What Does Your Courage Look Like?

Once I watched an “inspirational video” featuring Elon Musk. It worked. I felt inspired. It was this amazing rush of energy, like I suddenly had what it took to do anything. So I packed up my stuff at the library, walked across the street to Walmart, and got string cheese and crackers. I was hungry. While waiting on line to scan my snacks, a pang of sadness hit as I realized how my excitement had been channeled. I had gotten sucked into the doldrums of daily life with such ease. What happened to my good feeling inspiration? Where had it gone so fast? And why was the first thing I did when I got excited go and buy snacks?

There are patterns in my life that take over as soon as I look the other way. I’ll make big plans, set a new goal, get on track to pursue something that excites me, and if I don’t stay absolutely on top of that thing, it is quickly cannibalized by banal normalcy: cook, talk on the phone, visit with a friend, read a book, watch a movie. These default activities come on stealthily, and only at my best am I present enough to notice the moment of giving up. “Things I often do” take over, and the eat-work-play-sleep film reel is back on replay. Seeing how often this happens, I start wondering: what does bravery look like in the trenches of daily life?

There is sneaky trickster bravery: giving a passer-by a big smile, being someone’s secret guardian angel, things that populate hope in a lonely heart. There is inner soul bravery: standing still with a soft belly, a clear mind, and sharing my gifts with the world. My bravery looks different from day to day; sometimes it’s passing by the snack shelf, other times it’s having a hard conversation. Whatever its form, the essence is steady: staying right against the edge of the blade of life and keeping self-doubt, self-criticism, and complacency at bay. Some days I do better than others, but day after day, I get up from wherever I’ve fallen and I learn.

The bravest thing I’ve been doing lately is having conversations about politics with my boyfriend where I shut my mouth and listen. Through this process, I’ve come to a singular, temporary hypothesis for a sane life: give up criticizing and focus on growth and understanding. When he talks, I listen. No formulating rebuttals, no assembling of judgment panels, just listening. I feel the tension in my body, I love myself, and I listen as he says things that set off all the alarm bells in my system. And surprisingly, I have survived. I have listened without telling “my” side of the story and I’m still here to write about it. I have stood by silently and left his beliefs alone, and the world did not burn. This may seem trite, small fry, or inconsequential, but it underlies what I see to be the most powerful act of bravery: loving people as they are, without trying to change them.

For me, releasing the need to have a say has been hugely empowering. I have been able to listen more closely and hear between the words. I have been able to try on a mind different from mine and relativize the imperial importance of my own beliefs. And significantly, I have been freed to choose whether or not I open my mouth and speak. 

Spoken words have generally come easily to me; sharing written words, for public consumption, poses a far more daunting task. Sitting down to write requires courage. It brings up a netful of uncertainty, insecurity, inadequacy, and self-criticism. I’ll sit down and begin, and a little monster creeps in after me: “What was I thinking? This is dumb. Other people know way more about this. I barely know anything. Why would I even try to write this. Maybe I’m wrong. I should wait until I know more.”

Often, I want to run away from all these feelings, and often, I do. But sometimes, when I’m strong, when I can train my attention directly on the target. I set aside “I can’t do this” and “I don’t know how to do this”, and I write. When I succeed, I can live the most intimate and satisfying art I have ever encountered: weaving together words to tell the story of an experience that lays upon the surface of my soul.

In this beautiful, messy world, I want to live in a way that brings me alive. This is the true function of bravery: it is the surest route to a fuller life. To value our lives, to know we matter, and to know that everything we do matters, is an act of bravery. To set aside the patterns that run our lives and remember spontaneity is an act of bravery. To lean into discomfort is an act of bravery. To wash the dishes with love is an act of bravery. Bravery comes in many colors–find the ones that suit you, and let them paint you a beautiful life.

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