Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on the Measure of Courage and Crisis as a Clarifying Force of Self-Expansion
“Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.”
By Maria Popova
“Courage,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless and increasingly timely meditation on the power of principled resistance to injustice, “inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.” Courage comes in many guises — the courage to despair, necessary for being an artist; the courage to be vulnerable, that surest yet most difficult path to self-transcendence; courage at knifepoint, where our humanity is revealed; the courage to resist cynicism.
Poet and philosopher David Whyte considers the question of courage in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — the ceaselessly quenching well of his wisdom on vulnerability, anger and forgiveness, and the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.
Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on.
With an eye to Albert Camus, that supreme shaman of courage who so staunchly believed that one must “live to the point of tears,” Whyte adds:
Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.
On the inside we come to know who and what and how we love and what we can do to deepen that love; only from the outside and only by looking back, does it look like courage.
The testing ground for courage, as for love, is often crisis — those trying and troubled times which are precisely when artists must go to work and during which our true strength of character is revealed. Whyte writes:
Crisis is unavoidable. Every human life seems to be drawn eventually, as if by some unspoken parallel, some tidal flow or underground magnetic field, toward the raw, dynamic essentials of its existence, as if everything up to that point had been a preparation for a meeting, for a confrontation in an elemental form with our essential flaw, and with what an individual could until then, only receive stepped down, interpreted or diluted.
This experience … where the touchable rawness of life becomes part of the fabric of the everyday, and a robust luminous vulnerability, becomes shot through with the necessary, imminent and inevitable prospect of loss, has been described for centuries as the dark night of the soul: La noche oscura del alma. But perhaps, this dark night could be more accurately described as the meeting of two immense storm fronts, the squally vulnerable edge between what overwhelms human beings from the inside and what overpowers them from the outside.
Walking the pilgrim edge between the two, holding them together, is the hardest place to stay, to breathe of both and make a world of both and to be active in their exchange: aware of our need to be needed, our wish to be seen, our constant need for help and succor, but inhabiting a world of luminosity and intensity, subject to the wind and the weather, surrounded by the music of existence, able to be found by the living world and with a wild self-forgetful ability to respond to its call when needed; a rehearsal in fact for the act of dying, a place where inside and outside can reverse and flow with no fixed form.
Whyte’s Consolations remains one of the most beautiful and consolatory books I’ve ever encountered, the kind with which each repeated encounter is always new and always regenerative. Complement this particular portion with Rebecca Solnit on resisting the defeatism of despair and Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel.
Published November 16, 2016