I’ve been thinking about bravery recently.
Earlier this year, Pixar announced its upcoming film Brave. It’s about a frizzy-haired Scottish princess who fights a bear, according to the two-minute trailer. This may be the coolest thing in the world. I’m incredibly thrilled that little girls these days can have a female role model who is both a princess and a badass — like Princess Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, except with more archery (and probably less Cherries Jubilee).
I’ve never considered myself to be very brave. In fact, I’m pretty terrified of almost everything. I’m scared of heights. I’m scared of getting old. I’m scared of twisting my knees, chipping my teeth, stitching through my finger with an industrial sewing machine, losing people and animals I love, putting my foot in a shoe where a cockroach is hiding, and going into the ocean where everything wants to kill me. I get a little scared every time I merge onto the freeway. My blood pressure skyrockets when I’m watching a movie where someone is trapped underwater.
A few months ago, during my third-ever horseback lesson, I got on a horse I hadn’t ridden before and got him up to a trot right away. (Bear with me; this was actually a big accomplishment for your clumsy narrator.) I like riding horses, so I guess I looked like I was having a good time, because my husband said, “You’re fearless!” I replied, “No! You have no idea how terrified I am right now!” He said, “Oh, good. Then you’re brave.”
I’d always thought of courage as the opposite of fear. It’s not. It’s the counterpart to fear. You can’t be brave unless you have fear. You’re probably not afraid of tying your shoes, and no one would congratulate you for your bravery upon doing so. I like how David Mitchell puts it in his book Black Swan Green: “Courage is being scared shitless but doing it anyway.” Bravery is an active challenge against your fear, whereas fearlessness usually means you just haven’t noticed something.
I’ve had some incredible examples of courage this year, too. I have friends and family members who have beaten cancer, moved across the country, gotten engaged, started new careers, and ended unhealthy relationships. My stepgrandmother, who is one of my most beloved heroes, has helped my grandfather through multiple strokes, watching him lose his ability to walk and speak. She constantly fears that his condition will worsen or she will lose him, yet she visits him at dinnertime every evening in his nursing home and tells him she loves him. That’s the kind of bravery I want to have. Not a flippant fearlessness, dismissing the seriousness of the situation. A willingness to face whatever may come, no matter how painful or difficult it may be. A true courage — taking someone by the hand and saying, “I’m scared too. Let’s do this together.”