The following passage–about what can happen when we decide to stay–begins chapter two of How We Learn to Be Brave by Bishop Mariann.
Ian Bedloe is the seventeen-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler’s 1991 novel, Saint Maybe. He blames himself for the apparent suicide death of his older brother, Danny, and subsequent family tragedies. One evening, as he wanders the streets of his home city of Baltimore, Ian sees a neon sign in a storefront window, “Church of the Second Chance.” He takes his place among a small group of wounded souls, and he hears himself telling them of his brother’s death and of his guilt. The minister, Reverend Emmett, a kind yet spiritually uncompromising young man, assures Ian that forgiveness is possible, provided that he atones for his sins. So Ian decides to drop out of school and take a menial job to help provide for his brother’s children. Years go by as he goes to work each day, cares for his family, and is a faithful member of the church. Still, the forgiveness that he longs for eludes him, and he begins to question the choices he has made.
Sensing that Ian is troubled, Reverend Emmett offers to walk him home from church one Sunday afternoon. As they walk, all of Ian’s frustrations pour out of him. “I feel like I’m wasting my life!” he cries. Reverend Emmett stops and turns to look directly into Ian’s eyes. “This is your life,” he says softly. “Lean into it. View your burden as a gift. It’s the theme that has been given you to work with. This is the only life you’ll have.”
Given the drama, adrenaline, and outward energy involved in deciding to go, staying put can feel like being trapped. Yet the decision to stay also can be brave and consequential. Making that choice, particularly when there are compelling reasons to leave, involves a similar internal struggle and building sense of crisis, leading to a decisive moment, as strong as the decision to go. But there the similarity ends, for in deciding to stay, we choose to go deeper into the life we already have.
Because the call to go is rightfully associated with the adventurous side of courage, choosing to stay can appear as if we are settling for less. Yet depth, which is the fruit of stability, is essential to a mature life and our capacity to make a lasting difference in the lives of others. In choosing to stay, we acknowledge that there is more at stake than what we feel or want. We learn that there is more than one way to live a brave life and that some of the most courageous decisions we make are ones that no one sees.
I first read Saint Maybe at a time when I, not much older than Ian, was struggling with what it meant to stay in my own life. Reverend Emmett’s words to Ian felt like God’s words to me: “This is your life. Stay where you are.” Until then, my life had been largely defined by going—moving from one place to the next, stepping out of one world and into another, learning to be brave in face of the unknown. Now I was in my early thirties, married, with a three-year-old and a newborn, working full-time at a job that I was supposed to love. I did love it much of the time, and I loved much of my life, which made it hard to acknowledge or talk about how I felt. Driving the streets of Toledo, Ohio, I would sing along with a Nanci Griffith song playing on the radio. I’m working on a morning flight to anywhere but here, wishing it were true.
I see now that my internal struggle was a call to accept and experience the gift and the cost of stability. It has been a recurring theme, whenever I wrestle with the call to stay. I’ve had to learn, time and again, that faithfulness isn’t always about taking big leaps, but also walking with small steps, and that it’s possible to make a lasting difference in the world by tending to one small corner of it.
A foreshadow of this realization came in our first year of marriage, which my husband, Paul, and I spent in Honduras, working in a school for impoverished children. Initially it seemed as if we
had made an enormous commitment. As our time there drew to a close, however, I realized that those who dedicate their lives to serve in that way are the ones who are able to have a transformative impact for good. I returned to the United States wanting to be that kind of person, but also sensing that nothing in my life had prepared me for the discipline it would require.
Marriage, parenting, and parish ministry became my teachers, each representing a small world for which I was responsible, each valuing stability over change and constancy over the excitement I craved. Not knowing who to talk to, I found solace and guidance in books. Bits of wisdom would come to me, keeping me grounded when I wanted to fly.
How We Learn to Be Brave by Mariann Edgar Budde goes on sale Tuesday, May 23. Join her that evening at 7:00 p.m. at Washington National Cathedral for a discussion with Canon Historian Jon Meacham, followed by a book signing and reception. Register now