As of this May, I’ve spent 9 years working, living, and learning as self-organizing groups and community. What I noticed most this week is the astonishing courage demonstrated by individuals who have spent prolonged time within these human collectives: courage astonishing to themselves as well as others. Here are some examples. Because I know these people very well—they are my own community and self-organizing group members—I know that these examples demonstrate that the community and self-organizing group pulled courage out of these individuals that they themselves didn’t fully know they had within them. Pretty amazing to be present when this happens to a person. It actually gives me goose bumps. Listen to the honest, powerful, courageous voices I’ve heard this week. Note: Some of these may not sound courageous to you at all, but they were courageous for them in the moment. And yes, some of these are me. The longest-winded ones, of course, I’m so freakin’ transparent.

  1. In response to another community member getting emotional in a highly thinking- and debate-centered group: “I am impressed by your ability to own your emotions, voice your “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah”s publicly, and to name fuckball actions fuckball when you see them. I have no advice for you. I am just now learning to do what you appear to do easily. So keep doing what you do to give others the courage to do the same. Whoops, that was advice. Meant it as request. Will you keep doing what you do so that those of us learning this can keep seeing it?”
  2. In response to another community member talking about his own purpose and wondering about the purpose of a large, chaotic community he’s part of: “We are a planet of small humans and happenings with hearts sized appropriately for our planetary selves. I don’t think I’m here to understand our purpose. I’m here to be reminded of who we really are and to get comfortable with the size of my heart and my self. It’s in the smallest random act of kindness and forgiveness that I learn the most.”
  3. In response to a group member making major life changes without keeping another friend in the loop: “You need to Skype or email me and tell me about this immediately! This is the kind of important thing you share with your wife from another life. Don’t make me go Karen Walker on you!”
  4. A white woman community member’s response to a male community member saying people should just “lighten up” about the recent bloody cake cutting images out of Sweden. “I first learned of the image through an African American friend who said that the photo of the cake being cut into made her cry and then tighten her fists in rage. I actually read her words, got a lump in my throat, felt my fists tighten, and had tears in my eyes before I saw the image itself. Was a black person making a cake or a statement about mutilation racism? No. Was the decision by powerful white people to laughingly, smilingly cut into it? YES. That action was like a knife into my friend’s heart (and her heart happens to be connected to my own). This hurt was not imagined. This hurt was real. Lighten up? Are you fucking kidding me?! Remind me to tell you that the next time somebody kicks you in the groin.”
  5. To her community, many of whom are neighbors, in a politically conservative rural part of the United States where many neighbors despise government, democrats, and President Obama in particular: “I am a supporter of Pres Obama, but if his wife were to run, I would vote for her!”
  6. In response to a person describing his own personal beliefs to a very large online community: “I love what you say about no privileged center AND everywhere is a center. This is my reality too. I believe that every living being is at the center of something and at the edge of something. This is an especially good daily reminder for those of us who’ve been told that our ideas are cutting edge. When I talk about my work, I like to remind those calling the groups I study “cutting edge” that some people, from birth, are taught, for example, about Ubuntu, I exist because we exist. So while it may be cutting edge for me, it’s just “who we are” for others. :-)”
  7. In response to a high-tech person in a high-tech work world asking her community how to get the very best reliable internet access while traveling in Germany and Switzerland: “In each new town, ask locals for the coffee shop with the best coffee and wifi and walk there 3 to 6 times a day, put your feet up, and revel in being so far from home with good coffee and wifi and kind locals and walking.”
  8. In response to a community member sharing a numbered list documenting what she most loves about her life right now: “This is so fucking beautiful! #s 6 and 10 are BIG in my life now too. Refusing to pause for anything less than “fuck yeah” are the same exact words I used recently to help a college professor friend come to grips with the fact that he’s not fully happy in his work. It’s not a question of choosing between I hate, I tolerate, or I like my work. Not when there is “fuck yeah!!!!!!” and “i fucking ADORE my work!!!” as choices out there. In the end, the only things you have to give up to get there are the things that didn’t deeply matter to you any way and the parts of yourself you happily shed like a snake leaving its old skin behind.”
  9. A woman’s response to being cut off by another community member: “it’s weird that you’re interrupting me and not letting me make my point, because we get along so well. So let me make my point. But it is important, I think, the interruption is important, I think, because now we know, at least from both of your perspectives that women are not faring worse than men in the economy. That women aren’t getting paid less for equal work. I think that’s a serious difference in factual understanding of the world.”
  10. In response to several community members getting angry with each other, moving away from the issue they’d come together to discuss, and attempting to “win” by convincing the other of the value of their point/perspective/ideas: “In my research, one thing I’ve learned is that when I move into fear and anger it means I’m approaching or crossing a self boundary as an individual. Today feeling fear and anger is one of the tools I use to know “Am I moving in the world right now as an individual? As a small self-org group of trusted others? As community (where I can fully, openly embrace strangers known by the community)? Or as the space between (where I can embrace everybody because I actually experience myself as everybody)?” All are valid, useful states that serve an important purpose. To my ears, fear and anger (beyond the immediate “I’m about to be physically attacked by a bear” kind) say “I have fallen out of the group (or am worried that I’m about to) and I need help getting back in.” Love and listening and compassion pull individuals back into the self-org group, community, and space between states. I saw this within the groups I study before I fully recognized it in myself. As a community, we may not be able to do this for AIG’s Steve Miller–yet–but we most certainly can do it for each other–those we know and don’t know here. We do it all the time. That’s actually how I know this is a community.”

