Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Short of Courage

The problem has always been that I'm just plain short of courage, the sort of courage that you need to pick up the phone and make a call, the kind of courage it takes to admit that you don't know enough even to know what question to ask, the kind of courage it takes to do something new instead of doing what you've always done.

I asked Neva how she'd learned so much about insurance billing, and she said, “trial and error,” without missing a beat. I tried to imagine having the courage to make all those mistakes, right where people could see you do it. I know that the people who have that kind of courage don't think of it as something particularly admirable or special. Well, it is. It is admirable and special.

Once, years ago, I showed an aquaintance a love poem I'd written her, making clear, I hope, that it was not any kind of request or invitation. She said, “you're really brave.” I laughed and said, “no, I just don't have any sense.” But it wasn't that. I just knew: who really minds having a love poem written to them, if it doesn't entail awkwardness or pressure? Pretty much everyone wants to be adored.

I do things from time to time that look brave from the outside. I've never minded looking funny, for one thing. Never in my life having been in the running for the Cool Stakes, I never acquired the habit of minding looking dorky and nerdish. I don't mind fishing out my reading glasses; I carry around a backpack full of books and happily spread my dictionaries and flash cards out on restaurant table. I know I look silly in all my bike gear. So what? You could piddle your whole life away trying not to look silly. It's not worth troubling about.

And I can speak forcefully and cogently in a few kinds of public situations. Classrooms, seminars, professional meetings. I speak my mind. I'm seldom – unfortunately – really in doubt as to the value of my own opinions.

This might lead you to expect that I could phone an insurance company and ask them a few questions about their billing process. Well, I can, sometimes: after counting my breath for a few moments to keep my heart from racing, I can dial really quickly, so that I'm in the conversation before I can back out, and it's less awkward to ask questions than not to. Modern phones are wonderful for me, because you can enter the numbers ahead of time. Then when you think you might be brave enough to make a call, you can quick quick quick don't think don't plan don't rehearse push the single button, push it now! And you're over the hurdle and in the conversation, and you've done it, you've really done it, you've made a phone call.

Though of course if they say something I don't understand, I can't just ask them to explain it. I have to end the conversation and go look it up on the web. Or ask Neva. Or try to deduce what the answer must be. (Call them back? You're kidding, right?)

I'm getting so much better at using the phone. There are even rare occasions now when I can make a phone call just like a normal person – think, “I'd like to know that, I'll call and ask” -- and just make the call, just like that. With practice, I get better. And I've learned not to rehearse; for me rehearsing makes it harder, not easier. I already have too many moving objects to track when I make a phone call, without adding a script into the mix.

But anyway, that's not what I really wanted to say, none of it. The failures of courage are far deeper than that. To eat as I think I ought to, to love as I think I ought to, to live as I think I ought to; or else -- even scarier! – to change my mind about how I ought to do those things: that's what I don't have the courage to do. The cowardice, the cowardice runs so deep. It's in the marrow bone, a deep reddish-brown stain all the way through me. I will never be free of it, never.

But turn again. Remember, Dale, you thought you would never be brave enough to work as you ought to. And you did it. You did it. And you did it young: you're only fifty-one. Precocious little bastard. Who knows what you might not pull off when you're all grown up?

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