My brother arrived after the police, but thankfully, before me. I walked through the door of her apartment and stood by his side. He slipped his arm around my shoulder and kept it there without leaving any gap between our emotions. Mom had shot herself several hours before, but my brother’s arm steadied me then, and the memory of it has ever since. Literally, we stood in each other’s courage even though neither of us felt we had any at the time.
The night before my husband died, my best friend sat in the hallway in front of our bedroom where I had been for endless hours, way beyond the end of myself. She was praying. I opened the door from our room to find her there and knelt down on the floor without strength or hope or answers. I don’t know how long I had been “without,” which I suppose is one of its character traits. There was no telling how long it had been since I had eaten anything either. True besties somehow always know about those things, and while my head and heart were weighted and bent, she lifted food to my mouth and held it there for me to eat. The moment still nourishes my soul. Literally, we knelt in each other’s courage that night - no gaps between us - and still do. It was the kind of courage that lays one out on the floor of a hallway. It didn’t feel like courage at the time.
A few nights after he died, our three kids and I sat in the living room without any gap between our emotions and questions and hunger for his presence. We were listening to songs. We had to decide which ones to play during his memorial; which ones would measure up to the legacy of his life. We cried, and I think we laughed some too. That night, we hurt beyond what should be possible, and we did it in the brokenness of each other’s courage. Courage played its tune that night in the notes and melody of a dirge; far from any “Glory, glory hallelujahs” or “Fight, fight, fight” songs. But we did it together.
“Un” means “not.” It’s usually the opposite of what we want. Think of it in these words and muse about how you feel when you consider them: unfair; unfelt; unseen; unheard of; unrest, unnerved, unfaithful. “Un” feels like you have no home, and it unravels whatever is left of courage. “Uncourage is not a real word, but it is for me. Maybe it’ll show up in a dictionary one day, though for now, that’s the “unknown.” “Uncourage” is the hole in between encourage and discourage, and I think it better describes what happens to our courage when it is just undone by circumstance or another person. The face of it smirks condescendingly and is always somehow taller than we are.
In the King James Version of the book of Isaiah, the prophet cries, “Woe is me! For I am undone…” Parallel versions use the words - ruined; doomed; lost; destroyed. “Un” is usually, not a good thing.
In contemporary lingo - to “dis” someone doesn’t engender any homey feelings either. In Latin, “dis” means to reverse whatever force was present and at work. If you’re feeling affirmed, you become disaffirmed. Steadfast belief melts in the heat of disbelief, contentment shrivels into discontentment, and the swollen heart of soaring victory now cowers behind the shadow of disheartenment. To “dis” someone is to take their courage and grab it by the shoulders, turn it around, slap its behind and shove it off in the opposite direction. “Dis” is generally not a good thing either, especially since it oftentimes comes from somewhere below us, like a slithering, wallowing serpent. And… it snickers - with contempt. I despise it.
On the other hand, to “en” someone, as in “encourage,” is to cause them to be “in” courage. it means “on all sides,” with the sense that a person becomes encircled, enclosed, and entwined in courage with a transition to come. To encourage a person causes them to stand upright in courage, wrapped up in it’s strength and hope, fearlessness and nerve, audacity, grit and heroism. That’s quite a transformation from the vile stranglehold of the death and dirge of this life. Encouragement lifts the head, kneels alongside, steadies shoulders, and is the beginning of a new song even though the melody may begin as tears and a desperate whisper or gasp for air.
Encouragement comes close. Very. It steps inside another’s situation, no gaps, and its source is The Living God - The One Who conquered death and all the “uns” and “dis’s” of this life.
My favorite part of the “en” in courage is that when it’s real, it doesn’t pretend to be higher or stronger or better or smarter. It quietly, gently, humbly comes into and alongside. In it’s tenderness and incompleteness, when joined to another’s brokenness and breathlessness, it becomes real courage for both parties who stand in the frailty of their humanness. Real encouragement is selfless because it knows we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that the power may be of God and not of us. That’s worthy of a “Glory, glory hallelujah!”
To encourage doesn’t require courage. Nor is expertise a prerequisite; just humble willingness. The quiet action of it always speaks of the goodness of God and the future, but it doesn’t have to involve words. To encourage another, we go “in” to their life and encircle, enclose and entwine them in the love of Christ - not in our ability, and in return, we are mysteriously encouraged too.
The alternatives? “Un” and “dis.”
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him — a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 ESV