by Jack Bragen
Bravery, the ability to persevere in the face of fear, is a widely admired trait. There is no shortage of people who have it, including soldiers, policemen, firefighters, peace and civil rights activists, and also numerous journalists.
But, in some situations, isn’t bravery contrary to evolution? Doesn’t getting killed in an act of bravery cause one’s genes not to be propagated? Not really. For example, if you save the life of a family member, even if you get killed in the process, that family member will propagate a number of your genes. That’s why bravery isn’t in short supply in our species, but also why it has its limits.
Sometimes bravery comes into play when quality of life is at stake. If someone has a terminal illness, or if they are living in conditions that are untenable, clinging to life seems to be less important.
Numerous individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement put their lives on the line for the sake of a larger purpose. The fact that African American people have faced discrimination and oppression, have been denied basic human rights, and have been outright killed, was, and continues to be, a good enough reason why many people have exhibited bravery.
Bravery seems to come into being when there is a cause someone can believe in that is more important than the continuation of one’s own life.
Sometimes bravery is misguided, such as when there is a suicide bomber, or when someone participates in a war. In these instances, someone sacrifices their life for the purpose of causing more destruction. Other acts of bravery are noble and serve the cause of peace and justice.
I believe bravery can be inborn, or it can be learned. But besides the willingness to endure physical danger, there is another form of bravery that I want to discuss. This type of bravery allows you to think for yourself.
As a teen in public school, I observed there was no shortage of male students who would hide behind a mask of bravado. They often felt big and strong when they picked on little guys like me.
Nevertheless, when it came to the possibility of standing out as different or showing a vulnerability, few had the guts to do that. Most students didn’t want to stand out as different because of the likelihood of being targeted for ostracism and worse. When they came after me, it was usually in numbers. What does that tell you about their level of bravery?
The environment in public schools has been such that anyone who stands out as different in almost any way, shape, or form is ostracized and becomes a target.
The environment in which most people are raised teaches people to be socially afraid. This means that while there are many who are willing to risk life and limb when a situation calls for it, there are few who are willing to stand out looking like an outcast or a fool, or as someone called dishonorable. Many people are more afraid of social rejection than of the possibility of being physically harmed.
This is one reason why it is so frightening to live as someone who stands out as different. For transgender, gay, and lesbian people, they experience the danger of people physically attacking them, and they face the specter of social rejection. When bullying takes place, the victim of that treatment exhibits bravery, and not the perpetrator.
I was targeted because students believed I was good to pick on. In a couple of instances, I fought back physically, and in some instances, I fought back verbally. My older brother got it worse than I did, and was physically assaulted — the bullying he faced included getting his nose broken when a student punched him in the face.
The bully uses your fear as a weapon against you. If you learn to stop being afraid, it helps your situation. Even when I was in my 20s, people came after me. When I got into my 30s, due to the environment I was in at the time, I learned how to stand up for myself a lot more, and this included times in which people would come after me who were as much as twice my size. Upon getting older, having a more mature, more serious stance, and having a head of gray hair, most of this has gone away. But not all of it. On occasion, I have encountered violent men who are more than willing to come after an older, smaller man.
But, what is the essence of bravery, anyway? It isn’t good or bad, since people can be brave for constructive as well as destructive reasons. It often comes from being in a situation in which one has no choice. While there are some who volunteer to face danger, others are not as adapted to it, but will, when a situation calls for it, rise to the occasion.
While bravery isn’t always well purposed, we need to have a lot of it so that we can face the difficult years we are currently up against. Regardless of what politicians we elect, harder times are coming. The United States and other countries are falling apart politically and economically; we are having increasing civil unrest; and we can’t count on anything.
Moreover, we are already seeing that those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, disabled and retired people, are the first to fall off a cliff. If we can cultivate bravery and the ability to adapt, it will only serve us well.