Developing the Cardiovascular System of the Soul
The following is a transcription of a TEDx talk Robert “Dusty” Staub gave in Wilmington, Delaware in October of 2016.
In the talk, Dusty outlines the 7 daily Acts of Courage that, when performed seriously, can free people of their most troubling lacks. Dusty tells the story of how he lived these Acts of Courage in his relationship with his father (to whom, in youth, he had built a wall of resistance founded in fear of disappointment), and not only achieved the relationship he dreamed of, but became the man he wanted to be.
Today I want to talk to you about courage.
Now the word itself comes from the French word for heart. So when we access courage, we access our heart. It is interesting when you think about this.
The idea I want to share with you, that I have seen change thousands of lives, is a super simple one: Small discrete daily Acts of Courage can serve to develop what I like to call the cardiovascular system of your soul, helping to liberate the purpose, the passion, and the power to be your best self and live your best life.
The paradox is that it took death for me to access my heart.
It was death that gave birth to the 7 Acts of Courage that transformed my life. Before I tell you that story I’d like to briefly share with you those 7 Acts of Courage.
The First Act of Courage is the Courage to Dream and express that dream in spite of critics, naysayers, internet trolls, and your own self-doubt. The second Act of Courage is the Courage to See Current Reality – to see what’s standing with you, what’s working for you, and also working aginst you.
Now, the third Act of Courage – if I want to go from my current reality to that vision, I have to have the courage, as the Quakers say, to “tell truth to power”. I have to have the Courage to Confront. But, it’s not enough to just do that.
I need the fourth Act of Courage, which is the Courage to be Confronted. If I dish it out but won’t take it, there’s no integrity. So the Courage to be Confronted is to hear other people, even if they don’t deliver it in the most respectful way.
The fifth Act of Courage is a tough one. It’s the Courage to Learn and Grow. It’s having the courage to step into the unknown, into ambiguity. The courage to take emotional risks and give up the need to be right.
The sixth act of courage is the Courage to be Vulnerable and to Love. It’s the courage to open to our needs and the needs of others. The courage to be vulnerable to life.
And finally, the seventh Act of Courage is the Courage to Act in spite of fear and doubt. It’s doing the right thing, not what’s most comfortable, habitual or routine.
Now, the ancient Celtic people had an insight that we exist in a landscape of sacred shapes. The believed that we are architects and help to shape this landscape. As we shape the landscape, we also get to shape the people around us, who we get to become, how we get to dance – to live – in this world of which we are a unique and special part.
I grew up in a military family of tradition, honor and responsibility.
My father was a football star. Full scholarship to Notre Dame. Instead of going to school, he went to fight for his country in World War II. Now, in high school, my father’s nickname was “blood and guts Staub.” He was a tough character. Serving with the 101st airborne and the 82nd airborne only made him tougher and stronger.
Imagine going home and telling this face that you got a D.
My dad wanted me to be tough and strong just like he was. The thing is, we moved quite a bit. I was in ten different schools the first ten years of schooling.
I was always a misfit. In England, they called me “that damn yank.”
In off base schools, I was the “damn army brat.”
I’ll tell you, I got beat up a lot. What was worse, if I went home and told this man that I’d been beaten up, he’d whip me and tell me to go back to kick tail because that’s what he would do.
The thing is, I wasn’t the warrior my father wanted me to be.
I spent my childhood in a high state of anxiety about the next move, the next bully, the next time my father would be angry with me. And, by the time I was 11 years old, I had developed a defensive shell of being sarcastic, argumentative, righteous, and rebellious.
Fast forward 11 years. I was 28 years old. My defensive shell was well in place, having to prove I was right all the time. I was working in the VA hospital as part of an internship in graduate school. As I was working at the VA, one of the patients I worked with was a man in his early 60’s.
When I met him, he could no longer talk. He was being fed by a tube in his stomach. He was as thin as a rail, nearly bald. But he had brown gentle eyes and he had a warm knowing smile.
On his last afternoon on earth, I happened to be standing by his bedside because I’d been working with the family. On the other side of the bed was the duty nurse, and the man’s wife and daughter.
His wife was holding his right hand in both of hers and the nurse was encouraging them to speak their heart. I stood there in amazement as they poured out their love, their gratitude, and appreciation for this man. In the middle of it, he simply exhaled and he was gone.
His wife bent forward to kiss his lips, covering his face with her hair. Tears were running down everybody’s face, including mine. After a while the nurse led them from the room and I was left standing there.
I couldn’t move. Standing there by the body of this man who had served his country, and just simply loved his family. It was like a bolt of lightning went through the top of my head down through the soles of my feet and I realized that at some point in time, everything I would have, everything I would learn, everyone I would love, I would have to let go of at the moment of death.
What was more devastating, I realized, is that if it had been my father on that bed, I could not have said to him what the man’s daughter said to her father. In that moment, I saw very clearly that I had been treating fear as if it was some sort of God – sacrificing my life to not being judged, not being found wanting, not taking emotional risks.
I made a commitment to stop worshiping fear and transform my relationship with my Dad.
Now, this was hard because he did not have the same commitment or realization. In our family, we yelled at each other. I decided I wasn’t going to yell. I was always proving how smart I was, and my Dad was always putting me in my place.
When I went home, he started yelling and I started yelling. But, I caught myself. I remembered that veteran in the VA and I said, “Dad, I want to apologize.”
He said, “I don’t accept your damn apology.” So, I went for a walk around the neighborhood to calm down, which was a new behavior. I came back ready to engage and he said, “Where’d you go, you damn coward?”
I went for another long walk.
I got a lot of physical exercise during those months.
But at the end of 9 months, I was free. I’d been able to tell him my appreciation and share my love. I’d been able to engage with him, and I was free.
And then something amazing happened.
You can’t change one part of a system without changing the whole system. 15 months later, because he was a stubborn guy, my Dad told me for the first time in my memory that he loved me. He told me he was proud of me and he started asking my advice.
By that time, I was trained as a psychologist and marital family therapist, and was glad to offer advice. Here’s how he asked it: “Son, one of my sales people got a problem. I wonder if that psychological bullshit might be useful.”
It turned out it was! His response was, “Well I’ll be! That BS really works.”
I will tell you this. For 10 years, I had the kind of Dad I always wanted because I was shaping myself to be the man I truly wished to be. From the age of 32 to 42, my Dad was my best friend. He died suddenly at the age of 68, but as I stood by his graveside, just like I had by the bedside of that veteran in the VA hospital, there was only gratitude, grace, and appreciation. I felt blessed.
How the Seven Acts of Courage applies to this situation…
The Courage to Dream of a different way of relating to my father in spite of our history and my own self-doubts. The Courage to See the Current Reality – to see how I was contributing to the problem. The Courage to Confront myself and my stinking thinking, and to confront my father with love and respect.
The Courage to be Confronted without defending or trying to prove I was right. The Courage to Learn and Grow and take emotional risks. The Courage to be Vulnerable to the love and the longing I sought to express. And, finally, the Courage to Take Action in the moment, informed by those other 6 Acts.
I urge you to take a look at these seven Acts of Courage
Pick out the one or two you’ve least developed, because the ones that are the least developed is where you trip yourself up. They are the Achilles heel that will keep you limping through life.
At the beginning of this talk, I said that daily Acts of Courage will serve to develop the cardiovascular system of your soul. So, how is the cardiovascular system of your soul doing?
Because if your heart is not grace-filled, if you’re not feeling profound love and joy, if your life is not deeply rooted in meaning, then these small daily acts of courage can make a significant difference.
I think that is an idea worth sharing.