Every man has his own courage, and is betrayed because he seeks in himself the courage of other persons.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson


A seven year-old boy and his mother came to me for help. The boy was being regularly suspended from school for disruptive behavior. His poor mother was at her wits’ end. “I am all out of punishments,” she said hopelessly, and the boy cried, “I have nothing to play with anymore”. He threw himself on the floor, sobbing. “You’ve lost heart,” I said, and asked the mother to think of some ways her son could earn back his toys.

The next week the boy said he had had a great week, and had earned back all of his toys. His mother shrugged and happily nodded. “So, what did you do differently?” I asked. “Nothing,” said the boy, “you encouraged me.”

The boy’s humility both touched and disturbed me. It touched me because he did not take credit for his success, but it disturbed me because his courage was experienced as originating outside of himself.

The tendency to assume that others can actually encourage us, can impart courage to us from outside, is common but, I think, misguided. Like other states of mind, courage may arise in a context in which it is a response to another person, but can it really come about through "encouragement" from someone else?

It is hard not to reduce human reactions to dyadic or relational events, especially when there is so much evidence confirming the evolution of human development in terms of affect co-regulation. If you observed mother-child interactions frame by frame, you would actually be able to track their nonverbal and direct communication as co-arising, right brain to right brain, heart to heart. Allan Schore calls this “affect synchrony”. On this model, the bloom of a baby’s blissful smile is considered to be the expression of a moment of attunement between him and his mother. When the baby’s gaze alights upon her face and she is attuned to his resonance frequency, there is synchronicity and the “loop” between them amplifies their shared energy. This is beautiful. The same synchrony could, I suppose, be measured when a child displays courage, for instance, when he takes his first steps.

A relational model of affect is surely an improvement on the old intrapsychic model, according to which mental states arise in a kind of relational vacuum. However, a smile, courage, love… they also seem to me to be pulled from somewhere beyond relationship, as though they had been waiting for the right conditions as an opportunity to come out, like stars in the sky.

In a dyadic explanation of experience that credits another as the necessary complement to our internal life, aren't we still at risk of reducing the human mystery to yet another closed system?

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