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Courage II - Letter Photography

“What good are wings without the courage to fly?”

These words may sound like a modern tagline for an adventure travel company, but it is credited to a man who lived in the second century A.D. by the name of Atticus, and in nine words he condenses an abundance of ideas on the subject of courage.

Courage 1 was so popular that i thought it was time to embark on a new journey in opposite colours from the previous design. Here it is, along with some of my notes.

C – Lighthouse, Knysna Heads, South Africa

Blustery days often create excellent days for photos. The brooding clouds provide dramatic backdrops, or even turn into the subject for the photos. Bad weather also keeps many people inside, which means it’s easier to take some pictures. (Anyone who’s ever attempted to get to the front of the pack to take a picture of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre will know what I mean.) On the day we visited the Knysna Heads for this photo, the weather created this exceptional opportunity to take a monochrome picture. And even though it’s been in my collection for many years, this is the first time i've used the photo. Lighthouses are of course all about courage. This one may stand high above the water, but often lighthouses are often exposed to the worst that maritime conditions could offer. It’s situated at places where ships can expect to encounter dangerous conditions. Sometimes the lighthouse itself is situated on a lone rock or tiny peninsula jutting into the ocean. Its purpose is to warn ocean vessels of hazardous coastlines, shallow sand banks and reefs, but also to guide them into safe harbours.

Some people are lighthouses to others in the same way, willing to stand in difficult places and weather harsh circumstances so that others may benefit from their courage. Corrie ten Boom and her family comes to mind here. They were willing to face many trials in order to bring others to safety.

O – Ceiling, Haarlem, The Netherlands

This ceiling decoration is delicately illuminated by natural light. Something that struck us in the Netherlands is the wide open windows of homes located right on the street. In residential neighbourhoods it’s the norm to walk along the pavement and look right into the hearts of privates homes. It feels like you’re glancing through a shop window, and while these spaces are usually elegantly decorated, it’s striking that nothing is being sold here. Of course, the purpose of the wide open windows is not to allow complete strangers to gawk at the inside of your house. No, the purpose of the wide open windows is to allow natural light to brighten up the spaces where families live, but in order to achieve that, they have to be reconciled to the fact that complete strangers will be able to see those intimate spaces. That to me is one of the characteristics of courage: allowing others to see you for who you truly are.

U – Niche, Kimberley, South Africa

This unassuming architectural detail in a wall somewhere in the heart of the city provides shelter for a family of sparrows. Sparrows may be the most ordinary inspirations to courage. They are common in many parts of the world. They are small creatures, vulnerable to many hazards in life, and yet they go about unperturbed by the weight of fears each day. They remind of the lesson Jesus taught his students, when He said that two sparrows are sold for a penny, but not even one of them perishes without God’s decree. Then He encouraged them with the fact that they are worth far more than sparrows. In difficult circumstances this lesson has given me a quiet resolve to continue with whatever seemed impossible for me to accomplish that day.

R – Tree graffiti, Nature’s Valley, South Africa

In Afrikaans there is an idiom that teaches the folly of leaving your mark on things that were not meant to write on: “Gekke en dwase skryf op mure en glase.” It could be translated to “Crazy people and fools write on walls and windows.” This is not a campaign against graffiti artists who practise their art on places where they have permission to do so. Rather, it’s a charge against vandals; people who feel the need to put their mark on something that doesn’t belong to them. It’s fairly certain that the tree which bears this mark did not belong to the person who decided to carve a scar into its bark, yet it teaches a lesson in courage. You see, that mark says so much about the one who carved it into the tree, as it is in life. Many times people scar each other with the way they speak to or about other people. Their words and actions carve deep and clearly visible wounds into the hearts and lives of others. And it shows their own insecurities and wounds clearly to all around them. Of course their targets are hurt by this, but courage may be exhibited by those who choose not to become a victim of their persecutor. Much are to be learned from the person who don’t believe others when they tell him that he or she can’t accomplish something, that he or she is not good enough in some way, that he or she won’t amount to anything. Such people teaches the rest of us that who we truly are can’t be defined by others, but only by ourselves. The accuser tells us about himself more than about the one he’s accusing; likewise, the accused tells us who he is by his own actions.

