BRAVERY DISCUSSION GROUP SYNOPSIS
These are approximate recreations of the discussions in the conversation group, with protections for participants such as anonymity, and the removal of specific, identifying details. The quotes are not actual quotes, but are recollections of mine that reflect the various twists and turns of the conversation.
“I’d like to have more bravery,” ventured a person brave enough to start the conversation. “I think about what I see from rescuers and firefighters and police—what is the expression? They run toward danger while others run away.”
“That’s the truth,” said another person. “I think I’d be terrible in an emergency. I think I’d be one of the people who run away, or passes out.”
“Hmmm… don’t be so hard on yourself. Very few of us have been tested in that way—we actually have no idea how we’d react in situations like that. It’s always ordinary people on the news who save another person from a burning building.”
“Is that really brave, though? Don’t you have to know something is dangerous before you do it in order for it to be brave? In that moment, you just do what you DO. It might be instinct to act, like fight-or-flight, just a biological reaction.”
“Like dogs. Dogs get medals of valor in war,” offered a person whose brow was wrinkled in thought. “They might save lives by sniffing out bombs, but they aren’t aware of what they are doing. If they don’t know it’s dangerous… is it really brave?”
“Danger is something you sense, not something you think about consciously. I think any kind of animal can sense danger and still be brave enough to get past it.”
“But those dogs are also trained to do the action we could call ‘brave’,” countered someone else. Then, after a pause, “I wonder if you could train yourself to be brave in tough situations? Run drills, prepare yourself, be more ready in case of emergency.”
“Isn’t that what paramedics do? The lifeguards at my beach do lifesaving drills so they are better-prepared in the real deal.”
“I think you can get more assured in certain situations by training. Some people say doctors are brave, but I am becoming one, and I don’t feel brave per say,” said a young woman with curly red hair. “I just feel capable. My training makes me more certain and less afraid.”
“And you could use your training and your instincts to save a life. And at the end of the day, others might assume you were really brave even though you are just really good. ‘Brave’ is something we say afterwards, when we look back in retrospect—it’s a label, not a feeling.”
“Like when other people tell you you’re being brave by doing something, and you think, ‘no I’m not.’ There are some things that are really easy for you, but are hard for others. I’m a professor, and I love to speak in front of my class, but my friends tell me all the time it would be their worst nightmare to talk to hundreds of people.”
“Yes,” added another, emphatically nodding. “It’s all in the eyes of others. I don’t think we ever look at ourselves in a moment and go, ‘yeah, I’m being brave.’ “
“Maybe talking about being ‘brave’ isn’t accurate to how any of us would describe ourselves. Maybe when we think about ourselves and we’re trying to get courage in the moment, we should focus on acting ‘bravely’ “
Several people nodded as the group took a moment to reflect on that.
“It’s things we aren’t used to that require bravery. If it’s something we do all the time, then it’s easy: you know what to expect. When you don’t know what to expect, you need to be braver.”
“I understand that… I was afraid to come here tonight,” says a woman with jet-black hair, dressed in a leather jacket. She speaks slowly and softly. “I mean, what IS a conversation group? I had no idea, so I had some hesitation.”
“It’s embarrassing, but I actually had to talk to myself as I approached the door… and I almost talked myself out of it!” says a woman covering her smile with her hand. “It took more bravery to come here than I realized it would. I’m not a shy person, but I knew this would be about sharing, and that can be intimidating.”
“It’s a kind of bravery we haven’t talked about yet, but one that really matters to me. Like both of you, I’m trying to be braver in social situations. When you’re dealing with other people, you’re vulnerable. You feel exposed because you never know what other people’s response to you will be.”
“Good point,” I say. “Is it more brave to be vulnerable socially or physically?”
“I think social things are bigger fears to face. That stuff is way harder for me.”
“Me too,” and plenty of others are nodding.
“I don’t know…” offered a woman with graying hair. “The older I get, the more physical things scare me. I don’t feel as secure as I used to.”
“I feel the same way,” offered another woman with deep crow’s feet. “I used to do things like ski and skydive—I loved the surge of fear. Now I can’t even get on a plane without my palms sweating… Have I become less brave?”
“It’s just practical,” another older person offers. “We know the older we get, the more difficult it is to bounce back when we hurt ourselves physically. I feel my movements now. I know if I break a bone, it might never heal properly.”
“It’s like we have more to lose,” says the first woman who spoke on this subject. “I am on the cusp of having grandkids, and I want to be able to chase them in the yard. Lift them above my head. If I hurt myself, I can’t do that. So I try to be more careful than I was in the past with my body.”
“We change our focus. At some point, we gain enough that we want to preserve what we have, rather than trying for something we don’t.”
“I don’t think you are less brave as you age,” said a 30-something woman with freckles. “Actually, I’m finding as I get older, I am more emotionally brave than I used to be,” “I was afraid in my 20s of looking silly, or being outside the norm, or of being alone. I wasn’t as free to speak my mind, be myself—now, I’m in my 30s and I love it. I don’t care what people think anymore, at least, not like I used to.”
Smiles all around. “And if you love your 30s, wait until your 40s. I used to worry that my body didn’t look the ‘right’ way, and now I’m like, I’M FORTY! I look GREAT! And I don’t really care if you agree.”
