An exploration of what bravery is. A personal journey on reconciling with what it means to be brave.
A friend and classmate described me as brave. That surprised me because I didn't feel brave. It was a word I would never use to describe myself. I remember a full-body rejection of the idea. I didn't think I was brave at all. I always thought I was the opposite. A coward. Someone scared and selfish. I acted on self-interest and self-preservation. If there was a possibility I would be hurt, I would choose to run. I would avoid it or pretend I didn't see or notice.
I grew up learning to put my head down and avoid trouble. I learned not to speak out or make waves. I learned to conform, stay silent and avoid standing out. I was scared of rejection and of being alone. I would try to please others even if it didn't sit well with me. I remember back in elementary school and there were a couple of classmates that were bullied. I never stepped in even though I knew bullying was not okay. I was the new kid. I desperately wanted to fit in, so I did nothing. I didn't want to be their next target. Because I was afraid, I ignored what was going on around me. By not doing anything, I was part of the problem. I was part of the bullying. I wasn't brave enough to stand up for others even if I knew it was right. I was not brave enough to stand up for myself. I was a coward because I didn't care to stand up for myself or others.
What did my friend see in me that I couldn't?
Now, years later, I come back to this comment and reflect on what it means to be brave. I guess my first definition of bravery is not to be scared and to be fearless. And I am always scared and worried. I don't feel brave. So, I figured I would need to define the word brave. My definition and perception of the word didn't seem adequate or accurate.
Taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
1. having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty: having or showing courage
1. to face or endure with courage
Adjectives - bold, courageous, dauntless, fearless, gutsy, heroic, lionhearted, valiant
Verbs - brazen, confront, dare, defy, face
I think about the dictionary definition of the word. It means to endure or face something with strength. I think to endure and to face are two different things. To face something means to take something head-on. It means to challenge and confront what is not okay. To face something with courage and strength is to take action. This was what my definition of bravery was aligned with. To take action even when it is hard or scary. And I never took action.
In my head, to endure is more passive. I interpret it as sometimes difficult things happen and I will just have to live with it. It's not easy to endure but I'm not taking action to change things. For the longest time, I did not think that enduring was brave. It was just dealing with things that happened because oftentimes, there was no choice but to deal with it. That didn't seem like bravery. That was just me, living.
The idea of enduring as a form of courage was something I am still wrapping my head around. When I think about it, enduring difficult things takes a lot of strength. There was a time when I had no strength left. I remember the relief and numbness when I almost chose to leave the world because I was just so tired. I certainly wasn't brave then. I didn't have any strength to endure anymore.
But when I redefine what enduring means, perhaps I can reconcile the idea of being brave. Because enduring doesn't have to mean possessing strength, nor does it mean to have a lot of strength. Small moments and actions could be considered strengths. Tiny, seemingly insignificant choices could be a strength.
At my lowest point, getting up out of bed took a lot of strength. Making myself food, going to classes, taking a shower, all of it took so much strength. Choosing to open up to my roommates and choosing to ask for help took strength. Choosing to live even when I didn't want to, took an astronomical amount of strength. I didn't know how much it took out of me to do these things. I didn't see it as strength. I didn't see how just living could be brave. I saw it as weakness and cowardice.
However, with this new idea of bravery and strength, I recognize that I was always brave. Bravery doesn't need to be big. It can be an accumulation of small things. It doesn't always have to be facing things head-on or confronting injustices and wrongs. It can be minuscule moments that seem insignificant. I am brave for the fact that I exist.
There's a lot of power in that. When I say I am brave because I exist, it means I value the strength I have. I always took to downplaying myself as not worthy. I disregarded the effort and strength I possess. I didn't see myself as someone worthy or of value, so I didn't value the small acts of bravery and strength. I couldn't recognize it because I didn't see myself in that way.
The journey to brave: 3 interwoven paths
I see three paths I took as I map my journey to recognizing bravery. The first path was the bravery and courage to stand up to others for others. I found it easier to advocate for other people and to go against more powerful people or organizations. I was angry that the people I cared for were hurt. I didn't need to hesitate to step up. It was easy to defend and easy to fight. I didn't recognize this as courage and bravery, it was something just needed to do. It was the right thing to do. I learned from my childhood mistakes of not letting things go and being a bystander.
The second path was the small moments and choices I made even if I was scared or worried. These moments I could recognize as brave because I chose to try despite the fear. I remember choosing to be honest and vulnerable with my classmates even though I grew up safeguarding my vulnerabilities. I chose to be open with the inkling that I would be looked at differently. My classmates didn't. I chose to come out to my friends and most recently, my sibling. I did it despite being scared and anxious. These tiny, tiny moments of bravery were harder for me, but they were just as important as standing up for others.
The third path was one I just recently fully embraced. This third path is the hardest. It is standing up for myself against people who have caused me harm no matter how powerful they are. I realized that I was important and worth advocating for. That, for me, letting things slide was not okay. If I am harmed, I am worth fighting for. I recently stood up against an entire school because I needed to advocate for myself. I needed the people who hurt me to be held accountable. To do that, I needed to be brave and face a school head-on. It took a lot of time and a lot of self-doubt, energy, effort, frustration, anger and low mood. This was what finally made me realize I am brave. I stood my ground against an entire university to advocate for myself. I didn't know I could do it, but I did. I am.
It only took me 5+ years... but I was finally able to see what all my friends and classmates saw in me. I just needed to know my worth before I could recognize and acknowledge it.
I'm brave. I always have been.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Brave. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brave