Bobby played center on our High School football team and had a disease that affected his ability to run. I remember watching him as he was working hard to run around the indoor track in the gym and even by running as hard as he could he couldn’t go much faster than a person walks. Taking notice of how slow he was going I said something insensitive. I don’t remember what I said but it was something unkind that you wouldn’t expect an athlete to say about a teammate.
Herb was a hard working athlete and was All-State in track and football. He was doing some push-ups near by and heard what I said about Bobby running so slow. Herb got up and walked over to me and as he pounded my chest with his finger he spewed out his anger at the wise crack I made. This shocked me, during all the time it took him to say the things he said to me, but I couldn’t connect his anger at me with the things I said. I was getting ready to deck him with a left hook; but before I let it fly I was stopped cold by one last statement he made. After telling me what a jerk I was for my remarks that made fun of the way Bobby ran, Herb finished off by calling me a “gutless wonder”.
What? I couldn’t believe my ears.
How could anyone call me a “gutless wonder”?
I lowered my left elbow that was raised and poised ready to deliver my knockout shot. I dropped my shoulders, unclenched my teeth and relaxed my jaw. A look of amazement must have flooded my face. Maybe Herb was in a trance and didn’t know to whom he was talking. Surely he must be aware of all the fights I get into. Sure, I play football and play at being an athlete, but for the most part I run with a gang. Herb must know that.
We got jackets, man. No, I don’t mean the football letter jackets … sure we got those. But let me see how far you get wearing a high school letter jacket at the Rosedale Tap room or at the Tumble Down Inn out at the stockyards. I mean we got jackets … black satin jackets. Each member of our gang has a black jacket with the word “Syndicate” written across the back. Does Herb think someone who is a member of a gang like the “Syndicate” is a gutless wonder?
But Herb must have had a reason for calling me a gutless wonder and I’m embarrassed to say that it took so many years of my life wearing that label before I connected me with Herb’s reasoning.
I don’t know if it was a coincidence or not but the answer I was looking for came to me through my association with another athlete who also had a problem being able to run. He was given an honorary ranking as a sergeant in a Green Beret unit of the United States Army and the article in the newspaper announcing his appointment used the heading Courage. And even then, I wasn’t able to connect that article describing Tony’s situation to the title “Courage”.
I first met Tony when he was fourteen years old. He called my karate school one day to ask if he could take karate lessons in one of my classes. Even just that act, took “guts”. He didn’t ask his mother if she would let him take karate, he just took it upon himself to pick up the phone and called me. Later I learned that he also approached the football coach and tried to get the coach to let him play quarterback on his school’s football team. Tony could throw the football further and more accurate than anyone on the team but the coach turned him down. But still, arguing with the football coach for that position took guts. Actually, just a simple thing like having a girlfriend and wanting to walk her home from school took guts for Tony to do. You see Tony is in a wheelchair and he’s never walked a day in his life. And I remember him telling me that he used to have a girlfriend and, in his own words, he put it like this, “ But, she left me for a walking dude.”
He received his honorary appointment in the Green Berets in the hospital where they removed both his legs and one hip. As he grew, his legs were getting too heavy to carry. And so, for a time he continued to wear long pants and pinned the cuffs to shoes he had tied to the base plate of his wheel chair. Although he never was able to use his legs, just seeing the shoes at the end of his pant legs got him through knowing that his legs were not there. But, eventually, the shoes and long pants were eliminated and Tony found a brand of courage for which few of us will have to search.
Because of Tony I searched for what brand of courage I might be able to identify in my life. I looked at my life and asked the questions: what courage did I have and what courage was I lacking? I didn’t like the answers I found but I liked the fact that I asked the questions. But more so, I realized that my concept of the true meaning of courage was warped. I thought courage meant not being afraid, or at least, pretending to not be afraid. I always thought that any person who admitted he had fears definitely lacked courage. I thought running into a burning building or jumping from a great height showed those who watched that we had courage.
That was fifteen years ago and now having spent time with Tony I understand what it takes to have real courage. I’m able now to discover what the word courage really looks like in a life of a real person. It’s not only that person fighting physical challenges but there are people with courage today who are fighting huge mental deficits and childhood abuse and financial setbacks and facing many other obstacles to finding peace and happiness in life. There are people on any given day fighting to get through this day in order to face the next… you might see someone just stepping off the bus, or standing on a street corner or the other person in the car patiently waiting for the light to change, who have become heroes just to be where they are right then, simply because of what they had to face just to be there.
