The Courage to Live

I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately. There are a number of reason for this. Part of it is stress about where I am in my education (done with course work, but have no clear dissertation topic). Part of if it is where I am in life (I’m turning 56 in September and still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up). Part of it is I tend toward melancholy (the Eeyore syndrome). Part of it… well, anyway… there are a lot of reasons. I’ll get through it. I always do. I’ll go for a nice 10 mile run. Classes start soon (Aquinas this semester). Maybe I’ll go to Disneyland (one of the perks of living in So Cal). 

One thing I’ve done that has helped is I started reading George Sheehan’s classic, Running and Being. It’s a 35 year old book, and I can’t believe I’ve never read it before. As I’ve read, I’ve seen some of myself in the pages—some of my reclusiveness, my inwardness, retreating into my mind, into the realm of ideas and thoughts (yes, I’m an introvert). Some people misinterpret these characteristics in me. They see it as being antisocial or as a tacit misanthropy. But it’s not. 

One of the things Sheehan notes right in the beginning is how he had spent his whole life trying to “fit in” and in the process lost himself. By working so hard trying to identify with a group, trying to fit the image of what he was supposed to be, he lost who he was. He struggled with unworthiness (he wasn’t one of the popular), inferiority (he wasn’t like others), and incompleteness (somehow he never measured up). Struggling to overcome these “flaws” he constantly fought to “reinvent” himself, to become something other than who he truly was. Striving to “fit in” he lost himself. 

Basically, Sheehan said he lacked the courage to live. Not that he wanted to kill himself. It has nothing to do with life and death. It’s about living, truly living. It’s about being true. Rather than truly living—being true to his real self—he was acting; playing a role he never quite fit. It wasn’t really his life, just as it wasn’t really him who was living it. He quotes Erving Goffman as saying that “there is only one complete, unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height, and a recent record in sports.”

That’s part of the funk that swirls around me. I look at all the happy suburbanites, the ones who are about my age, and I see in them everything I am not, and I start to feel unworthy, inferior, and incomplete. I’m missing something. I missed something. Or at least it seems like I have. I should be easing into retirement soon, into the easy life, comfort and security. Instead, here I am in graduate school, practically starting all over again with no guarantee of a job or a future. Why? It makes no sense. Somehow I find I don’t measure up.

But then I head out for a nice long run (I’m grateful for Luke’s piece on the spirituality of running—it is spiritual, pure spirituality). As my body begins to fall into that easy cadence, that smooth pace where my feet seem to just glide over the ground, my mind clears. The haze of “the-way-it-should-be” that so obfuscates my courage to live begins to fade. And in that clearing I once again begin to find myself, my true self. And in finding myself I find the courage to live.

In his book, Either Or, Søren Kierkegaard talks about the difference between what he calls the aesthetical life and the ethical life. The aesthetical life, he says, is basically a life lived chasing every impulse and every urge. It is undisciplined, seeking only the immediate and the gratifying. The ethical life is the one that makes a choice, and by choosing sets a course, a direction, a criterion for living. Some things will be sacrificed for the choice. Immediate desires may go ungratified. I choose to be a runner; that means there are things I must sacrifice, thing I can no longer do, food I can no longer eat. In the same way, when I choose to have the courage to live that means there are things that must be sacrificed as well, things like the façade of homogeneity that keeps me from truly living, from truly being me… from being happy.

Augustine says that people are not happy because they choose not do those things that bring about the happy life. And the happy life, he says, is to love the good will, which is the will “by which we desire to live upright and honorable lives and to attain the highest wisdom.” Kant, of course, argues that one can never truly find happiness here in this life, that the best we can do is to live so that we may be “worthy of happiness.” I’m not so sure, though, that Kant and Augustine are so far apart on this. To be worth of happiness would be to live an upright and honorable life. And there is a certain happiness (satisfaction) that comes from living such a life, regardless of the situations that surround that life. It seems to me that this is something of what it means to have the courage to live.

We have a choice. I have a choice. Happiness is a matter of the will. I will to live an upright and honorable life, and that means I must take off the mask, quit acting out a life that is placid and plain, just trying to fit in, expecting that sameness is safety and that measuring up is happiness. I need to start living, truly living… living true. I need to have the courage to be, the courage to choose, the courage to sacrifice, the courage to be happy, the courage to live. And only in God can I find that sort of courage. Only in God do I live and move and have my being. Only in God.