Because bravery comes in many forms, it took me a long time to see it in my own life. I suppose I was looking for big, bold moves and life-size proclamations, when in my heart I felt quiet and shy and mostly scared. So I decided early on that I was not courageous at all, and it became part of the story I told myself. Without realizing it, I painted myself into a corner with that tale: if I saw myself as cowardly, I was not very likely to be fearless when it was called for. As with so many things in life, though, it took looking backward to see that my own version of bravery was always there.
When I was younger—unfocused and not very grounded in myself—I didn’t have the wherewithal to navigate my way into going away to college or moving to New York to be a writer, or joining the Peace Corps, or any of those things I associated with being brave. This was following a kind of disastrous time in high school, when I certainly wasn’t bold enough to come out as gay or even do anything that would make me seem different than the popular girls. My memory is that it was more important to be accepted by others than it was to be on good terms with myself.
On our best days, bravery is us being us.
What I realize now is that my teenage betrayal of myself is what prepared me for the daring work I started doing as a young adult. No matter how few outwardly heroic things I was doing, I started getting to know myself. I learned to tell the truth, I figured out what I really believed in, and I managed to sit with myself as I was. And I don’t say this to present myself as a person who bucked up and did what everyone else should have been doing. In truth, I’m a person whose inner voice is so loud that I had to slay that dragon before I could even think about those in the outside world.
But, because coming to terms with myself was such an internal task, and one that didn’t result in anything very tangible, I didn’t give myself credit for that work for a very long time. It has also occurred to me recently that I could never do most of what I’m doing at this end of my life without having been brave enough to sort though all of my own junk way back then. It didn’t seem brave to spend years in therapy, but it was the foundation for being able to take some more obvious risks now. And I didn’t think of courage at all when I quit drinking nearly eight years ago. I was thinking more about losing weight, and not having to always negotiate with myself about a third glass of wine. Where heroics came in was having to just be with my own very vocal brain when I had grown accustomed to drowning it out with a couple of glasses of chardonnay.
I also know how much of my version of courage comes from movies and books and television—romantic sagas about people putting aside their fears to master the world. I spent a lot of years comparing myself to those images and falling short. My quiet efforts to just face the world as an introvert didn’t mean much to me for a long time. As a woman who always felt like an impostor I was in awe of women I knew who took huge risks to achieve some dream they’d always had to change the world, or at least their own worlds. I get it now that what bravery looks like on someone else may not be the same as it appears on me.
We’re all brave every single day—just getting up and engaging and connecting. And the more we do it, the easier it gets. I often wish I’d understood much sooner who I really was and what I was accomplishing in the world. Instead, I can remind other people not to discount their own brave steps—the valiant ways they stand in their own shoes and face all they have to face. I think if we knew the courage we all demonstrate in our lives it would give us a huge boost. And it would be a great reminder that, on our best days, bravery is us being us.