A few years ago my family was sitting together at the end of a boozy Christmas dinner, when my sister decided we should play a fun game and describe ourselves in three words. This is certainly a very revealing (and not especially fun) 'game' to play with people who know you best - or rather THINK they know you, because everybody knows a slightly different version of you and there is really no true version as everybody changes from moment to moment. And so it came to my turn and I commented that I saw myself as brave and the whole table erupted in laughter. That is not something you forget and I'll admit I felt stung and hurt. We all discussed our version of bravery and why they thought there was no way I should consider myself as such. This came down to a long time understanding that I am seen as a 'worrier' in the family; when I was weaning my children - I was worried they'd choke - one did have a severe gagging problem that even had the health visitor jump out of her seat to help my baby daughter and I used to worry about homework and tests at school.
I have since come to realise it's important to make a distinction between a description being a PART OF person versus a generalised descriptor, as nobody is always one thing. I now know that I was not a 'worrier' but had an anxiety disorder when I started school. For the first two years of secondary school I felt the urge to visit the toilet 3x every hour (I actually didn't need to go) and also went through a phase of being petrified of spontaneous human combustion and slept on my parents' bedroom floor around age 14. I think the vital realisation is these acts did not define me as a whole, but were parts of me and moments that happened.
I'm pictured here roughly age 12 and the picture reminds me of brave moments I do recall, such as letting huge waves wash over me at Dover in December (perhaps more foolhardy than brave) and being cajoled into swimming in a lake during a thunderstorm by my father (also perhaps more foolhardy). Certainly when we look at bravery, we might not feel generally brave but it's important that we acknowledge brave actions on our own terms and celebrate them.
The Oxford School Dictionary (the only dictionary I have at home, but still handy) defines brave as simply facing something dangerous or unpleasant, but it doesn't quantify or qualify what that could be. In our dinner discussions one family member mentioned bravery as 'saving a life' or going to fight. I have to admit at the dinner I was so hurt (and questioned if I really knew myself that well) that I could hardly justify my own reasonings for seeing myself as brave - my own immediate example was doing stand-up comedy in front of 100 people, and another time in Finland, going in a sauna and frozen lake (twice) but of course seem to pale in comparison to the idea of saving a life. I decided to dig deep into how I define bravery and what count as brave acts.
To be truly brave I believe we have to challenge our own fears, and it's important to recognise that these are individual and unique to you. Also that we all have brave moments that may seem small to others but are huge to us, and these should be celebrated. Once we realise that we can be brave on our own terms, we can takes steps to further challenge ourselves. A brave act for some could be simply taking a bite of food, or making a phone call. It could be reaching out for help, when we are afraid of being judged. When I had post-natal depression, I now realise that revealing my horrific intrusive thoughts for the first time was actually brave. Also, when I showed my controlling ex-partner how badly he was treating me (I do realise things could easily have escalated and become worse) I was being courageous and although he did say he finally realised how out of order his behaviour was, nothing ultimately changed (such is life). It took me four long years to finally arrive at that seemingly small act of bravery and for me it was huge, as was finally leaving him. I have even been called brave with my art, especially for my political work, and my more personal pieces such as "I'm just a little tired". The greater the fear (and potential repercussions) the higher the level of bravery but every brave act should be celebrated. As I read all the protests and Facebook discussions about Black Lives Matter I am realising now is the time to stand up and be brave, to speak out in the face of sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia. I applaud all these efforts but we also need to speak out in some of the harder situations, not just en masse or by challenging someone on the internet behind an anonymous facade. We need to challenge those around us with narrow minded prejudices in our immediate surroundings. The next time someone makes a 'bad taste' joke, call them out on it. The next time someone makes a derogatory comment, say something. This is also brave but it is important. I am not advocating people putting themselves in danger and I know this speaking out in this way can elicit difficult reactions as we might be risking a friendship or more, but it's only when we create a ripple effect by saying something in every situation that we can have a lasting impact on opinions everywhere.