“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7
This is Carnetta. She’s been a student of mine for about eight months. About thirty years ago she heard an oboe on the radio and immediately loved the sound. She decided right then and there: this was an instrument she would play one day. Soon after, she found a student model oboe and put it under her bed for safe-keeping. She got married and had children. She worked full-time as a high school Spanish teacher. She was busy, but her dream never died. Twenty-five years went by and the oboe stayed under the bed. Finally, she retired and decided to try lessons. Today she plays in a number of bands for seniors in and around Wilmington, and this Sunday she will participate in my studio class recital, playing repertoire that is very challenging, alongside my other students in middle school, high school and college. When I think about being brave, I think of Carnetta.
Bravery has been on my mind lately, as this week I finally got around to watching Brené Brown’s Netflix special about courage. I have been ruminating about her words ever since, wondering if I’m living my life “in the arena,” as she puts it. This idea, and the title of her book “Daring Greatly,” are drawn from a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Carnetta is living her life in the arena. The musical arena, which can be a particularly scary one. Something like learning an instrument does not have a clear winner or loser, like a boxing match. We find ourselves looking for accolades and other concrete confirmation that we are “good enough” in the most arbitrary places. Did you get accepted into a conservatory? Did you win the audition? Were you complimented by one of the greats? As if anybody who didn’t accomplish these things shouldn’t be allowed to play! Even in those moments where we musicians feel on top of the world, it is easy to immediately worry about the long way down. Because here’s the thing: it is only a matter of time before someone else enters the arena, someone that can play faster, more beautifully, more “perfect” than you. And Carnetta knows how she wants to sound—she heard it on the radio. There are days that she falls short of that, like we all do. And I know it can be so hard to keep going, to be brave in the face of fear of failure and embarrassment, to be the oldest student on the recital. And yet, she does keep going. Week after week, lesson after lesson, Carnetta stays in the arena. Can you tell I’m proud of her?
Without knowing it, just like Brené Brown, Carnetta calls me into my own arena too.
I had wanted to write a blog for a long time, but there were lots of things stopping me. I had so much respect for others who were doing the same: how could I contend with them? What did I have to say that anyone cared to read anyway? And talking about my faith was particularly scary: what if people disagree and are critical of me? What if they think less of me because I am a Christian? What if no one reads it? What if it’s derivative and lame? All these thoughts (and plenty that are much worse) race through my brain every week before I hit publish. And yet, on Thursdays when I see her, I would constantly tell Carnetta my own version of Roosevelt’s words: “It is much easier to be on the sidelines critiquing others than to be up there doing it yourself.” And inside of my own struggles, I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t read my blog, sometimes it is not brilliant or share-worthy, and sometimes people do criticize me on threads that make me want to make like Carnetta’s oboe and hide under the bed. But surprisingly, none of that has made me stop writing... yet. I’m still sitting here bravely typing away and finding great joy in being vulnerable in my writing, because, just like Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
The good news is that we are not alone inside our arenas. The scripture from Paul’s letter to Timothy at the top of this post reminds me: God made us with a spirit of bravery, not cowardice. Bravery, then, is in our DNA. But that is not all: we also get power, love and self-discipline, too...and boy, do we need it. Bravery without love and self-discipline would be ruthless and unwieldy. And of course there is no such thing as love without bravery. Truly loving anything means taking a risk. Finally, the self-discipline that God has given us helps when we are holding tightly to the ropes, longing to step out of the arena and give up. When the dream is under the bed, you do not have to muster your own strength to pull it out; all that you need is already within you. You are carrying the powerful spirit of God. You are made for bravery, love, self-discipline and, best of all, joy. All of that awaits you in the arena.
Oh, and if you are doing it right, you will fail, you will fall. It isn’t a maybe, it is for sure. But what’s the alternative? Brene Brown reminds us, “It can be hard [in the arena] but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Jesus knows something about finding his way out of the darkness, he knows something about being knocked down. His face was marred by dust, sweat and blood, too. When we follow him, he’ll lead us into the arena, where it can hurt, but that’s also where we will experience all that God has planned for our lives: it is there where we will live up to our greatest potential for joy, creativity, and love. You are not alone in your brave, scary place. Lo, he is with us always, even to the end of the age.
So, what’s under your bed? What’s keeping you on the sidelines? If it’s been twenty-five years since you thought about your dream, don’t worry, it is never too late to be brave. Come join us inside the arena, you’ll be in good company. I’m learning that #daringgreatly is not only trending, it is God’s will for our lives.