On Bravery and Words for Years

winter arrives in the hills of donegal, nov 2016

 I wrote this a few months ago, but, to be frank, was not brave enough to share it. That’s been a lesson of this year, too. I am sharing it now because this post proves I’m not done with this word yet. I’m renewing it for 2017 and currently praying through ways to make that bravery tangible and accountable – one of which will be writing more here, I know. 

Do you have a word? Do you chose it prophetically or reflexively? This year is both for me.


My word for 2016 was “brave”. I had a rough 2015, one of those years I’d rather just put in the freezer and forget about. Sure, I learned a lot, and grew a lot, but I also spent a lot of time mourning and licking wounds and learning the value of quiet. This past January, I thought I was ready to tentatively take off the training wheels of my new self and choose times to be brave.

As I sit here, on a crisp fall October day, I’m feeling particularly contemplative. Autumn is my favorite season and it’s particularly wonderful in the American Northeast, where it looks like I live in a Land’s End catalog. The trees are turning, the air is fresh, and the whole of nature seems to be reminding me to slow down and prepare for a season of quiet. After the lazy heat of summer, a different kind of stillness will be required in winter, and autumn is about the preparation for it.

But back to being brave.

When I chose that word, and boldly told a few folks, and wrote it down in my journal, I had ideas about what that bravery would look like. I was launching a new company, so I figured it would mean a lot of networking. My husband and I were saving to buy a house, so I supposed it would look like writing a big, scary check at closing. I had some friends who were going through some ugly seasons, so I assumed it would look like a lot of hours on the phone, metaphorically holding beloveds as they cried.

It did look like all those things. But I’m now thinking that one cannot prepare oneself to be brave.

In this year, bravery also looked like simply getting out bed and facing another day. It looked like sitting in a hospital room in Mexico, with the insurance companies in one ear and the doctors in the other, while my father was in treatment for a surprise cardiac event and I could feel the threads of our lives shifting around me. It looked like staring strangers in the face and saying “I can be helpful”, even when I felt my anxiety disorder calling me a liar louder than the beat of my own heart. It looked like opening up my home with no questions asked to people who needed home, even when we were living out boxes. It looked like conversations about global economies, international peace treaties, and presidential campaigns with people who spoke down to me because of my age and gender, despite my doctorate in sociology with years of experience studying the matters at hand, and smiling graciously despite their malice.

But mostly, it looked like saying no.

I am the worst at self-care. I run workshops on it, write about it, preach it to my friends. Practicing it, however, I am abysmal. I can’t seem to shut off the tape that calls it selfish to say ‘no’, and that’s even as someone with a chronic migraine disorder that seizes me with little warning and almost no mercy. I somehow internalized “never let them see you sweat” at a deeper level than “to thine own self be true” in the lexicon of cultural idioms.

This has led to life as a perpetually exhausted pigeon, to quote the internet meme. I live by to-do lists and color-coded post-it notes, always with a brain churning and never at peace. I rarely live in any particular moment, unless that moment is a future one in which I dream of being a peace but make no real effort in the present to achieve that dream.

2016 was the year when that behavior was no longer laughable. I could no longer justify giggling slightly when I explained my schedule to people, could no longer laugh at how I didn’t remember when the last time I took a day off was. My brain, my soul, my body; they all conspired this year to throw my body in a spiritual autumn. This is not the time for lazy picnics, my soul whispered, this is not the time for frantic panic, this is the time for warmth and calm. This is the time for breathing in crisp air, and becoming comfortable with silence. This is the season of wrapping yourself in the love of those around you like a warm blanket and drawing strength to get you through the winter. This is the season of preparation, the season of harvest, the season of lengthening nights and growing dark. Behold, all things will be made new, but things have to die first.

Autumn is about preparations for death.

The forecasters are saying that winter will be brutal this year. Loads of snow and freezing temperatures. While there’s a romanticism in that (bring on the hot chocolates in front of fires, I say!), there’s also a threat. This winter will test us, it will batter us, it will be violent as it roots out signs of life, it will make us crave spring and new life and hope. The winter is coming and it will be hard. So start your preparations now, the weather people tell us. Stock up on canned goods and heated blankets. Make sure the insulation on your house is in order. Remember to check on neighbors and loved ones that they’re prepared, too.

In years past, I would busy myself with that last tip. I would make sure everyone else around me was okay before taking care of myself. I’d be the idiot on the airplane who would put the oxygen mask on everyone else before I clasped it over my mouth and nose, as though being a martyr is some sort of admirable goal. But this year, I learned that being brave is to listen to first bits of their advice.

The winter is coming, and it will be hard. Stock up your reserves, take space to prepare. Things will need to get uprooted, some of the habits and beliefs you’ve held dear will not survive what is coming. Make sure your soul is well insulated, because what is coming will take no prisoners. End the glorification of busy, as though busy means valuable and important. Instead, take honest stock of what you have, what you need, and what’s been given to you. Be thankful, be present, and be brave enough to breathe deep. Defy those who define you by activity, even yourself, and breathe deep.

Autumn is here, winter is coming, and bravery is required.


Author: kristen

msw, mdiv (baylor university): phd (queens university belfast) : researcher, social worker, human resource director: focus on intersection of gender and religion: wife, daughter, friend, banyan tree

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