22 October 2014

Don't Call Me the "B" Word

Over the course of my years on this Earth, Dear Reader, I've been called a lot of things. Some flattering, some not. I'm okay with most of what I've been called. Things like "candid" ring true, and I take great pleasure in being called "funny", for instance. "Moody" is certainly applicable, though people newer to my circles will find it hard to believe I've actually evened out quite a bit over the last several years. Recently, though, I've been called something new and I've fixated on it:

"Brave."

I've shared some rather personal things publicly here in this blog over the years, particularly my experiences with depression and anxiety. Crohn's disease, I tend to discuss more in terms of the affects on my daily life and emotional status than the physical aspects of living with it. I sometimes share other personal matters, too. And sometimes, as I did a couple of months ago, I share things privately with only my inner circle. One reason for that private sharing is not wishing to publicly make reference to someone else (a self-imposed rule of mine, that I protect the anonymity of people who didn't know when we shared our experiences that I would one day have a blog under my actual name). Other times I don't share things here simply because I'm not ready to let go of them and hand them over to the rest of the world.

In any event, it was in the course of discussing one such personal matter recently with my inner circle that a few of my closest friends called me the "b" word. It didn't feel right to me. At first, of course, my resistance was treated as false modesty but that wasn't it. Nor was it actual modesty.

After much deliberation, I've come to understand that I reject the label because all I've done is adapt to experiences over which I had no control. Bravery, I feel, requires an element of choice. Diving into the water to help a drowning person is an act of bravery because the rescuer elects to assume personal risk. But suppose the person in the water was pushed (it can even be a swimming pool; doesn't have to be the Atlantic Ocean). Is that person brave for being in dire straits, or for doing whatever possible to stay alive?

I don't think so. I think simply coping with an experience is outside the realm of bravery. Plus, there's the flip side - the implication of the reverse, that those who have struggled to cope with their experiences lack bravery. I don't believe that's true at all. Life is often overwhelming, and in different ways for each of us. We all have areas of vulnerability, from inexplicable phobias to traumatic experiences. It would be terribly callous to pass judgment on those who haven't coped with their respective issues as lacking bravery. Coping is a process. Sometimes, it's a never-ending process, depending on the issue and the way that it affects the individual.

On rare occasion, I think a case could be made that I've displayed bravery. Nothing terribly impressive or dramatic, mind you, but bravery just the same. Coping with my life experiences, though? What else was I supposed to do, or for that matter, even going to do? There was an action; I gave a reaction. That's Physics 101, not the litmus test for a medal.

If I ever do something noteworthy that involves bravery, you can be sure I'll crow about it in this blog. Take it from me: I haven't. And no, I don't consider sharing with others what I've dealt with an act of bravery, either, though I can certainly understand how for many people in various circumstances that would be such an act. Allow me to offer two entirely off-the-cuff examples from subjects that have been on my mind recently. I don't intend to equate or conflate these two examples, but rather to illustrate a range of experiences in which I believe that sharing does constitute an act of bravery.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai speaking out against the Taliban, for instance, and then telling the whole world what they did to her, surely required incredible courage. The women in the video game world being targeted and threatened by #GamerGate who continue to try to do their jobs knowing their home addresses may be doxxed within the hour, have certainly displayed fortitude that I both admire and lack. But again, these examples involve a certain element of choice. Yousafzai and the #GamerGate targets risk placing themselves in greater peril each time they've called attention to the respective injustices they're combating.

For those who have also been called "brave" for enduring some kind of experience, I don't mean to undermine whatever sense of self you've built around accepting the compliment. If feeling brave is how you've carried on, then by God, carry on being brave. I'm certainly not qualified to tell anyone how to process their own experiences.

But for those of you who are still trying to sift through things, and who hear the praise heaped on others who have made it farther along in the coping process than you have, take heart. The discrepancy between your progress and theirs may be due to myriad factors, but bravery is not one of them. (This is also a good time to remind you how unhelpful and unfair it is for you to measure your experiences against someone else's.)

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