Issue #58: Bravery and Belonging
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." — Anais Nin
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Last week, I returned from Maui for my first real vacation in two years, one that didn’t include medical leave or a workcation, a poor imitation of true leisure and relaxation. but truly disconnecting and recharging. I fully intended to lounge on the beach, snoozing to the sound of the waves while reading salacious beach reads.
After a couple of days, I opted to do a bit of exploration. I lived my best Little Mermaid life going whale watching and saw so many whales. I felt so joyful that I nearly cried.
Later, I went on a small group hike through the rainforest in the northern part of the island and surprised myself with an unexpected moment of bravery.
I’m terrified of heights. I don’t even walk on the glass floor of iconic skyscrapers like the former Sears Building in Chicago. I went to Rio with friends who decided we should go kite surfing over Copacabana. I chickened out last minute once I realized it required running off the platform to take flight. In 2015, a friend and I had dinner in the lounge in Burj Khalifa in Dubai. We optimistically chose a table next to the window 125 floors above the ground, and we were shocked at how both needed liquid courage just to sit down.
So when my hiking guide Jacob said 15 minutes into the waterfall hike, “Let’s jump off that waterfall,” my response was a prompt and emphatic NOPE. I stood on the sidelines watching the rest of the group take the plunge and immediately felt like a bit of a scaredy cat. I promised him I would jump off the next one, but secretly wished that we wouldn’t come across a good one. Imagine my surprise and terror, when two hours later, we found ourselves at another waterfall, this one about 1-2 feet higher than the last one.
I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest as I looked over the ledge. Somehow I was too nervous to vomit despite the nausea. And yet there was Jacob telling me that fear of heights was expected and normal. Then he said, “three seconds of bravery and you will come out as a new woman.” I managed to be sarcastic and stuttered something about that being a bold claim. And then I leapt.
There are countless stories of bravery that celebrate heroes succeeding and emerging triumphant against all odds. And we hear these stories in the news now with the Russia-Ukraine conflict ranging from the grandmother taking down a drone with a jar of pickles to all the memes involving Molotov cocktails as weapons of war. But bravery doesn’t have to be life threatening to be life changing.
"You must be vulnerable to be brave." — Brene Brown
Belonging requires vulnerability. To find safety and comfort in intimate and interpersonal relationships, we must be our authentic selves to be fully known. The emotional connections we forge with our communities and networks come from others witnessing and validating who we are. We should expect the fear to come in all its terrifying glory, but leap anyway because there is greatness, growth and connection on the other side of being vulnerable enough to try.
So it says something negative about our cultural norms and dominant narratives that this week marked a rare moment of daring bravery that America’s legislative leaders came together for the performative bravery of warmongering and making Daylight Savings Time permanent but not the vulnerable bravery of building a more sustainable world or ending poverty. To be clear, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is shocking and wrong, but the choices not taken reflect sidelined issues that are also shocking and wrong requiring more intrinsically driven, vulnerable bravery.
The VIA Institute on Character describes three different types of bravery:
Physical bravery (e.g., firefighters, police officers, soldiers)
Psychological bravery (e.g., facing painful aspects of oneself)
Moral bravery (e.g., speaking up for what's right, even if it's an unfavorable opinion to a group)
When I look at the intersection of bravery and belonging, I see a few positive and hopeful signals of arenas for psychological and moral bravery that could cultivate belonging:
Signal 1: Trevor Noah is the most vocal celebrity calling out the abusive nature of the Kim Kardashian/Pete Davidson/Kanye West triangle, flying in the face of social norms and salacious pop culture watching. In case you aren’t familiar with this situation, Kardashian has begun dating Davidson while divorcing West who has quickly moved from behaving as a hurt soon-to-be ex-husband to publicly humiliating and harassing his soon-to-be ex-wife and her new beau. West has sent countless text messages, posted several social media messages, moved next door, sent unwanted “gifts” and pretended to kill Davidson in a music video. Noah called out the public abuse, spoke candidly about his mother’s experience with domestic violence, and chided those applauding and encouraging West’s behavior. With all out assaults on women’s rights and safety in both public and private spheres, the moral bravery of countering the silence and complicity that enable harm to others is essential.
Signal 2: Abby Ramsay went viral on TikTok after finally ending her six year journey for sterilization with a photoshoot stylized as a birth announcement. Ramsey sought sterilization for medical treatment of her long, heavy periods and a reflection of her wholehearted embrace of a child-free life. The extraordinarily long ordeal of having to overcome medical sexism and cultural normalization that all women need and want to be mothers elevates the reality and validity of women choosing how to live their lives irrespective of the expectations of others. When the world tries to tell women who they are, the psychological bravery of standing firm in one’s choices expands notions of what it means to belong to certain social identities.
Signal 3: Amid the steady drumbeat from policy makers and corporate leaders calling for a return to the office, one man decided to mount a protest by moving into his cubicle, saying that he couldn’t afford an apartment and commuting to work. Moral bravery can become overly serious. Instead, Calm Simon chronicling his journey on TikTok. The 4-day protest and performance art piece hints at how breaking social norms and unreasonable expectations also can be met with humor and absurdity rather than only intellectual arguments and evidence.
Signal 4: The wave of anti-progressive bills in Texas ranging from voting restrictions to anti-trans gender affirming care have endangered millions. In response, 65 businesses published a signed ad in the Dallas Morning News with the headline “Discrimination is bad for business.” The ad reaffirmed the commitment to diversity and demanded that the governor of Texas rollback anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives. As we anticipate the extreme challenges in the decade ahead, institutions will need to foster what Jennifer Freyd calls institutional courage:
…commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution. It is a compass oriented to the common good of individuals, the institution, and the world. It is a force that transforms institutions into more accountable, equitable, healthy places for everyone.
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