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Finding My Quiet Courage

Kathy LeMay


Synopsis: Raising Change CEO, Kathy LeMay shares her story of rediscovering her courage. It took her places she couldn't have imagined.

Sept. 18, 2018 — 

What does it look like to live a courageous life? We often think of bravery, fearlessness, and going it alone. What if courage is not what we were told? 


“Courage can be regenerated in solitude, but rarely in isolation.”

A week ago this morning, I woke up and I couldn’t quite breathe. My breath was shallow and thin. I wasn’t sick. I didn’t have a summer cold. But I couldn’t fully breathe. My chest felt as though it had been filled with weighted, wet cement. I wasn’t surprised. The signs and indicators had been there for months. I thought I had outrun them. How about the hubris of imagining you can outrun loss and grief? I held court, convinced I outmaneuvered, outwitted, and dodged pain. I even smiled one day thinking that I had successfully sidestepped compounded losses. I knew. Of course, I knew. Yet, lying there on my bed not able to move my body or limbs, my mind which had so often been my source of liberation, fought the grief that had arrived at my doorstep and let itself in. 

“Wait”, I thought, “I’ve always been strong, capable, competent. Shouldn’t that protect me from despair? I’ve built a full, productive, purposeful life. Wasn’t that enough? I laid there trying to find a deeper breath, trying to find my resilience, trying to locate my courage. “Get up, Kath.” I couldn’t. The only thing I could feel was relentless surges of loss. I felt angry at myself, at what I perceived to be a petulant self-indulgence. I didn’t want to feel what I knew it was time to feel. Running through my head were the words of Joan Didion, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”, and C.S. Lewis who wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” 

Quietly inside my mind I whispered words I don’t remember having said before in my life: “I am scared.” This doesn’t mean I haven’t felt scared. I have. The only difference was on this steaming hot August morning I admitted it to myself, for the first time. Quietly, then aloud. Saying those words, in that moment I thought I had lost my courage. I didn’t realize that by admitting that I felt broken, I had finally found it. 

As a first-generation American there are words that define your life: resiliency, strength, and fearlessness. There are also words that do not make an appearance: fear, despair, grief. Not for a lack of caring or compassion but for survival’s sake.  For years these words and the ideas they contained within them shaped who we were and who we believed we couldn’t be. Finnish people are a tough stock. Finnish women are even tougher. My great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother carried the weight of the world on their shoulders. They had what the Finns called ‘sisu’. Toughness, courage, pride, strength. The family folklore filled with stories of independent women who never needed to lean or ask for help. This definition of courage was handed down, the only family heirloom. I embedded it within me. It served me well until the world began to change and then it no longer did. 

The losses I felt a week ago this morning were personal, political, and global. They were the despair I carry from my own experiences in the world, traumas I endured and survived, that most days I choose to forget. It’s harder now to forget them. Maybe its getting older or watching my 7 year old nephew and realizing how small and young 7 years old is. Maybe its the state of our world asking us to break down what is and in its place build what could be. Perhaps its all of them. Perhaps its no longer hoping to forget but instead pulling your life’s memories and the realities of the world around you into your chest until you can find your breath again. 

Lying there a week ago this morning, I kept trying to find my sisu, my strength, my first generation-ness, my courage. It wouldn’t be until I was flying here to be with each of you that I suddenly understood what courage was trying to show me that morning. It wouldn’t be until I was fully buckled in to seat 15C and ascending to 30,000 feet far away from the earth below me, that I would understand that a week ago this morning I lived one of my most courageous moments yet.  

Lying there, I felt what I had thought I could outrun: all the deaths, all the goodbyes, all the sorrows, all the mistakes I’ve made, all that I witnessed in Bosnia during the war, all the hands I held of my friends while they died of AIDS, all the children I met who did not have enough food or water, all the animals I’ve seen living in unthinkable conditions, and giving everything I felt capable of giving and wondering “was it enough? did it help? Was I enough?”. 

I don’t think I’ll ever know fully why a week ago today I came face first with my grief and fear and my notions of courage. I’m not sure I need to. Here is what I do know: 

For me courage has always been about being powerful. For months I’ve read the title of this Summit “The Power of Courage”. I linked those two words as if they were one. And of course they’re not. If for the first part of my life courage was about going it alone, fending off grief, walking solo, in this next season, my courage will embrace grief, tears, and leaning. Courage for me will rooted in a deep an abiding sense of love.

My courage that morning began to shape shift. I had asked too much of it these years without refueling it. It needed to incubate, re-group, re-discover itself. It needed to redefine its edges, its layers, its purpose. For the past few months with many losses I had been convinced I was stumbling, falling down, failing. I hadn’t realized my courage was helping me to heal and readying me for all I will do next. “I won’t be long”, it said, “try not to go completely haywire while I’m rebuilding.” Dear courage, while you were regrouping, I went a little haywire. I have a few messes I need to clean up. 

Each of us in this room possesses deep wells of courage that ebb and flow and shift over time, responding to our lives and to our changing world. We call upon it every day, even when we’re not aware we have. We call upon it when we walk into a room and feel intimidated, when we use our voice to stand for a cause we care about or to stand for ourselves. We call upon when we have to have a difficult conversation, when we write a check size we’ve not written before, when we say ‘I am taking a stand.’ 

We ask a lot of it. How then does our courage get restored? Here is what I have learned about my courage, what I learned listening to the members yesterday at Member Day, and what I have learned from so many of you over the years. Courage can be regenerated in solitude, but rarely in isolation. It can be found again in quiet kindness, but rarely in aggressive noise. It can of course be found when you are alone. But for it to restore, rebuild, and to endure, courage thrives in community. Knowing that I was flying here to be with you moved me from despair to possibility. I knew I would soon be in the room with caring, loving people who would show me compassionate courage in action. I felt it at member day yesterday and fell asleep last night with less grief than I have in months. Courages soars in community. And for the next two days you will hear from activists, leaders, philanthropists, and change agents about their courage, their fears, their hopes, their aspirations, their devotion to social change. They will share the roads they have traveled that have brought them to this room at this time in the world. 

What does courage look like for you? What has it looked like? What does it need to be for you to heal your heart and to help heal the world? 

Radically listen for the next few days, to the speakers and to one another. Talk to each other. Share your fears and hopes. Talk about your courage. Ask for support. Know that this is your community. We’re all rooting for you. You’re not alone. And if you wake up one morning and can’t find your breath and your limbs seem to fail you, remember your courage- which this community has witnessed- is right there, shaping itself to support the you you’re about to become.

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