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Cowardice or Choice: From Vice to Voice

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

Two events led to this mixed-conceptual piece – part poem, part poetic questionnaire. First, there was a powerful dream. When away from my normal Greater Washington DC work world, snowed in east of Cleveland, my brain seems to dream more vividly. I often awake to an integrated reverie-narrative. Two mornings ago, I bolted upright aware that I’d been dreaming about recent conflict with a family member in light of a personal history – being emotionally taunted and bullied through much of my childhood. (The Catch-22 of being caught in the “Abusive Triangle” as a child: there is usually a dysfunctional – overt or covert – family system lurking in the shadows. Still the abused often attributes his behavior to personal failure, i.e., “being a coward” or “being defective”…examples of “attributional bias” or labeling error. Unfortunately, over time, a youth’s passivity-anxiety-timidity-rigidity – at least in the interpersonal conflict realm – can become an adult personality, or even bio-chemistry, pattern requiring medical intervention, therapy, or trial and error/sometimes terror relearning).

Anyway…while the transparency of the dream was unnerving, it also was confirming. Akin to the current real world family drama, the dream reflected my refusing to be a passive victim. I quickly realized the need to convert this psychic theatre into some form of literary oeuvre.

The second happenstance occurred when my girlfriend, trying to create more closet space, (is this a female fixation?), asked me to discard or refile some old articles and workshop handouts. In the process, I discovered a favorite piece written in the ’90s – “WHY’s UP: 20 QUESTIONS” – that never really found a niche in my speaking repertoire. However, as I mulled potential poetry topics, I began to envision a complementary role for this existential inquiry. Feedback from a colleague-friend led to a few survey tweaks. Here is my hybrid offering:

Cowardice or Choice: From Vice to Voice

A coward dies a thousand deaths; a hero dies but once**
No matter the total breaths; when it mattered…did you give your every ounce?
The saddest part of cowardice, the sacrifice of peaceful sleep
To cold night sweats of moral vice; a haunted voice that makes you weep.
Still…that twilight coliseum, a dreamscape of battling foes
A second chance for wresting demons; will you now go blow for blow?

You may not win each contest; there will be trails of blood
But you may slowly lay to rest that nightmare-stalking brood.
Each hour brings another choice – to take a stand or run
Even lacking true clear voice, in no way are you dumb.
Dig deep for that rich ore of shame; you are close with fear or rage
Let a guide reveal a novel game; get off the “b.s.” (be safe) stage.

Lurking in shadows psychic, bubbling lava primal pain
Sculpt and dance until there’s magic; Pygmalion’s art shall rise again.
No longer that once robot child, head twisting madly side-to-side
Yes, pursue the “Call of the Wild”; beware that, “Well, I tried.”
“Learn to Fail or Fail to Learn”; please forsake the craft of cool
Fiery spirit will once more burn when com/passion and purpose rule!


1. Why dredge up rage and shame?
2. Why feel and reveal, instead of conceal, psychic pain?
3. Why mourn, let go, and work with the same?

4. Why confront “The Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure”?
5. Why become more risk-taking; why learn The Art of Designing Disorder?
6. Why tolerate living with uncertainty and vulnerability?
7. Why become less dependent on another’s approval or on respectability?

8. Why learn to accept criticism without feeling so anxious, humiliated, or rejected?
9. Why not just settle into the role or image that is typically expected?
10. Why strive high and embrace failure…being home on the range with text and context?
11. Why make the strange familiar, the familiar strange; the complex simple, the simple complex?

12. Why challenge superficial, narrow-minded, and self-righteous thinking or posturing?
13. Why waste time in irrational, silly, fanciful, or out-rage-ous imagining or playing?
14. Why evolve a capacity for tenderness and aggression, logic and intuition, meditation and dynamic expression…why embrace ambiguity and most contradiction?
15. Why practice and synthesize diverse knowledge and ideas, talent and skills, experiences and an array of emotions?

16. Why bother exploring, shaping, pursuing, and fighting for precious dreams…even when they may not be what they seem?

17. Why raise these questions every day of your life?
18. Why share these questions every day of your life?
19. Why should life be absurd and you be outrageous?
20. Why…not? Because…

For the phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

Psychologist Salvatore Maddi’s Existential Position: Life is a series of decisions, each of which can be made in a direction that propels the person into future-oriented growth through new experience or pulls him back into the stagnation of a familiar past.

[** Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar]

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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