We’ve all heard these misogynistic phrases to describe bravery and inner strength: “Man up,” “Grow some balls,” or “He’s got giant cohones.” According to these phrases, you’ve got to leave your fear out of the picture in order to be a strong man, which not only doesn’t add up– it’s also pretty alienating to have only one gender represented in descriptions of courage. People with ovaries have “balls” as much as people with testicles do (as do people with neither or both), which is why I enjoy describing these aggressive and powerful acts of bravery as “having stones,” and the process of becoming courageous as “growing stones.”
Having stones comes in handy when you feel most afraid, which usually happens when the stakes are really high. If something’s important to you, you’re faced with the potential of failing if you pursue it. Basically, it’s like that “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” proverb: You could lose something familiar if you go for something you want, the outcome of which might be completely unknown. But, however uncomfortable the unknown is, it’s also the realm of growth and development. Growth comes from embracing the risk of doing what you fear, not from getting rid of the fear or building a wall around it, as those earlier sexist sentiments might lead you to believe.
That said, we can only stretch ourselves as much as we can tolerate. For many of us, it’s important to learn our edges first before we can begin to push them. If you have experienced loss, or weren’t taught how to have healthy boundaries and edges, it can feel overwhelming to actually get what you want, because it could mean losing something that makes you feel safe.
But maybe you are starting to feel stuck in that security. If you’re feeling like your need for safety and comfort is holding you back, and you’re having to hide important parts of yourself that need and want to be seen, you’re probably being faced with the excruciating task of growing your stones.
I recall a quotation I heard a few years ago from the artist and painter Georgia O’Keeffe: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” I have always wondered: How on Earth was this powerful woman able to feel afraid, and still move forward with her own desire and direction? I admired her immensely.
A little about my relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe: I grew up with her art imprinted all over my childhood home. I remember images of desert mountains, dry bony skulls, and black skies through tree branches. Postcards she’d mailed to my mother, with plain and utilitarian messages, sat framed in curio cabinets. O’Keeffe was my mother’s second cousin, and the presence of these art pieces felt like a conduit to my mother’s own childhood home. These paintings– in truth, their more affordable prints – felt like real objects and images passed down to me like some kind of unconscious dowry.
I had an opportunity to visit O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu a few years ago, where everything is preserved more or less exactly as she had left it when she died. I journeyed there on a kind of transgenerational pilgrimage; my mother had traveled there by dusty bus some 50 years prior, and among the objects I still have of hers is a typewritten account of her visit to this distant relative.
As I stood in O’Keeffe’s home, what felt remarkable to me was her collection of bones, sticks, and desert stones resting on the windowsill of her study. Ever since I was young, I have felt a connection to natural objects. Holding rough rocks, stones and shells in my hand has always felt grounding to me, and calming when I felt upset. In her account of her own visit to O’Keeffe’s home, my mother had written of collecting stones from Korea to bring as gifts to the artist, and of taking some from New Mexico to take back to her own home. I felt some joy knowing O’Keeffe loved collecting natural objects, too. As I remember this, collecting stones begins to feel like a familial practice, an umbilical cord that deepens whenever I touch the rocks I have collected. I think about my office and home, decorated with colorful pieces of hardened earth, touchstones to memory and places I’ve been, contact points I can feel in my palm.
In O’Keeffe’s home, I could sense my mother there. I imagined her visiting the artist and her sister Claudia, maybe sitting nervously and excitedly on the couch while tea was prepared and one of O’Keeffe’s Chow pups guarded the door. I stood there, in a different time but in the same place, feeling the cool of the adobe walls in the hot summer, taking in the electrifying sensation of time and space being warped, melded, and expanded, somehow.
I wish I could think about this moment every time I’m afraid. I yearn to remember that there are experiences beyond my own that connect me to my mother and to people I’ve never met. That my ancestral ties will catch me, connect me, expand me, and help heal me.
Growing stones isn’t so much about willpower, or the ability to generate some bravery from an internal vacuum. To me, growing stones also includes picking them up from the ground, holding them, admiring them, developing relationships with them, coming back to them as touchstones of connection and memory. It also includes meeting people with whom we find connection and relationship, perhaps using an object (like a career, a hobby, a favorite band, an old house) as a touchstone for making contact.
We are not brave in isolation. We are brave in connection. We are brave when we are honest with ourselves and the parts of our psyches and histories we’re most afraid of and most ashamed of. We are brave when we’re open with others, whether through tangible objects or a felt sense. We can become brave by seeing more of ourselves than we have before, and making room for people, places, and the ways we all shape each other.
The first time I read this quotation,“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do,” I could feel it already inside me like a wellstone of courage. Because we have all known fear, and the ways it can shut down thinking. It can take over, sometimes leaving the barest whisper of reason: “You’re okay… you’re just scared… This feeling is just a hormonal response to an anticipated danger, you’re actually totally fine and not going to die!!”
When fear takes over, all your bravery feels drowned in a sea of electrons, neurons, sweaty palms, fuzzy head, and sinking stomach, and whatever stones you’ve grown seem to disappear. Anger and retaliation emerge. Walls get built. Growth stops, sometimes reverses. I find it so helpful in these moments to have something to touch, a real stone (or person) that connects and expands and reminds me of those inner ones.
I have learned something about fear, and that is: It will be with you at the most important moments of your life, and you will always feel like it’s trying to shut you down when it is actually telling you where you most need to grow. When this happens, you can reach out for the stones you’ve collected, internally and externally, to help you remember that your fear doesn’t have to stop you from doing anything you want to do.