Voice of Courage

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By Mark E. Smith

What’s the origin of courage? Is it a conscious decision or an innate response? And, how does it make us rise at just the right moment when needed most?

My soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter has spina bifida and autism. While I didn’t have the privilege of being in her early life – she’s legally my step-daughter – I’ve had the blessing of having her in my life in recent years, where she’s my daughter. And, while our relationship isn’t typical – autism never is – the love and understanding is, just as with my 19-year-old.

My little one has a lot going on medically between her two disabilities, but that all just makes her unique like any child. Due to spina bifida, she’s paralyzed from the tummy, down, and uses a wheelchair. Due to her autism, she has an astonishing vocabulary, but finds it difficult to use it in context and isn’t conversational. In simple terms, she makes us smile nonstop with her constant chatter – Please to meet ya, prairie dogs!, she recently exclaimed in the middle of dinner at a restaurant – but she profoundly struggles expressing what she wants or needs.

She’s also a fearless daredevil, where she doesn’t demonstrate self-protection mechanisms. However, this makes her love motion, including amusement rides. And, so when we recently had the opportunity to take her adaptive horseback riding, we knew she’d love it.

Inexplicably, my wife and I were wrong. As a team surrounded the therapy horse, and my wife tried to place our little one on the saddle, our little one was terrified. In fact, I’d never seen our daughter express fear, but as she clung to my wife, the fear was palpable. Yet, we knew if she could get past that fear, sit in the saddle and ride, she would love it. However, as I watched from the fence feet away, I knew that this had to be our little one’s decision. Yes, she was scared. No, you can’t force courage. But, could our little one find the inner-strength to ride the horse?

After many failed attempts, to the point of all of us adults about to give up, in one last try, our little one saddled up, clutching her mother. As the horse rounded the ring, the unimaginable happened. Our little one exclaimed, I am not afraid!

Was it self-reassurance? Was it a declaration to our group? Was it an affirmation of her life that we never thought she could express?

It was all of those. No, I don’t have the answers for the questions for which I began this story. However, I can tell you most profoundly, though, that all of us there that afternoon heard what few ever hear: the true, literal voice of courage.

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Jumping Off Cliffs

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Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. -Steve Jobs

Mark E. Smith

At what points do you throw logic and reason and expert opinions and friendly advice into the wind and just believe in yourself? Everyone in the world can tell you that if you jump off of that proverbial cliff you’re going to die. Yet, you know something they don’t: You’ve jumped off of that cliff many times, and haven’t just survived, you’ve soared.

There’s a lot of value to following others’ advice, to not making the mistakes they’ve made. Yet, what about what you know, what about what you’ve learned, what about the power that your spirit has taught you, truths that others — more realistic, more grounded, with less vision — simply don’t know or understand? Maybe you have done the seemingly impossible, maybe you have seen fairy tales come true, maybe you have experienced what others will never understand is possible. Why let the ordinary dictate your life when you can live the extraordinary.

I look back on my own life, and if I had listened to anyone but my own potential, will, and heart, I wouldn’t be here, period. I was supposed to be a vegetable, with no cognitive skills. I was supposed to fail as among the first mainstream students. I was supposed to never have kids or career or live independently. I was never supposed to accomplish virtually everything I’ve accomplished. I’ve always been told that I’ll never succeed at this or that. But, every time I’ve found myself perched on a cliff, where everyone — following the rules of gravity, medicine, psychology, social norms — told me that I was destine for failure, I’ve just looked back, smiled a confident grin, and jumped, never hitting the ground but soaring.

Of course we, ourselves, can be our biggest roadblocks, where past disappointments and fears can keep us from making life-changing leaps of faith. I’m not going to apply for that job because I’ll never get it…. I’m not going to pursue that relationship because it’s just going to end in heartache…. I’m not going to follow my dream because it’s too unrealistic…. No, if we’re ever to achieve what we truly want and deserve, it requires us to make huge leaps of faith at times. We don’t know we can soar till we make the leap.

You’re going to find yourself at crossroads in life, perched on cliffs of decision, where everyone is going to give you advice, telling you it will never work, you’ll never succeed, you’re in denial, you’re destine for failure. Maybe you’ll even doubt yourself. But, if you simply trust that we all can accomplish the seemingly impossible, that fairy tales can come true, then you’re going to look back at the crowd, maybe even look at your own fears, smile a confident grin — because your heart and spirit know best — and you’re not just going to jump, you’re going to soar. All it takes is that one leap of faith to better your life forever.