the incredibly high price they are paying for this hiding.
If you will, please allow me one last story illustrate this idea.
As a young man I was engaged for a time with the seedy underworld of small time gamblers and con men. One day I found myself in a cave, masquerading as a snooker saloon, under the city, which is where the rodents lived and passed the sunlight hours under swinging florescent lights. I was perhaps about 19 at the time. And an older and wiser man than me, Johnny the Chinaman we called him, bid me stand next to him as a he framed this group of losers with his hands as though lining them up for a photograph. This truly was a motley group of has-beens and also-rans, petty men with pale skins which had not seen sunlight for years, real bottom feeders the lot of them. “Take a photo, come on take a photo, and come back here in 10 years time. What do you think you will see?” he asked, smiling. And he left this as an open question, a question which naturally did not require any answer other than what was glaringly obvious to all concerned, Johnny, me, and the other rats. Nothing would have changed! In 10 years time the same bunch of broken souls would be sitting there as they sat now, or if some had finally been nudged off this mortal coil to make space for new rats, the new ones would be indistinguishable from the old. These men, if that they were, were hiding. They had made a profession out of hiding. And alas, at least at the time, so had I. But somewhere inside myself, there already, I vowed, here I would not remain. With that image Johnny the Chinamen, my very own Lao Tsu , opened my eyes.
By now my reader may well be regarding with a healthy dose of incredulity the title of this post. I have said quite a bit of hiding, of cowardice and less of courage. Please do not regard this as my being coy. It is rather an essential difficulty I have in attempting anything like a formal answer to the question. What I can say is I have witnessed courage. I have the privilege of knowing and witnessing the lives of a few very courageous souls. People who have overcome the adverse circumstances of their childhoods to stand as an equals among men and look anyone squarely in the eye knowing that they have fought the good fight, lifted themselves up by their own bootstraps, been modest in victory, and unbowed in failure. Men and women who greet each dawn with the promise to do more, to be more, to dream more, to reach further, to build, to create, to love, to care deeply and to cry when crying is the only sane response, but also to laugh and to live and make love, to hope even when in pain that things will get better and that life is inherently good and worth caring about and worth living. Who go to sleep at night knowing that they have done all that was asked of them and more, knowing that tomorrow is a new day with new challenges but also with the opportunity to complete what today left undone and to dream a new dream.
I have as I say the privilege to know a few such people. It is to them I now turn when my own courage fails me and through the example they provide I pick myself up and address my life with renewed hope and the belief that today can be better than yesterday, and that I have not yet given my best.
I am by no means brave. I am afraid. I fear many, many things. So many that I dare not list them all lest whatever little decorum remains mine after such a confession should too be shredded. But when I sit amongst the brave, the courageous, and when on a warm summers evening one of them should put their arm around my shoulders and treat me as a comrade. At such a moment I feel something akin to courage, and once again I hear a voice, but not the voice of fear, rather the voice of love, and it asks of me that I should not falter and fail my comrades, that as much as is possible I too should meet the world and stand proud and speak my name and be me. For surely as much as courage is anything, it is being as authentically as possible just who one is.
I honestly do not know if I have answered the question of what a courageous life looks like. This was at least an honest, if at times fairly painful, effort. To my thinking this is another way of asking the question, what is individuation, or what does an individuated life look like. Not exactly of course, but close enough to allow a creative way of approaching what can be a very daunting and opaque question in Jungian studies, the question of what individuation is.
Despite the challenges of answering such a question I do not believe one can honestly lay claim to the badge “Jungian” if one is not prepared to make a very sincere attempt to answer just this question, both conceptually and of course through the ultimate answer which is your life, the way you choose to live, the choices you make, your destiny and so on. The attempt to address this question has occupied a number of posts I have written over the last few years, two of which are inspired by the lives of exceptionally courageous individuals.
And one other short article you may consider looking at if the topic interests you
With that I bid you adieu and wish you Godspeed on your own journey and much courage and not a little luck with your own individuation project.
 Not his actual name, names are changed in this post to protect the guilty.
 Remember this was prior to the invention of Sony Playstation
 How after all can we aspire to something noble, beautiful, worthwhile, if we do not even know it is we are in search of?
 An Existentialist’s Dream: a Jungian novel.
 Master of Science in Consciousness, Spirituality and Transpersonal Psychology through the University of Middlesex. Once this paper has been marked and her degree is completed we will publish this on the site.