Hope may spring eternal, but heart comes first. Without our human capacity to “take heart” or “summon courage” our hopes are powerless at best, utterly hopeless at the worst. But how does the heart revive in the face of discouragement? What is the emotional and spiritual alchemy that transforms trepidation into boldness, fear into courage?
A MYSTERIOUS TRANSFORMATION
Some times I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again… (1)
I saw such a transformation vividly portrayed in Band of Brothers, (2) the film dramatizing the trials of a parachute infantry company in the catastrophe we call World War II. As the brutal Battle of the Bulge drags on in the winter of 1944-45, a young medic, “Doc” Eugene Roe, nears the outer limit of his emotional endurance. The constant agony of the wounded in the midst of recurrent bombardment threatens to overwhelm him. He is losing heart, in spite of his repeated “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” prayer. (3)
Carrying a victim to the makeshift hospital in the crypt of the village church, he meets a Belgian nurse with whom he finds solidarity. Yet she is unable to stop his continuing slow spiral into frozen numbness, which leaves him crouching in a semi-fetal position in a foxhole at the front.
Forcibly pulled into duty by his commanding officer, he is still dead of heart, operating mechanically. Eugene is in the midst of spiritual warfare, nothing less; for “the heart is the battlefield of the soul, the place of struggle and suffering.” (4)
Ordered back to the village “for a hot meal,” he finds the town ablaze in a hell of enemy bombardment, church destroyed, and all inside dead in the rubble. He spies the young nurse’s headscarf in the debris and sadly pockets it as a reminder of her kindness. But rather than plunging him deeper into deadness, he returns to the front alive again, leaping into care for the wounded with a renewed heart. When we last see him he is tearing up her headscarf to use as a bandage for a wounded soldier.
One can only guess what happened inside the medic’s heart, mind, and soul to give him this near-miraculous ”second wind” for his work; but we can be sure that it couldn’t have happened without some change of heart, for the literal meaning of “courage” is “heart.”
Did he somehow talk himself into a new attitude? Pray for renewed strength? Did the memory of kindness from the nurse re-awaken his capacity for compassion? Did her example of resilience in the face of the endless succession of wounded soldiers call him back to his original valor? Or was the nurse’s death itself a final straw, provoking him to throw all caution to the wind, leaving nothing left but the desire to “be an instrument” of God’s peace, no matter what? Any or all of these factors may spark courage when it has faltered or failed. Whatever the explanation, “Doc” had found renewed heart for his work.
He didn’t concoct courage. He found it, or it found him; for the wellsprings of courage are built into our nature. Heart, for Scripture and early Christianity, is the convergent center of the self, the ground from which both intention and action arise. Heart cares and can move us toward action even in the face of challenge, overriding the power of the fight/flight mechanism that would paralyze us. Though inner voices may say “run and hide,” and the signs of the times may urge us to lose heart, the God-rooted power at the center of our nature may give us courage.
REMOVING THE HINDRANCES
What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.
Psalm 56:3 (KJV)
I’ve seen the mystery of heart at work in my own experience many times. While I can be impulsively bold, I am often inwardly cowed by venturing into new territory. I don’t step out of familiar and safe routines without a struggle to find courage.
A decade or so ago I was challenged to become a leader in a new community-wide interracial dialogue effort in our increasingly multi-ethnic suburban town. For me this was a giant step into a more public, less controllable space, where controversy and argument could easily arise more easily than in my carefully constructed educational workshops. I agreed readily, but in the days afterwards the prospect of leading a town-wide series of diversity discussions pushed all my “unknown territory” buttons. How was I to find the heart for what my mouth had gotten me into?
I certainly engaged in self-encouraging dialogues with my anxieties: “You’ve crossed other thresholds . . . you’ve been anxious before and then done a good job.” Those inner musings were bolstered by the confidence my colleagues had in my abilities. And when my inner dialogue became intentional prayer, the Spirit had greater freedom to whisper, nudge, and inspire, influencing the words and the feelings of the dialogue, working deep in the core of the heart.
But I suspect the deep heart was really driving the process all along, prodding me to face down my doubts. God had “given me a heart” for racial justice during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Here was another opportunity. Heart had spoken through my “yes” to the invitation to participate, but I still had to face nay-sayers in my soul. They were still chattering away in the background as I crossed the threshold of that high school meeting room to face the first diversity dialogue. But my wrestling in the “battlefield of the soul” was not so much to summon courage as to remove the hindrances to its functioning.
Just so, I can easily imagine that the young medic’s heart had led him into caring service, and that his loss of nerve was reversed by surrendering—or being released from—the hindrance of his growing fears and disappointments. My guess is that the “final straw” of the nurse’s death precipitated this ultimate, even reckless, letting-go that allowed the pulse-beat of his courage to surge forth once more.
A STEADFAST FOUNDATION
My heart, O God, is steadfast; my heart is steadfast.
Psalm 57:7 (NIV)
The heart may be a more steadfast foundation of our lives than we realize—part of the organic reality of our nature. The organic basis of courage is indicated by very physical descriptions we use, beginning with “heart” itself: “You’ve got to have the heart to go on . . . the guts to try that . . . the stomach for it. . . .”
Perhaps any of us who feel our hearts might “fail from fear” over the “things which are coming on the earth” in our times (Luke 21:26 KJV)—catastrophic climate change, continuing war and carnage, subtle and overt injustice, rampant sin and impiety, threats to family solidarity, or whatever may trouble us—need to trust this power of heart, which is the power of God, with us.
Courage is hard-wired into us—a birthright survival necessity. So ordinary a companion we hardly notice it: everyday courage gets us up in the morning to face the challenges of the day, helps us to negotiate the ups and downs of relationships, companions us as we set out on the truly astonishing enterprise of driving a two-ton plus metal vehicle along a crowded expressway. Our brains, minds, and bodies were shaped in their long development through the eons by danger and catastrophes great and small. Unless we undergo some deep spiritual heart-failure, courage burns quietly within us, like the pilot light of a furnace ready to blaze forth when needed.
Usha Narayane did not anticipate facing down Akku Yadav, the violent gang lord of her family’s slum neighborhood outside of Nagpur, India. The pride of her family, she was studying for hotel management, passively resigned to the brutality and intimidating that were daily life in the slum. But when the gangster demanded protection money from a beloved neighbor, Usha complained to the police. Akku came after her with forty thugs, isolating her alone in her family home. Cornered, her latent courage blazed forth. She turned on the propane gas and threatened to blow up her family’s house and the thugs surrounding it.
This audacious move sparked the latent courage of the onlooking neighbors, who began throwing stones at the gangster, catalyzing a massive uprising against the gang, leaving Usha as the “galvanic new boss” of the slum community. She now organizes women to begin micro-businesses, promotes education, and inspires resident responsibility for maintaining the peace and improving conditions. Her “heart” for familiar neighbors she loved decided the battle in her soul between cowardice and holy audacity. (5)
So it is with any of us when the better angels of our nature, those emissaries of God’s grace, are allowed to stand forth from the hidden depths of our souls, where they ever watch over our lives ready to lend their aid in time of need.
1 American spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead.”
2 “Band of Brothers” produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks, 2001, based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
3 Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, Book of Common Prayer 1979.
4 From John Chryssavgis, “Orthodox Spirituality” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Philip Sheldrake, editor, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005), 474.
5 See Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf, 2009)
What has been your experience of “finding heart,” unexpectedly, and at just the right time?