Fearful Courage

“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”—Emma Donoghue

Ten years ago this month, R and I visited a friend in Lubumbashi, which is the second-largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lubumbashi is also the mining capital of the country, and has its own small airport. I was excited to visit because they had Western food items in their markets such as Nutella and chocolate that we could bring back with us to Zimbabwe.

One morning when our friend was at work, R and I went for a walk to visit the national museum. Along the way, we were stopped by soldiers who said that we had broken the law by stepping on their grass. They grabbed R and escorted her into their compound. Having heard some horrific stories about the treatment of women by Congolese soldiers, I was immediately concerned for R’s safety. I managed to block the gate door from closing by sticking my foot into a small gap and then squeezed the rest of my body into the doorway.

The soldiers appeared drunk and carried rifles, so I did my best to be as assertive as possible without coming across aggressively. I told the soldiers that R needed to stay with me and asked them to release her. Since R’s French was much better than mine, she also told them repeatedly that we could not be separated. I’ve never been more scared in my life or as quick to pray to God for help.

I’m not sure whether the soldiers were just playing games with us or they simply changed their minds about taking R, but eventually they let us leave the compound together without further incident. Hours later, my heart was still pounding feverishly. Even a decade later, the memory remains vivid and intense.

It’s possible to be fearful and brave simultaneously; they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, far too many people in the world must embody some form of fearful courage every day in order to survive their personal circumstances and environment.

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Lost

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”—Robert Frost

When you’re lost in the woods, you look forward to seeing a road or a marked trail or a small cottage with an inviting light shining through its windows. What’s not comforting is coming across a large and uninviting tent in the middle of nowhere when you’ve been bushwacking off the trail for many minutes. It’s even more disconcerting when there’s a large axe propped up just outside the dark entrance to the tent. I’d be too scared to live out there in the dark, so I figured only someone scary enough not to be scared out there must be living in the tent. I ran quickly through the woods until I eventually found my way back to an actual trail. And yes, I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was chasing me.

I’m in St. John’s for work, so I’d taken the opportunity to go for a short adventure on the East Coast Trail. My plan was to take a taxi to the Cape Spear Lighthouse and then run along the trail back to the city. The trail from Cape Spear to Blackhead was easy to follow with the Atlantic Ocean just off to my right. I didn’t run too fast as I wanted to enjoy the beautiful scenery and I stopped many times to take photos. I probably hiked more than I ran. It was on the next trail section from Blackhead to Fort Amherst that I ran into some navigational challenges.

When I arrived at Freshwater Bay halfway through, I didn’t realize that I needed to cross over the formation of large rocks that stretched from one side of the bay to the other. Instead, I ran up an old fire road only to find the path completely flooded out a few minutes later. Then I ran back down to the water and found another trail that turned out to be a “trail in progress.” It didn’t take long until I wasn’t on any trail at all and just scrambling through the woods in circles.

It was at this point that I got a bit worried, especially when I came upon the tent … and then came upon the tent a second time. While the first 80 minutes of my trail run had seemed perfect as I travelled close to the ocean, now that I was disoriented in the woods with evening approaching, I began to wonder whether this beautiful place would become my resting place.

Before I left Toronto I’d prepared a running backpack that contained two emergency blankets, a whistle, a flashlight and some food. But in the busyness of the weekend with my family, I’d forgotten to put the pack in my suitcase before flying this morning to St. John’s.

Thankfully I found my way back to the trail and returned safely to the city, but I could have easily broken my leg or ankle and been stuck outside by myself overnight. The crazy thing is that it’s an easy trail to navigate except for that one specific section I managed to screw up. Regardless, since I was running this route for the first time, I should have been better prepared, particularly as a husband and father. There’s no excuse not to carry some basic safety items with me when hiking or running in the woods, especially if I’m travelling by myself in an area with no cell phone reception.

What I found most interesting about this experience is how quickly I transitioned from feeling invincible to vulnerable. I suppose this is similar to other situations in my life when the paths I’m following suddenly change. Perhaps I need to pack a bigger bag?

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