A – Church Tower, Ladismith, South Africa

In this church in Ladismith, CJ Langenhoven was christened as a baby. Despite his many human imperfections, courage is a recurring theme in his life story. He was born only hours after his older brother died in a fire, and five days later his mother died as well. He was raised on a farm in this district in the care of his aunt and uncle after his mother died, and even though his father was still alive, he regarded them as his parents. He wore many hats during his life: student, journalist, attorney, husband, novelist, advocate, poet, politician and satirist. But his most lasting contribution to history was his advocacy for Afrikaans as a national language. He had courage to speak up for a so-called “kitchen language” when it wasn’t a popular cause, and was instrumental in establishing my mother tongue in South Africa. Even though his life testifies of many other instances of courage, his advancement of the use of Afrikaans in the public and private spheres of society is the most well-known.

G – Wrought Iron Fence, Big Hole, South Africa

For 43 years around 50,000 men dug up 22 million tons of earth to get to 2.7 tons of diamonds. They worked in hazardous conditions and harsh weather. They lived in squalid tenements and didn’t have access to enough water and nutritious food. Some of them were motivated by greed, but most of them were motivated by the need to provide a means of living to their loved ones. They are part of the group of people throughout history who sacrifice what they know for the unknown in order to give those they love something they would not otherwise have had. Humanity owes much to these folks, among which Liviu Librescu, Corrie ten Boom and her family, the Chernobyl Three, the elderly Fukushima volunteers, and many more remind us that the courage to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others is one of the most admirable options available to all of us in this life.

E – Train Station, Lausanne, Switzerland

Lausanne hosts the headquarters of the Olympics, which offers countless examples of courage. Luz Long, the young German athlete who befriended Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics right under Hitler’s nose, is one of the less publicized characters of the Olympic story, yet he personifies the moderate men and women present in any totalitarian country.

Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three Olympic Gold medals in a single Olympic Games. That’s not the most remarkable part of her story, though. What truly sets her apart is the fact that she overcame childhood polio and defied the opinions of doctors who claimed that she would never be able to walk normally. But with determination and the loving care of her family, she closed that chapter of her life by age 12 and a mere four years later she represented her country at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. At the age of 20 she won Olympic gold medals in the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints, as well as the 4 x 100 meter relay, and to this day she is a role model for many female athletes.

An then there is Louis Zamperini, the man who participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, served in World War II, was captured and tortured, and lived not only to tell the tale, but to forgive his oppressors and reconcile with many of them.

The Olympic Capital offers more than Olympics, but its Olympic character offers much in the way of courage for all of us to follow.

• • • • • • •

Then there’s the most unusual form of courage i've come across. That-Man-Whose-Advice-Is-Not-Too-Shabby taught me about this, and i have to confess that i'm a terrible student in this matter. The lesson is this: Sometimes you have to have the courage to only fight the battles that matter. All of us face challenges of every shape and form every single day of our lives. That-Man taught me that some of these are worth fighting, but that fighting everything merely distracts you and drains your resources and energy, which should be spent fighting the important battles. It’s not easy, of course, to let some minor issues slide, but in the end, it pays off when you need to be fighting fit for the truly important matters.

Courage comes in many shapes and forms. There is the courage required of some ordinary people in extraordinary situations like war, when they literally lay down their lives for the sake of others, but for most of us, courage comes in small, ordinary, everyday situations.

There’s the courage of the timid young girl who are bullied for some silly reason at school, who decides to go back every day despite the harsh words and unkind actions that she knows she’ll encounter there. There is the courage some people display when they decide to follow their own convictions rather than the opinions of everyone around them; and the courage to push through a difficult situation until you achieve a breakthrough. There is the courage to speak out against injustice and unfairness, even when your opinion is not popular among your audience; and the courage to suffer injustice with dignity. Courage could mean being willing to turn your life upside down and letting go of everything that is familiar to you in order to achieve something meaningful in a new situation. Courage could require us to stop imitating others and just be ourselves. It could mean letting go of something that we had cherished for a long time, or being prepared to share our true selves openly and unwaveringly with others. Courage has many faces.

In life we are all given countless opportunities to spread our wings and fly, but it requires us to have the courage that our wings would actually do what they were designed to do. It requires us to take the plunge and believe that the One who made us has enabled us to live lives of courage.

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