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The Riches of Courage

Welcome to my October blog.  I’ve decided to dedicate the theme of this blog to two related topics; courage and richness.  I’ve chosen these topics because in my work, I am always heartened by the quality of courage in others.  Just yesterday, I sat with a client as she cried, and it was so beautiful.  It was beautiful because even as she mopped away her relentless tears, she expressed no regret; she could see that she only experienced her current suffering because she had first allowed herself the joy of tasting something meaningful enough to grieve losing.

What does it mean to be brave, to be courageous?  In the context of therapy, and on the journey of unfolding into your full capacity and potential, I think of the word “courage” as interchangeable with “willingness”.  Courage is the willingness to open oneself up to this present moment, because to do so is to render oneself vulnerable to experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion.  If we commit to being here, just right here in this moment, we make ourselves accessible to the wonder of the human experience, in all its joy, and sorrow, and everything in between.

To share with you a personal example:

I have had many different kinds of birthdays and birthday parties – from small, intimate gatherings of a handful of my dearest friends and family, to large-scale events that carry on until morning – but one birthday in particular stands out for its uniqueness.  Even to think back on it all these years later, I find myself welling up with a mix of fondness and sadness.  It is one of my more personal memories, but one of my most beautiful and most treasured ones to date.

Usually, birthdays are a happy occasion for me, but on this particular birthday I woke up with a heaviness that felt like an elephant had made itself at home on my chest.  Not only was I freshly smarting from a recent and very difficult break-up, but that recent loss had also awoken a much older, even more personal, and much more persuasive family-related grief.  There were no tears or distress, just a quiet, still sadness that pressed in until I couldn’t breathe, and waited patiently for my every move.

I had been dreading this for weeks; being held hostage on my birthday by an ache I could not quell and a phone call I knew I wouldn’t receive.

What were my options?  I could surround myself with party invitees and hope for my mood to lift, I could drown myself in work and ignore the significance of the day altogether, I could write myself off with some drug or drink and obliterate the ache for a few short moments…  But I didn’t want to do any of those things.  I had hoped to do something special, as I plan to do every year on my birthday, and I didn’t want this year to be any different.  So, I exhaled, flipped the covers off my bed, and dragged my grief behind me into the kitchen.  I had breakfast, with my grief for company, before taking myself off for a coffee at my favourite café.  Then I met my family for a nice lunch, which my sadness tagged along loyally to as well.  Even as I ended my night with a special treat indeed – a small Indian classical musical performance with a couple of like-minded friends – the elephant on my chest insisted it join me.

I remember as if it were yesterday; that giant weight on my chest not budging for a second, all day.  And, I remember, nor did I need it to.

Although this uninvited birthday guest of mine refused to leave my side, it was not the only company I kept that day.  At the café in the morning, I allowed my senses to play games with the dappled sunlight, and I enjoyed my supremely made coffee as I watched the cheerful sparrows hopping at the foot of the table.  Over lunch with my family, after picking out as many different sounds as I could in the din, I listened attentively to the people I cherished at my table, amused by the realisation that I could hear in our voices how we are all related.  And, while I gently nursed my grief for the members notably absent from the table, I was still able to feel thankful for the company of those that were present.  That evening, my elephant and I were indiscriminately treated to the most heartfelt Indian ragas, and as I watched the six musicians who sat cross-legged on their red-beaded mats, bathed in amber lighting and earthy hues, I let their music wash over me.

Later that night, as I lay my head on my pillow, I thought about how the weight on my chest had barely shifted.  I’ve never tried to wrestle an elephant, but I suspect that had I made it my task to insist on having a happy birthday, I’d have probably spent the entire day holed up in my bedroom at war with that elephant.  Instead, the day was spent doing the things I love, with the people I love, and in lieu of anything that resembled a “happy” birthday, I was gifted with a full and rich and beautiful one.  Despite the many happy birthdays before and since, this one stands in my memory as one of the most special and meaningful days I’ve ever had.  It was definitely one of my favourites, and it was only possible because I had been willing to feel my feelings and take them with me.  Said differently, I would have missed out on a rich and wonderful day, had I have insisted it also be a happy one.

If you are struggling with some element of your life, some aspect of your human experience, please take me up on my invitation.  Just once, for one day, if you have somewhere to be, try not wrestling with your elephant.  Try taking it for a walk instead.

© Jacques Rizk, 2013