Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/04/2013

“. . . the evasion of one’s destiny. . .”

The "Courage to Be" when existence is threatened

The “Courage to Be” when existence is threatened

This writing began on January 2. We have now collectively moved to the place we have agreed is January 4, 2013, the day after my 68th birthday.

Each year, January 2 is problematic for me. Some years it is a day of great excitement, some a day of dread. And some years—this one, for example—it is a day of introspection coupled with a strange and unfamiliar kind of joy. Joy, however, with a subtext of sadness or grief. How is that for setting up a complex rhetorical gambit?

January 2 is, of course, the day between New Year’s Day and my birthday.  This year, I wanted to write about—because I was thinking about—courage, a commodity in short supply in my life.

This was supposed to be a meditation on Paul Tillich’s theological understanding of “The Courage to Be.” One doesn’t hear much about Tillich any more. Either we don’t have a clue about courage, or we have so thoroughly convinced ourselves that our electronic gadgets and our ability to buy anything we want on credit have securely established the reality of our “being” that we need not give it another thought. We have learned how to live in “the evasion of [our] destiny.”

And perhaps there are too many of us who think Tillich—or anyone who writes about the dinosaur discipline of theology—is irrelevant.

I suppose one might say I am overly conscious of and terrified by my understanding that I will die. Every time someone whose life has influenced mine dies, I mentally and spiritually cringe. Patti Page a couple of days ago. She was prophetic. She said I was sure to fall in love with Old Cape Cod, and I did. Patti Page was fewer than 20 years older than I am. How close is the end? Can I evade my destiny?

I read a lot of stuff about death and dying and eternal life (or the unreality thereof), and I talk to a couple of friends about it (not many—I may be frightened, but I’m not stupid). One friend says unabashedly that anyone our age who does not think about death and dying—and try to figure out her beliefs about it—is living in la-la land. I’d go farther than that. I’d say such a person is one shingle short of a roof.

But it’s no wonder people don’t want to think about their own mortality. It’s simply impossible—incomprehensible—terrifying beyond measure—to imagine non-existence—to face our destiny. Period. I congratulate anyone who has a belief in heaven (or hell) to tide her over into that void. I don’t. And I don’t have enough courage to live as if it doesn’t matter.

Buying to evade our destiny

Buying to evade our destiny

I was thinking about Tillich and the class I took in Existential Theology back in 1968 because while cleaning up docs on my computer, I came across an article with the explanation that

[e]xistential writers point to nonbeing, one’s eventual nonexistence, as the core fear. Tillich proposed that basic anxiety results from realizing one’s finitude, and among the possible consequences of this fact are alienation, meaninglessness, and despair. To affirm oneself in spite of these obstacles, Tillich termed “the courage to be.” Tillich also believed that fear and anxiety function as guardians, as warning signals to one’s being. According to Tillich, “Courage is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives, anticipated by fear, for the sake of a fuller positivity” (1).

I don’t remember why I saved the article, but it has given me pause to think about the courage to “be.” Simply to “be.”  The problem is I can’t muster that courage. Basically I cower in the face of nearly everything. I fear my mind—that is, I fear what my mind might be (or might have been) capable of understanding had I ever used/developed it fully. I fear my body—that is, I fear the possibilities of being healthy and active and able to participate in any age-appropriate activity I might want.  I fear my spirit—that is, I fear finding out what my spirit really is.

Goud also explains this fear of success, of living up to one’s potential as Maslow’s “Jonah complex.” The Jonah complex is one’s defense against

the “fear of one’s own greatness” or the “evasion of one’s destiny” or the ”running away from one’s own best talents .” We fear our highest possibilities (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of greatest courage. We JOY and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see an ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities (2).

This writing is going nowhere—which is, I think, where all of my thinking about having the “courage to be” goes. I’m nearly frozen with terror much of the time. I’ll try again soon to write about it (I have done before here).

Until then, I have two simple observations. I think J.S. Bach managed to overcome his fear of being by creating music that was so thoroughly “present” that it lives on today. His music, whatever it accomplished for him in attaining the “courage to be,” exists even now “for the sake of a fuller positivity.”

I have also seen the “courage to be”—simply to “be”—in my friends in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. They have absolutely “take[n] upon [themselves] negatives, anticipated by fear, for the sake of a fuller positivity.” The “negatives” of their lives—living imprisoned under the most repressive regime in the world, the Israeli determination to reach a final solution of the problem of their existence—should, by any logical standard bring about the anticipation of fear. But it has rather given them the “courage to be” in a way I cannot comprehend. The wall designed to threaten their existence instead has come to protect their living out their destiny, their fuller positivity.

I yearn to live for “for the sake of a fuller positivity” that gives them the courage to be. I have no such courage. The last thing they think about is the evasion of their destiny.
(1) Goud, Nelson H. “Courage: Its Nature And Development.” Journal Of Humanistic Counseling, Education & Development 44.1 (2005): 102-116.
(2) ibid.


  1. Dear some times courageous big brother…having been diagnosed with cancer and surviving thus far, I can tell you that one day courage does not matter. You will face death and you will no longer be afraid of it. I don’t know how it happens…can’t tell you when it happens, but one day you will embrace the fact that none of us know how to die. I learned at the retreat that as a pregnant mother’s skin begins to stretch to the point of birth, the baby begins to see light. Kind of a looking through rose colored glasses. I have felt the light but not yet seen it.


  2. […] Harold Knight another victim of my virtual(ly) compulsive stalking writes about the “evasion of one’s destiny” […]



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