The Courage To Be
Updated: Jun 16
The title of this blog is taken from a book published by Paul Tillich in 1952. At its broadest level, it's saying that we need courage to become. This immediately poses the question - the courage to become what? The implication is that we need courage to become someone or something. Alcoholics need a special kind of courage to turn their lives around in recovery treatment. In my own case, I needed courage to seek help and stay sober.
It might sound surprising to say that we need courage to become someone. But we all have fears or insecurities in our lives, or circumstances in our backgrounds that need to be overcome if we want to become the person we’d truly like to be. We are held back by ourselves because sometimes it’s easier or more comfortable to stick with the status quo. Recovery treatment requires resilience and courage.
Philosophers talk about being and becoming. Being, the universe of which we are a very small but significant part is not static. It is in process, continuously changing and evolving. We as individual human beings are on a journey in relation to others and the world around us. We are all in the process of becoming human persons on a shared journey, however flawed some might be, such as alcoholics struggling to turn their lives around.
Travelling along this path, having the courage to be implies, for some, what is called an existentialist philosophy. At the risk of over-simplifying, this approach to life entails seeking to become whatever you want to be. It suggests that the alcoholic, or anybody else for that matter, can take the initiative in turning his life around through self-invention and self-assertion. We just need to grasp the moment or, better still, create the opportunities to become whoever we want to be.
But this approach to life is not as easy as it sounds. It suggests that we as individual human subjects are always masters of our own destiny. This might contain some element of truth but in reality we face objective constraints. We can't deny our education and background. At the most basic, we can’t deny our genes. We can't deny our frailty as human beings when faced with choices about how to lead our lives. There are some things that we can control and there are other things that we cannot control. What we need is the wisdom is to know the difference.
Instead, we can interpret our task as having the courage to ‘come out’ as human persons. We need to find our true selves in relation to others and the world around us. Why should this take courage for anybody but especially for alcoholics and those suffering from other addictions?
In his book, Tillich identifies three major forms of anxiety that characterise the human condition. The first relates to a sense of being at the mercy of events that we cannot control including, ultimately, our own demise. Also, arguably, this gives rise to what psychologists call “catastrophising”, meaning a tendency to believe things will always go wrong. The second shows itself as a form of guilt or remorse because we lack self-worth and believe we are not capable of doing what we ought to do. The third form of anxiety is perhaps more existential and relates to an inability to find meaning and purpose in life.
The alcoholic is full of fear and anxiety. I felt genuine fear because the panic attacks brought on by repeated bingeing were harming my life and for a very long period of time I was unable to see a way out. There were times when it was hard to leave the house, meet friends, or go to work. In both major episodic breakdowns during my cycles of drinking it took roughly three years to restore stability but the memory of what happened very much stays with me.
When I listen to the stories of other alcoholics, or read their narratives, I see courage. It takes courage simply to attend meetings of what we call mutual help groups. As I can attest from years of speaking at business conferences and teaching, it takes courage to stand up and speak in front of other people. We’ve all witnessed nervous public speakers. Many famous actors have encountered “stage fright”. Imagine how much more courage it takes to tell your own personal story of alcoholism in front of others.
It takes courage for anybody to acknowledge to others that they are addicted to a “substance use disorder”. That’s partly because addiction is stigmatised in the public sphere. It takes courage to acknowledge to others that you are struggling and relapsing on the path to recovery. It takes courage to ask for help. That is because it’s an acknowledgement of weakness and an admission that you can’t get better on your own.
The alcoholic retreats into self-isolation. It takes courage to come out and be part of human interaction in society. You don't have to pretend to be something that you are not. You are responsible, you make choices, but you don't have to hide away. You don't have to feel shame because you show human frailty in one particular form. The whole point of our common shared journey in the process of becoming is that none of us are perfect.
Being and becoming is about having the courage to be someone. It is about having the courage to become a real human being, with all of what that entails, finding meaning and purpose in life. This does not mean becoming self-centred. It means the opposite. It means you find your true self in relation to others.
Alcoholics are shrouded in fear. They need to ask for the forgiveness of others but they also need to forgive themselves. They need the humility to recognise that they need help from beyond themselves. Alcoholics entering recovery might be surprised to hear that they are admired for having the courage to seek help. They are admired for setting the example of a life turned around in commitment to sobriety.
This takes a special form of courage - the courage to be.