THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Being Brave, Having Courage

Today, a researcher interviewed me. He was looking for people who thought they were brave. Well, in some ways, I've considered myself to be a coward, but then, others have told me I have big cojones, so I volunteered. It was an interesting conversation that got me thinking more about bravery and courage.

I realized that part of my bravery had come from practice, part from learning the ropes and part from past experiences that made me confident in myself and the universe.

I pointed out that I have a theory, described in a book I wrote, The Happiness Response:

Your positive experiences and the good feelings those experiences produce are your most valuable assets, your greatest treasures. These positive experiences, PEs for short, are the basic building blocks for your most valuable inner strengths. They give you the ability to face adversity, enthusiastically meet challenges, feel good and confident about yourself. These are the cherished possessions which enable you to love and to be loved to be happy and have fun, to be caring, committed, courageous, and willing to take risks.

Note how it mentions "courageous and willing to take risks." You see, I think that the good experiences we have prepare us to face uncertainty, or even potential danger or unknowns, to take risks. That's why I've been writing about the joy of getting arrested lately, because I respect, so much, those who put their freedom on the line, even for a few hours. I've come to realize that my attitude towards getting arrested has changed massively. Just a six months ago, I said that I was a coward when it came to getting arrested, that I'd never do it, that it wasn't for me.

Then I started thinking more about it. Dennis Kucinich brought out the idea that health care was a civil right and the idea of using civil disobedience to get that right came to be so obvious to me. I started interviewing people who had been arrested and going to court with some of them. I saw their comeraderie. They told me again and again about the joy they felt. Daniel Ellsberg told me how he literally, when feeling low, would go to a protest and get arrested because it would lift his spirits.

I finally realized that I NEEDED to get arrested while protesting for a cause I cared about. In the interview, the interviewer asked me how I got to the point where I did something brave in my life. I told him about how I feel about artists-- visual, musical, writers, etc.-- that the real artist HAS to do their art. The visual artist has to paint or sculpt or program. The musician has to create music, play, edit, write lyrics. The writer has to write or edit. Real artists don't have a choice. I think the same is true of bravery or courage. When a courageous person sees an opportunity to do something brave or courageous that fits within their value system-- it could be life or career or life-savings threatening, or put her at the risk of embarrassment-- then that person doesn't have a choice. It's part of the wiring of that person's heart and soul. I've written ( Positive Perceptual Filtering) about how SEEING opportunities is part of the skill of positive experiencing, and here, it would be part of the skill of being brave.

The US was built by people with such courage. That courage is what has established such a long-standing reservoir of good will from the rest of the world. It is what makes heroes among us and all around us, because they are all around us. When I ask people, which I do a lot, who their living heroes are, besides Mandela, the Dalai Lama. or a handful of politicians, they usually mention their family members. Courage doesn't have to fight on battlefields. It happens in small decisions we make each day, commitments to do the right thing, to choose the path that is not the easier one.

It's hard to talk about heroes and courage without mentioning the hero's journey, described by Joseph Campbell, and before Campbell, described as the monomyth. The hero's journey starts with a call. The hero accepts that call by crossing a threshold which begins the process of being re-born as a new person. It takes courage to be reborn, to cross the threshold and face whatever it is that requires courage. But to be heroic, crossing the threshold is not enough. One must build new skills find new resources and allies, re-assess your masculinity and feminity (both men and women,) experience an apotheosis-- a spiritual awakening, then bring all those changes home, away from the road, away from the glamorous scene where your courage was first required. To fully manifest courage is to water a seed within you that requires nourishment from within, without and "above." Sometimes courage starts the heroic process. Sometimes something pisses you off or forces you to respond. Eventually, courage is necessary to finish the heroic job.

You might wonder what I did that I considered brave. Frankly, I went more with the fact that I'd been told I was brave by many people, in spite of my own perceptions of myself as a coward in some situations. I can't imagine myself on a battlefield. The first time I ever gave a public speech, my heart pounded so hard, my hands became so clammy and I stuttered so much, the audience felt sorry for me. And I was talking about stress management, which I'm an expert at. But public speaking was not something I'd learned how to do. I did it, but was scared shitless and it showed. Over the years, I've come to LOVE to do public speaking and now, I look forward to it and have done it many times, with acclaim, not sympathy. So I learned to overcome that fear by practice.

I have been an entrepreneur for about 30 years-- haven't had a boss in that much time-- and as an entrepreneur you are constantly taking risks. Some of the people who told me about my cojones were talking about my entrepreneurial efforts. Then there's my website, OpEdNews.com, where I started it as a blog and turned it into what technorati ranks as one of the top 100 blog sites (Huffington Post is ranked number one.) That site is constantly tweaking or outright attacking and standing up to the powerful. Just yesterday the police came to my door because a right wing stalker hacked my twitter account and posted messages I was carrying a glock and was suicidal.

Some of the things I've done that are brave have been very personal -- choices I've made, steps I've taken and I won't discuss them. I have had multiple dreams that I am careening forward, stumbling, but continuing forward, half losing my footing and almost falling. In some ways, they represent the feeling one has when facing uncertainty. But I've also had dreams of flying, of running, and taking off and soaring. Perhaps both kinds of dreams are good preparation for facing the future with courage, because really, facing the future is what courage is all about.

Here's a link to courage quotations in a quotation database I recently designed and had programmed. It's been a gamble, a risk that the time and money invested in it will pay off, but it's been a dream I've carried for over 20 years, that finally came to fruition late in 2009. So, it's not clear yet whether that risk paid off. In some ways, it already has, in other ways, I'm still in that careening down the corridor mode. There have been moments already, for that project, where I've felt I was soaring. Then I catch a bug in the program or realize there are still tens of thousands of quotations on my hard drive that are not yet in the database, and I'm back to that careening corridor.

There's a book by Jack Kornfeld, with a title that sums up bravery and heroism in a nice way. He's talking about reaching enlightenment, but the results, after you've achieved them, are in many ways the same. The book is titled, AFTER THE ECSTASY, THE LAUNDRY. Once you've done something brave, or after you've woken up to a higher level of consciousness, it's not like you stop being the person who has to do the laundry or go to the bathroom or brush your teeth or floss. But perhaps you walk a bit lighter. This is the idea of returning home that is an essential element in the hero's journey. Courage and bravery are not just about facing risk, but also, afterward, about going back to the people you love, your community and fitting back in, playing a role. Kinda brings the tragedy of vets returning home with PTSD, as the movie BROTHERS characterizes.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.