The Spiritual Discipline of Courage

Today's UPI column

So There I was...

teaching trauma healing to my first group of African Students. They were women and men, old and young, Catholic and Quaker, highly or barely educated. The one thing they had in common was a deep desire to learn how to bring healing from the horror that was all around them in a country that had survived ten years of war and genocide.

I had the latest theory and methods on treating Post-traumatic Stress disorder in my back pocket. I was an experienced teacher. And I had not one word of language in common with them. I was to teach six hours a day, five days a week for two weeks. I thought I was brave to come all this way and give it a try.

I was assigned a team of translators. I worked them so hard that I used them in tag team fashion. Kirundi is not a language conducive to psychobabble, so I was working at simplifying my language, and I tried to jettison the jargon unless it was critical. Yet my translator would often hold up a hand to stop me and there would be an animated discussion in Kirundi and sometimes French until they coined a new word – at which point my translator would say “Voila!” and we would proceed. We had one aid decamp assigned to write these words down and we generated a Kirundi glossary of psychological terms. I felt very successful.

Our second morning, there was what my Burundian friends euphemistically call “activity” outside the compound. All I heard was a small thump and a tapping noise – I thought someone was moving furniture and hanging pictures until I noticed that every one of my 14 students had a stiff body, glazed eyes and did not appear to be breathing. A few seconds of silence later my translator whispered “Mambo Sawa” (Kiswahili for things are ok) and as one, they shuddered and came back to the here and now. It turns out that the noise I heard was a hand grenade and some automatic rifle fire, at a not far enough distance. That was when I decided to administer a PTSD checklist to my students and found out that all my healers were in need of healing.

The third morning I was relaxing enough to start noticing details about individual students. Jerson had only one ear. At break I put my hand to his head and made universal female clucking sounds of sympathy. “Machete” said Jerson with a smile on his face.

Ernest had one hand in a large bandage. I noticed something else about Ernest. He often started taking notes in the space between my speaking and the translator’s. I suspected he had more English than he was letting on. I was sure of it when I made a lame attempt at a joke, and he laughed at the tag of my punch line, and all the other students looked at him and then looked expectantly at the translator for their funny.

At lunch I got him aside without and intermediary and said “Ernest, you are such a bright student – where did you get your English?”

He looked at me. Sized me up yet again. Made a decision. And then, out came the story of Ernest Toyi, Greatheart.

Ernest hailed from the town of Makamba, almost on the border of Tanzania. Several long, awful, bus rides from the capital. He was always a studious child, eager for learning. He got a start on English in secondary school, but the war interrupted his studies. His town was squarely in the middle of Rebel control. Life was hard.

The rebels were suspicious of education and extremely suspicious of outsiders. Ernest had a long-standing habit of attempting to speak with anyone who had English, in order to improve his own.

He came to the attention of the local leaders for doing just that, speaking English to someone from the outside. They hauled him in and interrogated him, when that produced nothing they tortured him by bending his thumbs back and burning him between his fingers with a cigarette. This also got them nothing, so they tossed him in the street and figured they had taught him a lesson.

Ernest bandaged his hand and a few days later he met with someone from the local Trauma Healing Center. They recognized promise in Ernest and recommended him for the classes that were about to be held in the capital. And so Ernest the Brave and his tortured hand left to go and learn from an English-speaking teacher in the enemy capital.

Ernest was my best student of that batch. He studied at night and asked me tough questions by day. He was curious, skeptical and eager. When we finished, the director of the Trauma Healing Organization asked me whom I thought he should hire for the Makamba center. I had no trouble nominating Ernest.

Ernest the Courageous went back to rebel-held Makamba. He worked to heal others. His courage, giftedness and diligence did not go unnoticed. When the war was over he ran for local office and was eventually elected Chief of Zone – something like Mayor of Makamba. I have every reason to hope and believe that they do not torture people there on the watch of Ernest Toyi.

Thus did I learn the Spiritual Discipline of Courage from one of its masters. Courage knows fear and walks right through it. Courage is friends with hard work. Courage has a purpose that reckless and thrill-seeking will never know. Courage does not step out from great riches to risk the tithe. Courage pays the price upfront with a promise made from faith and hope. Courage walks the path of righteousness and counts on the vouchsafe of God. Courage counts the coup before the battle begins, and accepts its own wounds as the proof of honor. Courage can never be foresworn.

I pray that someday, I be honored enough of God to be given the chance to be courageous. I pray that the teacher is worthy of her student.

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