Spoilers! Eight of the 10 above examples were me. All eight were spontaneous and courageous for individual me in the moment. All surprised me and several actually stunned me. It certainly appeared to be me saying these words out loud, but those closest to me know that I’m as likely to break into to tears as I am to say something courageous out loud within a very large group, especially an angry, arguing group experience, which several of these were. At least the old me was. But not this week.  Hmm. None of my eight examples hold a candle to the stunning courage demonstrated by the two other people in the above examples. Their courage teaches me something new every month. One is an amazing mom and farm wife and friend. One is an amazing national news commentator. My personal poster-kids of courage.

I think maybe 99% of all the courage in existence is the internal courage to change: every quiet little internal choice about who we are, what we believe, and who we will allow others to be and what we will allow others to believe in our presence. The other 1% of all courage in existence gets all the attention and press, but it’s not where the deepest beauty of courage is. Not really.

Something else happened to me this week. I was given a gift by someone who said such a hurtful thing in one of my communities that it made me sob. Number 4 above is part of that experience. This week I watched myself become something new: a caring, close, listening, discerning, quiet, kind, and gentle kicker of metaphorical ass when it became clear that the community itself was asking for a teaching moment of close and gentle metaphorical ass kicking. And it actually worked. The person left the conversation, went and did his own research, and came back armed with videos and stories showing other perspectives beyond his own and saying that he’d spoken from a blind spot he could now see. Wow. I was speechless. I eventually said “I just fell in love with you a little bit. Thank you for bringing so many additional perspectives into the discussion.” What else could I say? A guy who’d made a deeply hurtful statement had just demonstrated that he was really at his core a thoughtful, remarkable human being who could change himself in an instant.

The gift he gave me (besides revealing more of his beautiful self and the fact that I can now trust my collective self to recognize these moments) is I now have a deeper understanding of the expression “Turn the other cheek”. As a kid I was taught that it meant one thing: that I should respond to a verbal aggressor without anger, without verbal violence of any sort, and ideally (for a woman) silence. But what if anger is actually a gift? I learned that if you graphically, verbally demonstrate how painfully you (and a friend) are receiving what is being said in a discussion, that it can support the other person in imagining that same pain within themselves. And if they can feel your pain within themselves, then they’ve already changed. I learned that a clear and vivid description of what somebody’s words are physically doing to me is not an attack on them. I will forever think of a different set of cheeks when I hear the expression “Turn the other cheek!” Next time, I’d like to hope that I’ll at least have the presence of mind to leave the curse word out. Then again, it’s tough to argue with a spontaneous approach that worked so beautifully. 🙂

Community and self-organizing groups don’t need courage. They have courage. It’s as individuals that we need courage: usually in what appear to be the very smallest of acts. Acts like showing ourselves and others who we really are, saying what we believe, recognizing and admitting that our own short-sightedness caused another pain, describing the impact of hateful words and actions on our physical selves so that others can hear them, offering kindness to those who believe the opposite of what we believe (and kindness to ourselves when we inevitably mess this one up), and letting go of who we once were in favor of who we strongly suspect (but aren’t completely certain) we now can be.

These aren’t really tiny acts at all. These are the most important acts: the acts that proceed the discovery that we are better than we’d previously imagined possible. Courageous acts that cannot be taken from us by others. Acts of individual courage (“Did I really just say that out loud?! Oh shit!”) that morph into habit within self-organizing groups and community (“That’s just how we roll.”). When you are utterly surrounded by courageous people, you’ll be surprised to discover that the honest, powerful, and courageous voice that you are hearing now is actually your own.