I never tire of remembering that “courage” comes from French and Latin words for heart. We encourage each other to get out of our lonely, individualist heads and remember our hearts, which are so much bigger than we think.
This year, at a retreat on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, I had the honor of listening to Al Williams, a member of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, who first met and joined Martin Luther King Jr. when he was 14-years-old. He marched in the first March on Washington, and in 1963, he marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Williams was arrested 17 times during the civil rights movement, knocked unconscious, and thoroughly schooled in fear and overcoming fear.
On St. Simon’s Island, once a plantation island, the group of us linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Williams told us that they sang together as they marched to build courage. They took refuge in each other, sharing their vulnerability and fear. His affirmed what I learned from Andrew Young years ago: Martin Luther King Jr. knew he was not alone. He knew that others were with him and the truth was with him.
Another meaning of heart is the deepest truth—the essence or heart of the matter. Our own hearts are not just fist-sized muscles pumping blood (as crucial as this is). The heart is also our common humanity. It is the part of us that knows fear and courage, suffering and the overcoming of suffering.
Deep down most of us long for a greater life, free of the confines of our individualistic concerns. We long to be free of fear. It is astonishing to realize that we can begin the journey to our full humanity by turning the attention to the heart—literally feeling it in the chest. Know that our freedom begins with knowing that this beating, this contraction and expansion, is not ours alone. It is a gift that we share with all people. It takes courage to face fear and suffering—our own as well as others. But we can take refuge in the company of each other and all those who sought to wake up and live with dignity and humanity. Just by turning the attention to our beating hearts, we can begin to remember that life is with us. May every breath be a reminder that we belong to a truth that is greater than thought. We are not alone.