By Kathy Berken
I took off my wig in the middle of a talk I gave on “Surrendering into Grace” a few weeks ago. The moment was somewhat surreal for me because, although I’ve been bald since earlier this spring after the effects of the chemo set in, I have not just pulled off my wig in public in front of dozens of people in a chapel on a retreat.
When we introduced ourselves the evening before, I mentioned taking a medical leave for cancer. I said I brought some caps along if this wig became too uncomfortable. Yet it was only a few minutes before I gave my talk that I decided removing my wig to reveal my bald head was appropriate and hopefully meaningful.
Halfway through I mentioned the recent death of my dear friend Lee, how supportive he had been and how I had surrendered myself to God in my grieving. I wanted to honor Lee and so I packed the pink baseball cap he gave me, thinking I’d wear it at meals or on breaks. Instead, I brought it to the chapel and set it on the lectern. I told the group that a good way to honor his memory right now was to put on his cap, but I wanted to take off my wig to do so.
I put my hand on top of my head and lifted the wig right off. It felt great because after wearing it for eight hours my head was itching and hot. As soon as I felt the cool air on my head, I suddenly fell silent. One woman began to clap. Then the whole church was clapping. Wow. I smiled and said, “You’re okay with this, then?” “You look great!” somebody shouted. I put on Lee’s pink cap and then immediately removed it because the brim felt like a barrier. I continued with my talk, feeling liberated, accepted and peaceful.
Later, several retreatants told me how courageous I was. I thanked them but, honestly, I didn’t feel courageous. I was nervous about doing it, but decided it was going to be all right.
Talk of courage reminds me of Mary’s “Fiat” — and how brave she was to say “yes” to becoming the mother of God. Which also reminds me of a recent story about a soldier who was awarded for rescuing several members of her unit. She didn’t think she was courageous either, but that she was just doing her job.
In this quote by Henri Nouwen, you can easily exchange the word “courage” for the word “compassion.” “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Courage, then, is a challenge to replace fear with positive action. “Courage” — derived from the Latin for “heart” – fits with Mary’s “Fiat.” Through her fear, she acted from her heart to agree to become the Mother of God. Soldiers in a war zone who rescue others certainly have fear in their hearts but they push through and do the good anyway. I wanted to honor my friend Lee and to be authentic, even in fear of what judgments someone might make about me. My heart was definitely in it.
Fear is what people feel in tough situations. Courage is what others witness when, despite the fear — that four-letter word — we see them doing something good, something heartfelt.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)