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Emily Williams Knight on lessons she’s learning — and sharing — about courage

Emily Williams Knight

Emily Williams Knight

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Recently, I was asked to speak to our graduating seniors, to share advice with them as they prepared to enter the working world. Seemed like a simple request: Pass along words of wisdom from my life experiences. Until I sat and thought about what I wanted to say. How could I put years of ups and downs into a 60-minute address? How could I focus on the things that matter most, and leave each student thinking differently about themselves and the potential they had to do something remarkable in the world they were about to enter? What would I say, and more importantly, would it matter?

I spent the next few days thinking about my past. Considering the job offers I didn’t take, and the ones I should have. Evaluating the missed cues, miscommunications and opportunities not taken that resulted in strained or broken business relationships. I thought about sales presentations that could have gone better, employee conversations that challenged my soul and the individuals I was fortunate to lead.

As I sat at my desk and tried to sort out my thoughts, I looked to my left, where I had a photo of my Aunt Sue. I’d taken it a month prior, when I traveled to Cleveland to visit her. Our family’s been making frequent trips to see her since she was diagnosed with lung cancer one year ago. And suddenly, I knew what I wanted my speech to be about. A word that often gets thrown around in sports highlights reels, but that few people truly live and understand: Courage.

From the start, the odds were against my Aunt Sue. During one of our visits, while we sat with her in the cancer wing, a physician came in and said the words that are still difficult to comprehend: “There is nothing more we can do for you.” I looked into her eyes while holding back the tears in mine. She did not blink. She did not turn away. She just stared back at the doctor with a look that said, “There is nothing more you can do, but I will fight until I have nothing left to give.”

In that moment, she was graceful, dignified and confident — and I came to understand what courage really means. Courage means never, never giving up. Courage means digging deep inside until you find that spot you didn’t even know you had. And courage means living each and every day as if it is your last — gratefully, humbly and to the fullest.

Courage comes in many different forms, but I wanted our graduating seniors to understand that it’s the most important quality they could possibly possess in facing their futures. I wanted them to understand the importance of advocating for yourself, of taking risks and of speaking up when you might be the only one to raise your hand high. To understand that you only become aware of your true strength when you push past your comfort zone and into a new area, complete with fear and uncertainty. And to understand, as I now do, that you can only come to fully understand true courage when you see someone you love battling for his or her life.

Inspired by my Aunt Sue, I was able to complete my presentation to our senior class and delivered a powerful message filled with hope, promise and thoughtful guidance. I spoke with a sense of urgency and a passion for life. I hope if the students took just one message away from my talk, it was that they have the opportunity to be brave, to take risks and to always find courage when they face a new challenge or are uncertain about how to proceed. I hope they’re prepared to make the most of every day.

My Aunt Sue’s bravery and courageous spirit during this difficult time will only add to her impressive legacy. While she will leave me with many memories and lessons, her display of courage will forever impact how I think about and try to embody the word.

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