And you too, my friend, have been a hero many times over and may have missed it. Courage is different for all of us, but it’s courage just the same. But by our attention being diverted as we look at the movie screens, the stadiums, and the stages overflowing with rock stars, it’s really easy to see how the real everyday hero’s, could pass us by, unseen. For each individual so heavily invested in ‘self’ and who are spending their lives screaming, and literally dying for attention, there are a number of silent heroes who face their life with courage and conviction without uttering a word. Their needs are just as strong as those of us who fight our way through life, and just as severe as those of us who constantly point out our many grievances. They hurt at times, just as we all do, but still, they wish, just as we do, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in peace and happiness.
The difference I see through all that I’ve learned is that there has been times I’ve been a part of a hero’s journey and I’ve also seen and been a part of the path a coward takes. I’ve seen both and I’ve been both; and maybe we all have. But the thought I hope to place and keep in my mind today is to be able to recognize what true courage is and when I have courage and when I don’t.
And for me, it’s important to know that when I’m on the wrong path it isn’t because I’m forced to be there by a lack of gifts from God or because circumstances, not of my own choosing, has control of me. When I’m on the wrong path it’s because I didn’t have the courage to be on the right one.
And knowing that, can make all the difference in the world.
For Tony, it’s no longer a matter of making that one major choice that will determine the conditions of his life. That choice was made for him. Now it’s a matter of choices made daily in spite of that condition which will determine the quality of his life, and will reveal the level of his courage.
Some people have made a courageous choice once; and then, as a hero should, they live with dignity within the consequences from that decision. Tony has to live with the consequences of what he was given, and he makes a choice each day to live it with courage.
Bobby and Tony are but two examples of courage that come to mind. But, at the time they were in my life, I missed seeing the courage in both of them and as a result, I missed seeing an opportunity for developing courage in my own life. Because, by not knowing what real courage looks like, I mistakenly thought I was brave because I lived on the streets, slept in park cars and didn’t take crap off of anyone. Fighting was my way of life; it was my definition of courage.
Why did I live my life this way?
Because I knew no other way to live. As Herb put it, I was “a gutless wonder”. I chose to run with gangs to prove my worth. I tried to fight my way out of being a coward because I was too chicken to walk away from a fight or to let a difference of opinion be limited to words. I didn’t learn the sport of football, that would take too much discipline and genuine courage to train right. I was there for the violence… I was there to fight.
In all that I did, in one way or another, I’ve been fighting life, all my life, because I was afraid not to fight .. Even though I was undefeated in amateur and professional boxing and karate I quit competing because I was a coward to face the chance of losing. So, I look at me today in terms of how much of me is still a coward. And what it is that scares me? What does it take to not be a coward?
What hard work do I fail to pursue because I’m afraid I don’t measure up to the competition?
How much success have I turned my back on because I was afraid I couldn’t live up to repeating the victory expected of me? On a more personal note – Why do I give up on me and let my friends and family suffer from my mistakes and never be in a position to help them?
It doesn’t require one to enter a karate or boxing ring, it doesn’t require one to climb the highest mountain, or jump a motorcycle over a cliff. As I think of it, all it requires is that one has the courage to make that choice to go for what they want most in life, just once. That’s right, just once! Do like Tony did and make that decision just once, and you’ll be on your way. And, if it’s a real decision, the conditions in your life will change. And then, make that decision again the next day, and then the next and the next… and as Tony would say, “Take just One Step at a Time.” Soon you’ll have the courage to accept your conditions as you watch them getting better and better each day.
So, what does it take then, in terms of courage, to get up and get out and sacrifice a desire of the day for what you truly value and want to be in your life tomorrow? Possibly, it’s just doing the simple things with passion and perseverance and having the daily courage to face life on life’s terms. Namely, to take the cards you’ve been dealt, and play them with dignity. And, if it’s just getting up and giving each day all you’ve got without being afraid to lose… then, do it. And know that what you expect from life and what you receive from life will always match each other as long as you give to life a true measure of yourself untainted by unrealistic expectations and judgments.
So go ahead and do what you’ve always dreamt to do… be who you know yourself to be… and be your own hero, today!