Recently, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation and wondered privately if I was being “brave” in my handling of it. Posing this made me question whether I knew what true bravery looks like, or even what the word “bravery” actually means.
When linguistically stumped, I’ll often consult the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Upon doing so this time, I learned the following definition:
brav·ery | \ ˈbrāv-rē , ˈbrā-və- :The quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty: the quality or state of being brave
Moral strength? Facing danger? Fear? If I were a knight heroically saving a (textbook beautiful) princess by doing battle with (and hopefully slaying) a fire-breathing dragon, then surely would be the definition I’d want. But alas; this is rarely the case.
With no damsel-in-distress or fire-breathing dragons in sight, I re-read the definition again, only this time paying even closer attention to the words. And it was with this intensified look that a more honest definition of bravery became clear to me.
True bravery, I learned, is the quality or state we experience when facing something that is hard or difficult for us- the key word being us. Because what’s considered “hard” or “difficult” is different for each of us. Put another way, the “fire-breathing dragons” we all encounter in life will in reality, look different to different people.
For one person, bravery might be jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet; for another it might be giving a speech in front of strangers.
For some, bravery might be plunging into the deep end of a swimming pool – especially if they aren’t 100% confident of their swimming abilities!
And for others, bravery is gently relocating a creepy crawly spider, despite being incredibly terrified of creepy crawly spiders, just to save its life… Now that’s brave!
Or sometimes bravery is something as simple as refusing to go along with a popular opinion of friends, because we don’t agree with it ourselves. Going against the familiar grain of life often requires bravery, as the past year has taught us on several levels.
How about the terrifying act of asking a special someone out on a date? Bravery!
Psychologist Susan Jeffers says we should, “face the fear, and do it anyway”, and I tend to agree with her. I’ll also add that whenever we’re in the thick of being brave, we rarely feel brave. In fact, many times we’ll confuse our bravery with weakness because we’re also feeling frightened. But let’s be clear about this: Bravery–disguised as fear–is true strength.
I remember learning firsthand what bravery is. It was 6:00 am on a cold January in 2010, and a rare dusting of snow covered the sidewalks outside Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital. Inside, my son Tristan and I were in the pre-op waiting room getting ready for the medical team who’d be soon performing a difficult and life-saving surgery on him.
My son has muscular dystrophy; and a major characteristic of this disease is scoliosis. Scoliosis is a bending of the spine that, in my son’s case, meant without this corrective surgery his body weight would eventually crush his internal organs. The surgery was to attach two titanium rods to his spine using two screws per vertebra to stop this from happening.
When we’d first heard of the surgery two years earlier, the doctor described it as an eighteen-hour procedure requiring a twenty-inch incision. This was to be followed by a two-to-four month recovery. Since that initial meeting we had attended six more with the doctor to prepare Tristan (and me) for this life-changing operation.
Despite his maturity, at fourteen Tristan was no longer a boy, but not fully a man. This surgery was a lot to ask for someone at his age to go through. When asked how he was feeling, he replied in an upbeat mood saying that he was feeling great. So I let it go.
And me? For the benefit of my son I was doing my best to put on a “brave face”, although secretly I was terrified of what the next twenty hours held for my dear sweet boy.
The doctor arrived and asked Tristan if he had any questions. T replied with a funny comment that made us all laugh, and then he said he was ready. As we walked (and wheeled) into the O.R. together, I clasped his hand and assured him I’d be there as soon as he woke up.
As the anesthetist worked his magic, I looked deep into Tristan’s eyes, stroked his forehead and told him how much I loved him, and how proud I was of him. I’m not sure how much of it he heard before passing out. I gently kissed his forhead, thanked the doctors and turned for the door. As I left they said, “He’ll be just fine”. I didn’t know what to think.
Without a doubt, that day was the longest of my life. When Tristan wasn’t out of surgery exactly at eighteen hours, I thought the worse. At twenty-two hours when the doctor finally appeared, he explained that due to the severity of Tristan’s scoliosis, it took longer than normal. Either way, my boy was safe, alive, and recovering.
After a week’s stay in the hospital, I had arranged for the second week of recovery to be at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice so Tristan could be in familiar surroundings. It was the best thing we could have done for everyone involved.
The following weekend, we transported him back to our home in Victoria in an ambulance, just to be safe. I know he was feeling better, since Tristan asked the driver if he could bring a friend along (they said yes) and have pizza in the back (yes again!).
The next month was spent getting Tristan in and out of his chair slowly, and then off to school (45 minutes away) with a daily goal of increasing his out-of-bed time by a few minutes. His positive attitude never wavered, nor did he ever complain. He worked hard each day to reassure me he was getting better, and insisted I not worry about him.
Eight weeks post-surgery, we shot a short video to update friends about his progress. When I look at it now some eleven years later, I see something that I missed at that time. I see extreme courage and bravery on Tristan’s face as he says “he’s doing better”.
After enduring a major surgery and recovery, my son spoke with kindness, eloquence, good manners, and was doing his very best to live up to the expectation of success he’d set for himself. Above all, he didn’t want to let anyone down; and he put on a brave face to ensure this was the case.
But here’s the thing: Several years later when I brought up the ordeal, especially the joking with the doctors just prior to surgery, he finally told me the truth. “I was terrified Dad, but I also knew that being scared would upset you, so I made jokes instead”.
And there you have it: bravery, in its purest form.
These days, I see bravery in most of Tristan’s daily actions. By navigating a world that perceives disabled individuals as being unable to advocate for themselves, or contribute to society in a meaningful way, he shows bravery by doing these things.
When service people see his wheelchair and breathing tube and ignore him, he doesn’t shy away; instead, he speaks to them in an educated, eloquent manner that invites them to join the conversation. By doing this, he demonstrates bravery.
I said earlier that true bravery is the quality or state of facing what’s difficult for us as individuals. The circumstances that make my son show his bravery are probably different from what makes other people brave, and vice versa. And that’s the point. Bravery is unique to each of us.
Anytime we feel fear or discomfort about taking certain actions, it’s important to recognize it’s our bravery that helps us to face them, no matter how difficult they are.
Whether big or small, it’s important to recognize that the discomfort we feel when facing a difficult situation (like a complex surgery, a fire-breathing dragon, a big spider or asking someone on a date) is the sign that if we want to move the situation forward, then we need to be brave.
So that’s what bravery is; for me at least. It’s our pushing ourselves to do things that are difficult or uncomfortable for us, hoping they improve our lives. It’s having faith that we want the best for ourselves and are prepared to take the actions to prove it.
And with that bold declaration, here’s hoping I don’t run into any spiders or fire-breathing dragons; not for a while at least.
Author Bio: David Knapp-Fisher
As founder of The Inspired Humans Project, David loves sharing inspirational stories. His TEDx talk, “Discipline or Regret, a Father’s Decision” been viewed over 100,000 times, and his first book, “Punch Failure in The Face, Then Buy It a Beer” has 36 five star reviews on amazon.ca.
David lives in Victoria B.C. where he spends most of his time trying (& usually failing) to stump his son with movie trivia, or planning his next big adventure; both while drinking great coffee, of course.