Seeking the Courage to Know What Matters

A reflection exercise based on a series of aphorisms

As we begin a new academic year in which we are connecting with students remotely or meeting some of them on campus, we share an overwhelming sense of unpreparedness, stress, and uncertainty. This unprecedented moment is the perfect opportunity to invite students to reflect on how they can meet the demands of our time and find meaning and purpose through courage. 

There is no better time to encourage students to talk about the challenges they face at home and on campus, in their personal lives, and in their relationships with others. We can support students by reminding them that despite the many challenges and limitations they are facing, courage is the virtue through which they can transcend their fears and doubts in order to reach new possibilities. Courage is what makes us able to make possible the impossible.

One way of engaging students in meaningful reflection is by asking them to think through a series of maxims or aphorisms, an idea that Robert J. Nash and Michele C. Murray suggest in Helping College Students Find Purpose: The Campus Guide to Meaning-Making. This meaning-making exercise works well in many places and spaces on campus such as classrooms, quarantined dorms, athletic team meetings, or as I’ve done this past summer and will do again this fall at my university, as a virtual workshop for student leaders.

You can choose to begin this activity by first creating a safe space for all student participants.  Here is an idea of how to introduce the activity:

To speak of courage often requires a certain level of trust among those involved in the conversation. Treat this a safe space where we will listen and respect each other as we converse on a series of questions and maxims on the topic of courage. I am here to listen to you discover more about yourself and what makes you a leader who is able to seek meaning and purpose in these urgent times. This conversation focuses on three main points: 1) One creates meaning by living with courage, 2) Courage comes from within oneself, and 3) Purpose requires an authentic commitment to things that matter. Combined, these three components will help you to meet present and future challenges, and to engage your mind and spirit as you continue to move forward in your vocational journey.  

One creates meaning by living with courage.

Let’s begin by first discussing what we know about courage. Think of the following questions:  What does courage mean to you? Can you think of an image or a story that serves as an example of courage? Now consider the following maxim:  

Why do you think Aristotle considers courage as the primary human quality? Are all forms of courage good? What are some examples of courage that may not necessarily be considered good?  What shapes our judgement between good and bad? If we can create life meaning through courage, in what areas of your life should you be more courageous?

Courage comes from within oneself.

Are you comfortable looking deeply into yourself? How? Why? What gets in the way when you try to practice self-reflection? Where does your self-confidence come from? What are you afraid of?

What do you think Tillich means by this maxim? How can we interpret this maxim in our present context of racial and political division, work and financial insecurity, and ongoing health uncertainty?

Purpose requires an authentic commitment to things that matter.

Our individualistic culture often sets a dividing boundary between self and other. This can really get in the way of seeking meaning and purpose beyond ourselves. How do you understand this divide? How is this divide imposed in the environments in which you live, work, and/or study? One strategy to overcome this divide is by being committed to people, causes, and ideals that matter to you. What things matter to you the most these days? How do you engage with these things? What gets in the way?  How can you be an agent of change and draw self, other, and community closer together?

What do you think bell hooks means by the “beloved community”? What are your beloved communities and how do you come to love each one of them? What makes you love someone or something? How do you come to learn to love yourself in this process? In these uncertain times, how can you find the courage to love self, other, and community, to seek meaning, purpose, commitment, and vocation? 

Esteban Loustaunau is professor of Spanish at Assumption University in Worcester, MA and director of the Center for Purpose and Vocation and the SOPHIA Program, which encourages students, particularly sophomores, to reflect on their lives in terms of vocation. He co-edited the collection Telling Migrant Stories: Latin American Diaspora in Documentary Film with Lauren Shaw (University of Florida Press, 2018). Esteban was a member of the NetVUE Faculty Seminar in 2017 and a panelist in a recent webinar hosted by NetVUE entitled “Courageous Text, Courageous Teaching.”

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