When Courage Comes Up Short

For this story, there were four important things.

There was my mother, a man, and his dog. And what the dog left on the sidewalk.

My mother had come to visit me. She had a suitcase behind her and a hill in front of her. She didn’t want help. She could do it alone just fine. And she would.

As we came up the hill, a man ahead was doing business on his phone. His dog had just finished doing business on the sidewalk. And the man was walking away.

“Hey!” my mother called up to him. She was out of breath and sweaty. “Clean up your dog’s stuff.”

The man stopped.

“What?” He turned slowly to look down at us from the top of the hill. He was in his early forties, dressed for a job in a tall building.

“Your dog’s stuff is on the sidewalk,” my mother said. “Someone could step in it.”

“Sorry.” The man was unapologetic. “I didn’t realize it.”

“I know. That’s why I said something.” I watched my mother’s old vest rise and fall with her breath as she looked up at him.

“I didn’t like the way you said it.” His tone was gathering importance. “You made it sound like I wasn’t going to clean it up.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that.” She shifted her feet to regain balance. “I just wanted you to know.”

“Yeah? Well.” His voice was cool. “You made it sound like I didn’t care. You made it sound like I wasn’t going to.”

“I didn’t mean that. I didn’t mean that at all. I’m sorry.” My mother’s voice was clear, earnest.

The man looked at us. And then walked past us with a plastic bag.

I am not one of the important things in this story.

Because I did nothing. I watched. And I hoped it would be over soon.

I stood by while a man berated my mother. My mother who I know is a bigger person than he is.

In that moment, that man and I were the same small size. On the same small team. He covered his embarrassment with defensiveness. And I covered my spine with fearfulness.

I think I’m brave. That I stand up for what matters. Then this happens and I think, “Whelan, your bark is bigger than your bite. When it mattered, you were nowhere to be found.”

Martha Graham spent her 96 years redefining what mattered. The mother of modern dance thought of life this way:

“You are unique and so am I. If you do not fulfill that uniqueness, it is lost to the world. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, you must pay your debts to the life that has been permitted you. And to do it with as much courage as possible.”

We all have moments when we don’t pay our debts. When we shrink in fear, anger, or jealousy, rather than rise in courage.

It’s tempting to think these moments reveal our true colors. But that is typecasting ourselves in a part too easily played. A part that demands no growth. A part that will be forever indebted to the life we’ve been permitted.

Or, we can look at these moments head-on and admit:

I punched below my weight. I’ve got more in me to give than that. And no matter how uncomfortable, I’m going to find it. And I’m going to give it.

I’m no master. I’ve got plenty of debts to my name. But I know we can climb the hill. We can try to rise.

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