“Yes! It’s like being brave enough to put yourself forward, no matter what the response is. Not changing yourself or compromising your story to fit in– in some ways, that’s very brave.”
“That’s a really important kind of bravery—it’s being strong and smart enough to listen to your own intuition. Especially when that means sticking out from others.”
“…or going against the group,” builds someone else.
“That reminds me,” said a fresh-faced blonde. “I have a friend who skis in the woods, off the trails. What do they call that? They have to train for it—prepare to get out of avalanches, that kind of thing. Anyway, the training actually suggests they always have a woman in the group. Because women are more likely to speak up in a group full of men to say they don’t feel safe about a particular thing. It’s easier for the guys to get caught up, and of course, they can be fearful of looking like they aren’t as courageous as the other guys.”
“It’s true,” mused a person sitting back from the table. “At times, it might be braver to listen to your internal fears than to just proceed. Maybe it’s braver to be cautious. Being the voice against the others, a reasonable voice, can be exceptionally brave.”
“Yeah. Even though from the outside, your friend could be looked down upon as cowardly for not wanting to proceed, she was actually brave to stand up to them and NOT do something… It makes me wonder how often I’ve mistaken action for bravery, and inaction as cowardice. When in reality, internal bravery might lead to NOT acting.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
The group sat with this thought for a long moment.
“There’s also a difference between bravery and stupidity,” someone else offered. “Some of that over-the-top, adrenaline-junkie stuff… like base jumping, it’s just disregarding your safety. Jumping off a cliff without a parachute? That isn’t brave, it’s dumb.”
“I don’t know—it still takes guts to jump off a cliff,” counters another. “I think those people are brave people.”
“That brings up an interesting question,” I say. “Are there people who are just brave by nature? Or do people all have bravery in them?”
“Nobody is just a brave person all the time. I’ve seen people who are supposedly so strong, and they have crumpled and cried over a spider on the wall. We all have our weaknesses, and when it comes to those weaknesses—we just can’t be brave.”
“That’s me,” admitted someone, sheepishly. The group chuckled.
“Everyone has fears that are hard for them to overcome, but nobody gets through life without being brave at least once. It’s an ability we all have.”
“I absolutely think there are brave people,” said someone else, solidly. “Think of people in history who stood up to the authority of their time, knowing they could be hurt. Plenty of them put themselves in harm’s way to prove a point. That is the definition of brave. And it takes a certain kind of person to do that.”
“Right…. not everyone would die for what they believe in. Does everyone know the story of the first Christians who were fed to the lions because they wouldn’t renounce their faith? When confronted by authorities, plenty of people lied about their faith rather than die—and the narrative in the Bible is that the martyrs were right to die for their beliefs. But given all we have talked about, which path was really braver?”
“I know that story…. and I never questioned the moral before, of taking faith to the grave. But I see that it’s like what we talked about earlier, how taking big risks can be stupid. What’s the line where it becomes reckless and pointless to be a martyr?”
“What’s even braver about that situation,” said another, softly, “is they don’t know if the harm that comes to them will amount to anything. That’s got to be the scariest thing, thinking maybe their message will disappear with them, and it will all have been for nothing.”
“Think of that,” marveled another. “What is more brave than facing down consequence even though you have no idea if your suffering will mean anything at all?”
“Other historical figures, like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, they fought for justice or to right a wrong. And that meant putting someone else’s well-being ahead of their own. Putting yourself in danger to benefit others is braver than taking a risk to benefit yourself.”
“But it’s not common that we’re in life-and-death situations, so why are we discussing bravery in that way? Sure, you have to be facing something that harms you or your world in some way. But when it comes to our lives, those consequences aren’t as drastic as the examples we just talked about.”
“Building on that thought,” I say. “What about times you personally have had to be brave?”
“I had to be brave to come out to my parents,” someone says timidly. “And I was worried I’d lose them, which was a big consequence. But now… I don’t feel that brave, because there was a day where that would have been even braver. Fifty years ago, I could have lost my job or even been thrown in jail for being gay. People who live fifty years from now might not even have to fear coming out at all… so definitions of what is brave can also change over time—as consequences change.”
“It was still a brave decision,” someone else says with a smile.
“It’s funny. Deciding is often worse than actually doing something. I know when I have to decide something big, I feel awful inside—tortured with fear. But once I decide something, I stop feeling anxiety, at least, not on that scale during the choice I made. I wonder if it takes more bravery to choose than to follow that choice up with action?”
“I think so,” said a woman with wire-rimmed glasses. “I moved to India for a year, and everyone was so quick to say ‘Wow! How brave!’ But as much as I agonized over the decision—by the time I talked to them, I was just putting one foot in front of the other to get there. That part was easy by comparison.”
“Did you feel brave once you arrived?” asks another person.
“I don’t think so. I certainly was overwhelmed at times, but things are less intimidating once you actually experience them firsthand… although, on second thought, I wonder if I’m shortchanging myself by not considering that brave, because it was on some levels.”
“Maybe we don’t give ourselves enough credit for things we do that are actually brave—maybe we have a blind spot when it comes to our own bravery, and more easily see it in others.”
“Well, I think you were all brave to share tonight,” I say, as I bring the group to a close. “Give yourselves credit for that.”