Rev. Karyn Packard
October 8th, 2017
Courage… What conditions demand it? Where does it come from? What is courage…really?
When I think about courage, what immediately comes to mind are those stories of soldiers throwing themselves over the bodies of their comrades to save them from being shot… valor in combat. I think of Doctors Without Borders, saving lives in far corners of the world after natural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, ebola…setting aside their own lives, their safety and comfort for someone else’s. As I look at my life, I know that I don’t qualify for those kinds of examples of courage.
When I reflect on my life experience as a hospital chaplain, I think of the patients enduring difficult treatments so as not to die…not to leave their families and their friends. I think of those families, putting themselves last as they cared for their loved ones, sometimes for years. I think of the mothers in the pediatric cancer ward who took turns taking care of each other’s children so those moms could shower, eat, rest. The courage it took for them to be at the bedside of their sick child day after day…night after night, and the profound courage to be at the bedside when their child was no longer able to maintain life. Crisis came into their lives and they stepped up! What conditions demanded it? Where did that courage come from? It came from deep love and commitment. It was also a reaction to fear…the fear of loss. Sometimes, their strength came from information. They learned everything they could, to do the best jobs for their family member. Information became power over the unknown days ahead. They did things they never believed they could do. For some, courage came from faith, the beliefs that had propped up their lives in the past, were now being called upon in their present need. Sometimes that worked for them and sometimes it didn’t. But they maintained. Courage shows itself as a response to a personal crisis in the lives of your families or friends.
Sometimes courage is a question of morals… Doing “right” rather than “wrong”. I reflect on a hospital administrator who when participating in a restructure process for the hospital to insure financial stability. She eliminated her own job. That was where she could save the most money for the institution. I held her in the bathroom after her budget presentation was accepted. She was in tears. She had a new baby and didn’t know what the future would bring. Years later, SHE became the CEO. The best CEO that I think, that Memorial Health Care ever had. Courage is taking the chance that your biggest fears will be actualized and doing it anyway, because it is the right thing to do. When a triple shooting of employees at the hospital eventually led her to a breakdown, she had the courage to resign and get the help that she needed. Moral courage… Courage to do what is right.
Courage is also telling the truth to someone you love when you are afraid to lose the relationship. It is saying “no” when the expectation is“yes”. It is having the courage to speak up to injustice, even if it puts you in danger. I reflect on my pastor in Newport Beach having marched in Selma and having been put in jail and all those in Charlottesville who put themselves in harm’s way to protest the white supremacists. Think about those wheel chair bound Medicare recipients who found ways to be ready and present at 5am to protest at the recent healthcare hearings in Washington DC. Think what it must have taken to get them up and ready…delivered to that hallway outside the chambers of government so that their voices could be heard. Incredible tasks for each of them and for the people who care for them. Their bodies must have been stressed in their already challenged conditions, as they were dragged from the room. These kinds of courage come from having a strong moral compass. Perhaps it is a response to excellent parenting or education. However, It might be the result of the opposite, having lived injustice and disappointment and being committed to overcoming it. Courage to do what is right…to love self and others.
But the kind of courage that I, personally, can relate to involves tenacity… the commitment to keep going no matter what. When I was caring for my deceased husband with brain cancer, a minister told me “Life is a cinch by the inch and hard by the yard”. I took it an inch at a time, as I am sure have many of you. I think that is the way many of us “do” courage. We may be afraid, we may falter, we may make mistakes… but we do not give up. To me, that takes courage. It takes courage in relationship; it takes courage in the ups and downs of daily life. I observe my youngest son (38) in the slow process of recovery from a major stroke get acquainted with a new normal each and every day. A cinc by the inch and hard by the yard.
I’m imaging, like Bob and I, many of you have been watching Ken Burns’ series on The Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese call it, The American War. Having gone to Vietnam last fall with returning Vietnam vets and their spouses, we were especially intrigued. There was much to learn and re-experience and we had trouble sleeping after those episodes. Our sleep was delayed as we discussed Bob’s experiences there. But what moved me the most, was a poem read at the end and taken from Tim Obrien’s book, “The Things They Carried”. To me it spoke about the various kinds of courage in our soldiers during that war…a war for which they were never thanked. I’d like to share it with you now.
They shared the weight of memory
They took up what others could no longer bear
Often they carried each other
The wounded or weak
They carried infections
They carried chess sets
Basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries
Insignias of rank, bronze stars, and purple hearts
Plastic cards imprinted with the code of conduct
They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery
They carried lice and ringworm and leaches
Paddy algae and various rots and molds
They carried the land itself
Vietnam…the pots, the soil, the dust
Powdery orange and red dust
That coated their boots, fatigues and faces
They carried the sky – the whole atmosphere
They carried the humidity – the monsoons
The stink of fungus and decay – all of it
They carried gravity
They moved like mules
By daylight they took sniper fire
At night, they were mortared
They crawled into tunnels
IT WAS JUST THE ENDLESS MARCH
VILLAGE TO VILLAGE
THEY MARCHED FOR THE SAKE OF THE MARCH
THEY PLODDED ALONG SLOWLY, DUMBLY
LEANING AGAINST THE HEAT
UNTHINKING, ALL BLOOD AND BONE
SIMPLE GRUNTS SOLDIERING WITH THEIR LEGS
TOILING UP THE HILLS AND DOWN INTO THE PADDIES
AND ACROSS THE RIVER
AND UP AGAIN AND DOWN…JUST HUMPING
ONE STEP AND THEN THE NEXT AND THEN ANOTHER
THEY MADE THEIR LEGS MOVE
Courage, comradeship, perseverance, understanding,
Together we lean into the heat of life…