In a previous blog article (When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change) I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s contention that learning disabilities may in fact be what he called “desirable difficulties”. He contends that in spending a lifetime confronting and managing a learning disability, a skill set is forged which turns out to be a significant advantage when harnessed in the right way, potentially resulting in something extraordinary. I believe that one of the character traits forged during this process is the ability to function in the face of fear: courage.
Having courage is not the same thing as being fearless. In fact, appropriate fear plays a very important role in our survival. It would not be smart to ignore fear when we are faced with legitimate threats; it’s the thing that warns us that it’s time to fight or flee. Fear was indispensable to our ancestors confronted by sabre-toothed tigers and marauding enemy tribes. It wears different, less physically threatening faces in the modern age (often, it may in fact be False Evidence Appearing Real) but it still feels just as threatening and provokes the same instincts as it did in our ancestors. Courage is the thing that allows us to rise above the fear, to respond bravely when every instinct is telling us to run (or hide). Courage trumps fear, empowering us to meet challenges, stretch our limits, and find fulfillment in our lives.
It’s hard for me to use the word “courage” without thinking about one of my favourite movie characters, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. The interesting thing about the Cowardly Lion is that he was so focussed on his fears that he couldn’t see things as they truly were. In the beginning he is ashamed of being afraid, not understanding that true courage means taking action despite our fear (something he actually does frequently to protect his friends). In the end though, with a little help from the wizard, he is able to “change the way he looks at things” to recognize and accept his authentic, courageous self. He is finally led to the discovery that courage had been within him all along, and learns that you don’t have to be fearless to be brave.
So what does this have to do with learning disabilities? Just this: That school can be a scary proposition for a kid with a learning disability. Will I have to read aloud in front of the class? Will I be able to plan ahead and practice my passage so that I don’t screw it up? Am I going to blank out on the exam again, even though I studied hard and I know the material? Am I going to be bullied again today? Will I be called stupid or lazy or be laughed at in class? Why am I doing so poorly when I work so hard? And yet these kids get up each morning, marching bravely off to school to face whatever dragons may await them there. If we agree that courage is a kind of inner resolve, a resiliency that allows us to face scary circumstances head on, then let’s agree that these kids have it in spades.
It’s been said that courage doesn’t always roar; sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says “I’ll try again tomorrow”. That is what kids with learning disabilities do every day. But there comes a point for them when an even greater courage is required: The courage to acknowledge, accept, and embrace their learning disability in order to create the kind of life they want for themselves. I was reminded of this recently when a young woman arrived at our office to identify herself to us as a student with a learning disability, and to request accommodations. She explained that she’d had an IEP and received support throughout elementary school, but had decided to go without it in high school because she “didn’t want to deal with the label or the stigma”. She did reasonably well in high school with a lot of very hard work , and had hoped that trend could continue through university. It did not, which brought her to a realization that it was time to fully accept, confront, and manage her learning disability, and she is now well on her way to doing that. She readily admits that the prospect of that is scary, but she is ready to take it on…with courage.
I asked her what had ultimately spurred her decision to finally explore this aspect of herself without shame or embarrassment, and her answer was simple: “I was just tired of being afraid.” She went on to say that what she always had feared was being vulnerable in the face of other people’s judgement and rejection. She had always felt pressure to present her best possible self, and there was no place in that perception for anything resembling a flaw or an imperfection. It occurred to me as we spoke that we are all in the same boat, but that not all of us have the courage to deal with our issues the way this young woman was. Most of us do what we can to avoid confrontation with the “shadowy side” of our selves, but in finding the courage to learn about and accept all aspects of herself she felt lighter and truer and more authentic than she ever had.
Successful people with learning disabilities don’t get there by accident, and they don’t get there by denying who they are. And if it happens that who they are is in small part a person with a learning disability, then they go about learning what that means for them, and doing everything they can to understand and manage that aspect of the “self”. They don’t deny it. They don’t hide from it. They don’t run from it. They find the resolve to confront it and deal with it. It requires vulnerability, and self-acceptance, and authenticity, and…courage. And maybe that is one of the qualities that Gladwell is talking about as one of the positive side effects of living with “desirable difficulties”.
Author and lecturer Brene Brown had this to say about courage: “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word is ‘cor’, the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms the word ‘courage’ meant to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart. Over time this definition has changed, and today we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But…this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak openly and honestly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad”.
A Turkish proverb says that a lion sleeps in all of our hearts. Real courage is about connecting with who we truly are by entering our own hearts and awakening our inner lion. It’s about being authentic in the face of fear and vulnerability. It’s about accepting and loving ourselves (and one another) warts and all, which let’s face it, can be a messy business. But it’s the only way to live an authentic life, and it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.