Poetry that sustains courage

Photo by Jonathan Martin-DeMoor

I came across a two-line poem today, in an anthology I don’t remember requesting from the library (it seems strange that I should have requested it, but here it is: Leading from within: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Lead, Eds. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner). The poem encapsulates something I want to consider in more depth. Here is how the poem goes:


The entire world is a very narrow bridge

The entire world is a very narrow bridge.

The essential thing is to have no fear at all.

-Reb Nachman


Now, perhaps for you this poem is not especially fear-inspiring. But for me, that’s precisely what it is: equal parts fear and inspiration. I’m terrified of heights, actually, despite being married to someone who has tried earnestly for more than a decade to increase my zone of comfort when it comes to heights (or at least to nudge me firmly into the “zone of proximal development”). Our little family went to Jasper for New Year’s this year, and I said to my partner, Please, not Maligne Canyon or Athabasca Falls this time, and please no middles of lakes. Because, yes, I’m also afraid of falling through the ice. And normally I make an effort. But this time, thinking of our last excursion, the adrenaline shuddering its way through my system for hours afterwards, I didn’t want to. I’m in no mood for the sublime, I said.

So I spent the morning of the first day of 2013 standing on the ice at the edge of Pyramid Lake watching my kids smash snowballs on a protruding rock and getting nervous when my daughter ventured too far out. I don’t think fear, unlike the other emotions , responds all that well to being noticed–or maybe it’s the kind of attention that makes the difference. In any case, I looked up at the top of Pyramid mountain–my partner had climbed to the top with his dad a year or so before we’d met–and I quietly admitted to myself I’d never get brave enough to climb it. Some cross-country skiers stopped to take our picture. I watched them glide away into the distance and thought how beautiful it would be to head off across the lake like that, and how terrifying. No, I’d never do that either.

Thing is, Nachman’s poem makes me want to change my mind. To find my way, if not to the top of Pyramid mountain, at least to the other side of that lake. The other side of all that fear–not just the idiosyncratic phobias but the larger existential wounds the minor fears tug on.

Though perhaps the point is not to get “to the other side” at all, but simply to glide out into it, like the skiers. To set out across the lake, or up the side of the mountain, or onto the narrow bridge, or wherever we want and don’t want to go. Because, God, this world is way more than beautiful: it’s bracingly sublime.

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