In English class, we teach many stories about brave men who return home from war as victors and heroes. In The Odyssey, we have Odysseus who’s bravery comes from his abilities to out smart and over power the gods, and overcome the obstacles, his commitment to sacrificing and saving his men so they can return home, and his ‘loyalty’ to his wife, Penelope (his ’emotional’ loyalty, of course, not his ‘physical’ loyalty). In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio and company return from war, winners and heroes; the film adaptation, the women decide it is time to take their yearly baths to celebrate the brave men coming home. In Beauty & the Beast, Gaston is commended for his bravery because he, too, has won battles, which is why he flaunts around his athletically inclined body and all the girls swoon over him. In each of these stories, bravery is given to those men who return home from war as ‘winners’ of battles–we characterize these men as ‘brave’ due to their physical attributes–they are strong enough to defeat a mutinous army, attractive enough to seduce the goddess, tall enough to see over the heads of the enemy. They are brave, because they are naturally and physically inclined to be so.
Of course, we do not live in a society in which men fight cyclopes’ and come home from fighting the Spartan army (and there’s speculation if there ever was such a society that even existed). When we live in a world where we think we can only be labeled as ‘brave’ by slicing open the head of Medusa, and there’s actually no possibilities for us to express this type of bravery (because these creatures don’t actually exist, unless they are in the stretches of the rain forest or the depths of the oceans that we cannot reach), then this might leave us feeling like cowards–because we could never possibly be an Odysseus or a Claudio, or even a Gaston.
A couple weeks ago, I attended a church retreat, and one of the activities was to write a story on a card, and hang it on the wall. As I read the cards and stories, I was humbled by the obstacles and struggles that people go through–anywhere from diagnoses to grieving death to overcoming addictions, a failing marriage, children who are disobedient, infertility, financial stress–the list goes on and on with the possible things we, as people, could struggle with. As I looked at these harrowing stories, all I could think about was how brave we must all be to conquer this world, despite the absence of mythical creatures, tumultuous gods and goddesses, and blood thirsty leaders who want to expand their empires. But, we can still consider ourselves modern day brave when we conquer any situation that might initially bring us fear.
And, I think bravery can take many forms. For some, bravery is taking a risk by starting a new business–certainly the frontier is unknown–it is scary to invest money and time into something that people may not come to. For others, bravery is walking back into a room after there has been some kind of confrontation, disagreement, social media status, that has been shared–feelings of shame, awkwardness, uncomfortability are certain to follow. For some, bravery is living simply and structured so that you do not fall back into that routine of drinking, or of binging–the road back to these habits is certainly easier and more convenient to follow, but you know that they are also destructive and divisive. For others, bravery is just waking up and going to work every morning–because you are so plagued with grief, with anxiety, with fear, with disappoint, with whatever suffering this world has thrown at you.
Of all the brave people that I know, and in all the forms of bravery they display, the one thing I think they have in common is that they , and while fear certainly is instigated, it does not prohibit them from going forth and conquering. This simply could be showing up to a test or a job interview–despite the fact that you have test anxiety, and that there is opportunities for failure, and you know you will have to spend time talking yourself down and giving yourself confidence, you show up anyways, because it is just what you have to do. This could be forcing yourself to show up to a social gathering by yourself–while there is potential for you to walk in and not know anyone, not be acknowledged by anyone, and stand in the corner awkwardly–you know that you can’t let these fears and social anxieties limit your experiences of the world–so you take your fears and all of your irrational thoughts, and even though your stomach knots up as you walk in the door, you go anyways. Or, you receive some kind of life altering diagnosis–I can’t think of anyone that I know of who had cancer and just said, “Well, I’m afraid of needles, so I guess that’s my end”. Instead, while needles definitely can be painful, and their treatment an unknown, and the possibilities of surgeries and hair loss and weight loss definitely prevalent, they still show up.
So, while we certainly may not display the same bravery as Odysseus, or as Claudio, or even as Gaston, as A.A. Milne once said, “you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter thank you think, and more loved than you know”. So give yourself some credit. It takes a brave, brave person to exist in this world that is full of temptations, full of disease, full of injustices, and full of broken human nature.