On courage

Back in December someone called me a coward. I was taken aback; no one had ever called me that before. I’ve been called a lot of things, a lot of worse things even, but never that. Quite the contrary, I’ve always been known for my courage. At least that’s what I’ve been told, and I’ve often wondered if it weren’t perhaps the only personality trait that I could be sure was congruent with my self-image.

So, courage has been on my mind a lot lately.

In American culture, we associate courage with heroism. It’s an act of bravery and selfless duty to others put in harm’s way as personified by a whole slew of Marvel super heroes. And whether it’s physical bravery as exemplified by our valiant soldiers or even Joe the plumber, or the courage to speak out against hate and violence as did Martin Luther King or Harvey Milk, we Americans revere our heroes and strive to be like them. Anything less is indeed perceived as cowardice.

That’s a lot to live up to.

In French the word “courage” has a whole other meaning. If someone’s having a bad day or is faced with the slightest challenge, it is common to tell that person, courage. Be brave. To hear it in English it sounds almost condescending, but it is not. It’s the most normal and polite thing you can say to someone in France. I say it all the time, and in turn, people say to me all the time.

I love this.

It’s refreshing for me to think of courage, of bravery, as something we strive for everyday, in the smallest ways. It isn’t reserved for life-threatening situations and grand causes, but something we all need all the time, just to get by. Because sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed let alone save the world.

American, “Stupid, worthless, no good, goddamn, freeloading son of a bitch…”
French, “Allez, courage.”

I don’t know why I’m thought of as courageous. Maybe because I’m a Leo and lions are traditionally equated with bravery. Maybe because I have always been outspoken. Maybe because I’ve done a lot of things that people might consider risky or dangerous. But most likely it’s because growing up I didn’t think I had a choice. I didn’t think I was allowed to be weak or vulnerable or anything less than brave. Luckily for me, I now know better.

I don’t have super powers.

I don’t know why she called me a coward. I suppose she was just lashing out – she was angry with me. But I think too that she was expecting me to save the world, so to speak, even though I had made it clear that I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. The irony is that if she had had human-sized expectations of me, rather than hero-sized, I would certainly have measured up and probably even exceeded her demands. I wonder if she thinks about that.

No, courage and bravery aren’t reserved for heroes. I am certainly no hero, except maybe in that moment when I recognize someone’s plight and can encourage them, “allez, courage,” I feel heroic then, in a human-sized way.

Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is admit to only being human.