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  • Sharon Cabana, MA, LMFT

Free Rein: On Remembered Bravery

I am not sure when I forgot how to be brave. Was it when I started calculating in terms of insurance premiums and physical therapy visits? Was it when my cheeks flushed red during class, unsure of my classmates’ reaction to my often rambling insights? Or maybe it was after years of wading in my own shadowlands when I was all too aware of the darkness lingering just outside the periphery of my existence? Years ago, sitting in the car with a friend now passed on, I remember asking him if I was brave. He told me, with a perplexed frown on his face, that I was a calculated sort of crazy; I would calculate the risks before jumping into a decision.

“Oh, but,” he said. “When you jump, girl, you fly.”

Not so long ago, I found myself wondering when was the last time I jumped in a mud puddle, not knowing whether it was just a mud puddle or that great childhood nemesis, quicksand? Where was the young girl who traveled to Ecuador and rode a horse up a smoking volcano, who swam in a dark ocean with sharks, and who lived for almost a year in a foreign country? Where was the girl who crawled through caves and hiked up mountains, who traveled to cities far and wide to speak at conferences, and who once recited Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” for a talent competition?

According to the Wikipedia entry on courage, courage “is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.” In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown (2017) explores the question of true belonging. She illustrates that true belonging requires the courage to be accountable to ourselves, to be vulnerable, to be generous, and to lead with our hearts even in the face of hatred. Being brave calls upon us to face the shadows of our fears, our pride, and our pasts in order to grow, to become, and to thrive.

True bravery is not without risks, however. As the Wikipedia entry so aptly put, there is a risk of danger and pain. We risk rejection, isolation and, sometimes, physical or spiritual injury. Courage calls upon us to take those risks in order to fulfill the calling of our hearts. When we have the courage to be brave, we discover that we are not alone, that we are intimately connected to the world around us, both past and present. To be brave is to live life with the conviction of being truly alive.

Someone once told me that children are born with all the wisdom of the ages in their souls. This is why their eyes are so wise. As they grow older, they slowly start to forget the ancient wisdom of our ancestors. It is our task, throughout our lives, to remember this ancient knowledge. Though my neuroscience-loving brain tells me that the child and adolescent brains aren’t fully developed which is why they are prone to engage in more risky behavior, I can’t help but think perhaps the reason children live with such abandon is because they have not yet learned how to be afraid. This, of course, is why we protect them. We teach them how to cross the street safely, how not to talk to strangers, how not to touch hot stoves and sharp knives. However, despite these lessons, children teach us the power of courage. They take risks, try new things, and change the world.

How then, do we remember how to be brave?

My horse trainer is nearly two decades younger than me. She bounces with the rubbery buoyancy of youth, unfazed by temperamental young horses or a seemingly endless list of near-falls and wipe outs. I, on the other hand, fall with a significantly harder thud and the rebound is less bounce and more slow peeling of ouch off the sand. Despite our age difference, she has no sympathy for me. She takes my reins from me in the middle of lessons so I stop relying on my hands. She makes me do crazy stunts. She laughs when my horse bolts off with me and dirty stops, sending me leapfrogging on to his neck in a desperate attempt to not hit the ground. Her most common words to me are, “Make sure you stay on your horse!”

A few weeks ago, my horse wasn’t feeling it. Mopey when he’s usually a rocket, I decided not to push him and let him have an easy night. I took off his tack and let him run and roll around until he felt all loosened up and happy.

Then my trainer whispered crazy in my ear.

“You should get on tackless,” she said.

“Do you want me to die?!”

“You can do it. If worse comes to worse, just dump yourself on the dirt.”

“Easy for you to say,” I muttered.

But her words stuck in my craw and rattled in my head. I wanted to ride tackless. I wanted to connect with my horse and let him know that mama heard him and we were building a relationship together. I wanted to know what it would be like to be free.

So, I led him over to the mounting block.

And slid a lead rope on his neck for an emergency rein.

And climbed on his back.

We just walked around that night. With my trainer watching, cheering us on, we circled the arena. I could feel his gentle swaying body, his loose barrel and hips, his energy beneath my body. Spine to spine, he responded to the touch of my hands on his neck and my hugs. In that moment, I connected to the spirit that led me to foreign lands and to take chances on relationships, career choices, and difficult conversations. I stopped thinking about insurance premiums and potential physical therapy bills. I felt, in the depths of my heart, the power of partnership with my heart horse and the energy of pure connection.

This is what bravery calls upon us to do. Whether it’s calling us to follow our heart paths or engage in those difficult conversations or be vulnerable when we are scared of isolation and loneliness, bravery leads us ultimately to connection with ourselves, our spirits, and the world around us. As we grow from that state of childhood wonder, we can both have the knowledge and wherewithal to negotiate the complexities of our world and live true to the wisdom and awe of our ancestors. It takes the courage to listen and to live with the conviction of being alive.

A few weeks ago, I climbed onto my horses back, unsure if we would flounder or fly.

And I remembered how it felt to be brave.

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