I think when I set this intention, I envisioned myself doing things I felt good about. I think I saw myself doing things that I was scared to do. I pictured myself feeling proud, and I looked forward to feeling like a strong, and triumphant, and brave person. When I picture what "brave" looks like, I see a handsome, muscular knight in dirtied, bloodied, roughed up armor sitting atop a huge, beautiful, muscular, white horse. They look a little worse for the wear, and they also look triumphant. They look beautiful and muscular and strong and proud, knowing that they have withstood a terrible storm and that they have arrived on the other side, victorious.
Here is the truth: I don't look like that knight. I don't look just a little beat up. I don't feel like I've been just a little beat up. To borrow a phrase from my grandmother, I'd say I look like I've been pulled through a knothole backwards.
And perhaps the thing the fairy tales never tell us is that, after the battle, the knight experiences insomnia, the horse never lets anyone ride him again, and they both end up in therapy. Maybe that is the part of bravery that none of us ever sees. If I have learned anything over the past ten months, it's this: all bravery must have a private face. If it is real, it must have a too-fast heart, and too-shallow breath, and muscles that shake inside their skin. It must, right? It just must.
Or perhaps I search for these answers purely because my bravery is not beautiful. She is not muscular. She does not shout, or rally, or sing and exalt in her own strength.
Instead, my bravery forgets how to smile. Forgets how to breathe. She is built from clenched breath, sleepless nights, a racing mind. She is powered by aching muscles, repeated mantras, an anxious stomach, and constant self-doubt. A mixture of fear and action, my bravery acts only because she will not let herself see another way.
Her only strength is putting one foot in front of the other and trying to live as if bravery is a thing we can live into: as if brave futures are as promised to me as old age, and gray hair, and laugh lines.
More often than not, bravery feels like a mixture of brokenness and vulnerability, and nothing about it feels very ninja heart at all. Acts that seem to take monumental strength are the smallest steps you can imagine: sending an email. Talking to a friend. Accepting love. Believing in kindness. Remembering to breathe.
Is this bravery? Is this -- this thing I keep living and acting within as I tell myself I am practicing bravery, acting bravely, being brave -- is this actually bravery? Is it vulnerability? Is it just straight-up fear that I'm trying to mask as something positive? Is it bravery if the tears hiding under the surface sometimes spill over? If the body erupts into a temple of shaking cells that cannot find warmth, or safety, or calm?
I'm choosing to believe yes. I am choosing to believe that this -- this mess of tears and shaking and tightness and breakdown -- I'm choosing to believe that this is bravery, unmasked. This is what happens to the knight after he fights the battle. This is the place the princess resides after she slays the dragon. This is not Hollywood bravery. Not fairy tale brave. It is breakdown, and vulnerable, and tired brave. It is one foot in front of the other brave. It is the bravery to act as though you believe you are worthy of love and kindness when your bones tell you otherwise. It is the bravery to act as though you believe in others' love and kindness, when your very cells tell you to stop.
Stories of bravery are supposed to be triumphant, swashbuckling adventures of action and passion. They are stories that are meant to be shared, and heard, and told and retold and loved.
But this -- who would ever want to hear this story?
Not all brave stories have a heroine at their center.
This is bravery, unmasked, and real.