It’s common to have memories that you look back on with a fair level of self-deprecation over having lost your backbone in a crucial moment. I certainly do it from time-to-time. Every once in a while I feel a twinge of something bordering on disgust when I recall some opportunity that I was too timid to apprehend, some injustice that I was too afraid to speak out against, or some action I took that was dictated by what others expected of me rather than what was true to myself.
You feel kind of stupid when you remember these moments. If you could, you would go back in time and give yourself a good shake and tell yourself to nerve up. You would let your inexperienced-self know how many chances for bravery you’d passed up, and you’d tell him or her how much better your life would be if only you’d been brave.
While it is perfectly natural to think that way, the fact of the matter is that it’s almost never true. Of course your life would be different today if you’d made different choices in the past, but that isn’t to say that you were devoid of courage. Maybe you were too afraid to ask Mary-Lou to the dance when you were thirteen, but you were the only one in the neighborhood who had the guts to climb that one really tall tree. Or maybe you were too timid to speak up when you suspected that you boss had passed over you because you are a woman, but you’re also not afraid to be single while all of your other friends are in relationships.
Everyone was born with the capacity for courage, but courage is like a muscle in that if you don’t exercise it, it doesn’t develop.
The skinny guy and the massive body builder both have biceps, the only difference is that the latter exercised his, and they grew stronger. Or for some people, their muscles become stronger due to external circumstances, say, if they do a lot of hard labor.
Your sense of bravery works the same way, and like a strong muscle, a well-developed sense of bravery is a highly useful tool.
From the small to the large, courage plays a role in human existence. For some people, it takes courage to try out a new recipe, which allows them the pleasure of a new experience. For others, bravery helps them break the bonds of oppression.
We need bravery. It’s what has allowed us to evolve to what we are on a collective level. It drove us to cross oceans, challenge outdated truths, and end horrendous practices like Apartheid and slavery.
It also plays a key role in our individual evolution. Bravery is what pushes you to ask out that girl who is out of your league. It’s what gets you to fight for the good job. It’s what pushes you to step up when an injustice is committed against another person. All of these actions give a person character worthy of esteem.
So the question now is, how does one develop their sense of bravery?
We’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s pin down exactly what it is that we’re trying to develop.
Bravery is Not Fearlessness
All-too-often, we silly humans mix up bravery and fearlessness. The girl falls for the tough-guy who isn’t afraid to fight anyone (and who usually proves this by going around starting fights with everyone). Or the nation follows the leader who is willing to take on the world, regardless of the consequences. We think that their lack of fear is what makes them brave.
A rock fears nothing, so does that make it brave? Of course not.
Fearlessness is a lack of something, not its presence. And when you experience a moment of bravery, it fills you up. There may be no other moment in your entire life in which you are more present, more full, than in the moment when you are being truly brave.
Let’s take a word from the wise: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
These are the words of Nelson Mandela, who was an undeniably brave human being.
The fearless muscle-head who’s not afraid to fight anyone and everyone is not exhibiting bravery. He’s just an actor in a play, wandering through life reacting to prompts that are given to him, playing a character rather than exhibiting character himself.
The truly brave, on the other hand, are the ones who aren’t afraid to re-write the script.
So what is bravery, exactly? Let’s break it into six tenants:
- Undergoing fear, but acting anyway
- Following your heart regardless of external pressure to do the opposite
- Trudging onward in the face of adversity
- Standing up for what is right
- Willingness to look beyond what is familiar and to venture into the unknown
- Experiencing suffering with dignity
Now that we know what it is, how do we learn it?
It’s simple – take a look at the list above, and identify in which areas you fall short. Then, go out of your way to put yourself in situations that give you practice.
Practice Makes Perfect
Bravery is something that is learned, not taught. You can have all the brave role models you want, and that’s all they are: role models. Their behavior can serve as a model for what you need to do in order to exercise your bravery, but there’s nothing they can tell you that will make you brave.
So how do you develop your courage? It’s rather straightforward, actually. Seek out the unknown. Go toward adversity and suffering rather than away from it (it’s usually closer than you think). Strike out to the places where your morals will be tested and confronted, then stand up for them.
Travel. Think of the countless stories and epics we’ve passed down across time in which the hero must undergo a lengthy voyage in order to develop and prove his or her bravery. When you travel beyond your conventional horizons, you are presented with a smorgasbord of opportunities to experience moral outrage, discomfort, fear, suffering, and adversity.
Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? We’ve all been taught that we’re supposed to avoid suffering, fear, and discomfort at all costs. We’re taught that moral outrage and standing up against adversity are for a trouble-making few.
The fact of the matter is that most people find all of these things unendurable the same way that people who are unhealthy or out of shape find exercise to be intolerable.
And that is exactly why courage fails the former, and the body fails the latter