The courage to do nothing

Last updated 05:00 25/12/2012
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BACK TO BASICS: Finding the courage to care.

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Being courageous doesn't always mean taking action. In fact, courage can be found in what we choose not to do.

A growing number of people are taking the word back to its roots and pointing out that it isn't necessarily about action in the face of fear so much as openness in the face of fear. And this kind of courage can unfold in the most common of circumstances.

Take Benny Callahan. At a Shine Sydney event two weeks ago, the social entrepreneur spoke about having the courage to care. After thinking about the word and its association with taking action, he had come to the conclusion that sometimes courage means "sitting on my arse and doing nothing".

As an Outward Bound leader, putting school pupils through their paces in the great outdoors, he was once lumped with a pupil who, the teacher warned him, was a "gang leader". He chose not to ask the pupil's name because he didn't want to "take on [the teacher's] prejudice", but it quickly became apparent - the strong character of one boy stood out.

It would have been easy to jump to conclusions, but Benny chose to stand back and observe. The boy, he discovered, was a natural leader. He would reach each destination ahead of the group and trot back to carry the stragglers' bags.

One night around the campfire, the boy approached Benny to ask what he was doing. "Writing poetry," Benny replied. "What's that?" the boy asked.

He explained and, not long after, the boy handed him some scribblings. Poems, Benny said, that were nothing short of beautiful. The boy had revealed a side of himself beyond the teacher's pigeonholed version.

And all Benny had done was something simple but powerful: while "sitting on his arse", he had stayed open.

The second, more recent, occasion was shortly after Benny had moved to a part of Sydney that he didn't like. Domestic abuse and petty crime were rife. It made him want to put on the blinkers every time he walked out the door. But, he decided he didn't want to turn into a closed, disengaged person, and so he marched out one day determined to stay "open".

He passed a crying girl and stopped to ask if she was OK. She wasn't, so he handed her his hanky and sat down beside her. He had no idea what to do other than to be there, with her, on the footpath. Her mother eventually arrived and the girl thanked him. For what, he wondered. He hadn't done anything.

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But, in her renowned Ted talk on the power of vulnerability, Brene Brown reminds us the origin of the word courage comes from the latin, "cor", meaning heart. When the word entered the English language, she said, its original definition "was to tell the story of who you are with your full heart".

If courage, as distinct from bravery, is seen in this way, it is about keeping your heart open to others. It is not always coming up with a solution or jumping into action.

It is an idea authority on sustainable economic development, Ernesto Sirolli explored in this recent talk, titled Want to help someone? Shut up and listen.

Having spent more than 40 years as an aid worker, helping communities to establish projects that facilitate development, he says he has learned to "get away from patronising bullshit where we arrive and tell [someone] what to do... I do something very, very difficult. I shut up and listen to them".

In simply having the courage to be quiet and listen, he has helped to start 40,000 sustainable businesses in 300 communities around world.

He points out that success starts with supporting each other.

"In the first two pages of Richard Branson's autobiography... [he never uses the word] 'I' [but uses] the word 'we' 32 times," he says.

"He wasn't alone when he started."

If success starts with supporting each other, supporting each other often starts with having the courage, the openness of heart and mind, to simply sit and listen without judgement.

- Sydney Morning Herald


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