Real Courage, Atticus-style

In an age when personalities are easily defined and categorized by such useful and limited tools as the Myers-Briggs test, it is much easier to give into these self-fulfilling predictions than to try to change. No matter what method of testing you try—Jungian analysis, the MBtypes, that one where your response to insults categorizes you—I always end up in the “peacemaker” category. This is usually a fine place to be: the world needs individuals who will compromise, communicate, and generally help everyone to get along.

But the typical weakness associated with this type is the ease with which we peacemakers submit to becoming doormats. I have never been the exception to this rule, though I’ve figured out how to fake it when necessary. In the classroom, of course, one must be firm: “If I see the cell phone again, it’s mine.” “No, you may not go to the restroom.” “If you tilt that desk back one more time, I will destroy you with my bare hands.”  (Don’t worry: my students and I understand one another—these threats have never led to lawsuits.) But out in the real world, a world where I cannot send other people to detention for failing to conform to my will, this firmness melts quite quickly. Is this simply who I am? Does my personality doom me to a life of spinelessness? My history suggests that it might, but a few incidents give me hope.

One of my favorite and most challenging college classes was a two-week seminar taught by the illustrious Mark Helprin. No living author possesses comparable powers of language and imagination: his lyrical novel Soldier of the Great War has remained at the top of my favorite books list from the first reading. Naturally, the course he taught was on creative writing and entry required composing an original short story. Writing fiction is not my forte and I had heard horror stories from previous students about his brutal treatment of their work. The possibility of being publicly belittled by my favorite writer deterred me for some time. But something—perhaps an unhealthy idolatry—propelled me to throw a story together at the last-minute and sign up for the course. Mr. Helprin, for his part, proved to be a respectful instructor, a generous editor, and an excellent story-teller. After the course ended, I wrote him a note, confessing my earlier fears and thanking him for proving them baseless. To my surprise and great delight, he wrote back! He said,

“Someone like you…must in your growing up lose timidity and gain self-confidence. Even had I been the world’s biggest son of a bitch, you, because of what and who you are, would have had no reason to fear me or to have been intimidated. Remember this: courage and goodness have the same route. It is impossible to have one without the other, even if one is, for a time, hidden.”

I’ve thought of his words often over the past few weeks as Zach and I have fought a repair shop for the correction of a rather gross injustice. I have had to argue with mechanics and managers, and I have, for the first time in my life, refused to take no for an answer. Where does this uncharacteristic boldness come from? Maybe it’s the early manifestation of what Zach calls the “Momma-Bear” instinct: a fierceness born of love. Or maybe knowing that my husband and my child will be worse off if this situation isn’t corrected gives me courage. I won’t write off pregnancy hormones either.  The troubles aren’t resolved yet (see prior posts: Deceptive really DID take a vacation this week), but we’re making progress.

The process of pushing beyond one’s personality type is not without growing pains. My mind, long accustomed to habits of avoiding conflict, fixates on the problem. Long hours of the night pass in anxiety as I rehash conversations, replacing what I did say with what I should have said and what I WILL say the next time an opportunity comes. The knowledge that I am (or will be) the cause of someone else’s bad day weighs heavily on me. I struggle with alternating feelings of guilt for standing up for myself and anger at being swindled in the first place. Change can be good, but it’s certainly not comfortable.

So, take courage, Liza. You’re not alone in feeling spineless at times. But if a doormat like me can discover a bit of hidden courage, I know you can do it too. (Just try to avoid starting the journey by confronting a national franchise :o)

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.  ~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird



Filed under Consumerism, Reading, Teaching, Writing

4 responses to “Real Courage, Atticus-style

  1. Thanks buddy, I *do* find this encouraging. For me not sticking up for myself has often been associated with the ever present fear of “I’ll just look silly”. Whats particularly frustrating is that this spills over into sticking up for others, or helping someone publicly. I’ve been consciously working / praying on it though, so here’s to a new, more courageous year :0)

  2. Ginnie

    I occasionally wonder if there’s any sort of correlation between the peacemaker personality types and social awkwardness. Me, I used to be so afraid of being awkward that I’d never say anything I was thinking, thus making myself even more awkward than I naturally am. Sometime in high school, though, I sort of stopped caring whether people saw me as awkward (this was helped by the fact that everyone around me was ten times more awkward anyway) and decided that it was better to make the joke even if nobody got it, or stand up for myself even if I was just going to get shot down anyway. Ironically, the shift began when a school administrator told me–very patronizingly–that I should “self-advocate instead of running home to Mommy.” Looking back, I have to wonder if she later regretted giving me that piece of advice.

    • Ginnie

      Er. All that to say, I know it’s a lot harder to speak up than to just stay quiet, but in my experience, when you do speak up, people tend to take you more seriously–especially if you have a reputation for being quiet and/or passive.

      Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with faking it. Sometimes, for me, that’s the only way I can learn how to do something; for example, imitating good writing often leads me to become a better writer.

  3. I agree, Ginnie—there’s a lot of truth in the whole ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’. When I first started teaching I felt like I was just playing at adulthood for the first six months or so. Now, of course, it’s second nature. Maybe if I start pretending to be wealthy…

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