Recently, one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Glennon Doyle Melton of momastery.com, wrote about the definition of bravery. Let me begin by explaining how much I adore Glennon. Hers was the first blog I ever truly “followed” years ago, and I have found much wisdom and guidance there, as well as in her book, Carry On, Warrior.
But when I read this post about a week ago, it didn’t sit well with me. I fell asleep thinking about it that night, and when I saw it had gone viral the next day, I read it again.
Bravery happens to be our focus this month in Ellie’s homeschool character study series. So, we’ve been reading and talking about bravery quite a bit. Maybe this is why I honed in on the following excerpt, reading it multiple times to fully digest the words:
If we are going to tell our kids to be brave, we must also tell them what brave means. Over time I have come to believe that brave does not mean what we think it does. It does not mean “being afraid and doing it anyway.” Nope. Brave means listening to the still small voice inside and DOING AS IT SAYS. Regardless of what the rest of the world is saying. Brave implies WISDOM. Brave people are not simply those who JUMP every time. They do not necessarily “do it anyway.” Brave people block out all the yelling voices and listen to the deepest voice inside the quietest, stillest place in their heart. If that voice says JUMP, they jump. And if that voice says TURN AROUND – they turn around, and they hold their head high. Often the one who turns around shows GREAT BRAVERY, because she has been true to herself even in the face of pressure to ignore her still, small voice and perform for the crowd.
Brave is VERY SPECIFIC and EXTREMELY personal. It can’t be judged by people on the outside. Just can’t. Sometimes brave means letting everyone else think you’re a coward. Sometimes brave is letting everyone else down but yourself. Amma’s brave is often: loud and GO FOR IT and Tish’s brave is often: quiet and wait for it. They are both BRAVE GIRLS. Because each is true to herself.
Brave people only answer to ONE voice and that is the voice that arises within. Brave people are just people who trust themselves more than they trust the crowd.
Brave is: To Thine Own Self Be True. And Brave parents say: I trust you, little one – to Be Still and Know. I’ll back you up.
Where there is much truth here—as is often the case with Glennon—and I’ve experienced this type of bravery during several significant moments in life, I believe it is dangerous to redefine the term altogether. Being true to oneself, to one’s heart, is indeed an important quality of bravery, but only one.
Bravery has many faces.
Listening only to the voice that “arises from within” is a beautiful, poetic concept … but in reality, we all know how difficult it can be to access that still small voice. Sometimes our selfish, fearful, shame-filled voices are simply louder than the whisper of truth.
So in our excitement to join Polonius’s charge of being true to self—at the risk of redefining bravery—let us not forget or diminish the original concept.
Bravery is doing the hard thing when we know it is best or it is true or it is just.
Indeed Tish did a hard thing in not caving under adult pressure. I see the bravery here. In reading the account, I cheered Tish along, imagining my own sensitive Ellie in her scenario, and I found Glennon’s supportive, tender parenting response simply beautiful, as I often do! I can only hope I’d respond with similar wisdom.
I also see how this situation extends to Tish’s ownership of her body, and how this is an extremely significant point here. Clearly this moment planted seeds of confidence in Tish’s heart, allowing her to feel more in control of herself, which will likely blossom into full-blown bravery as she grows into adolescence. Beautiful!
Even still, in the larger scope of things, if we use this scenario as a benchmark for bravery, I’m afraid we may fall short. Because in this situation, both options (to pierce or to not pierce) are equally acceptable. One is not truer or better or juster.
In my opinion, being true to self isn’t always enough. Because the self is a slippery thing, not fixed at any given moment. We aren’t born with this permanent self that we can look to for direction. Certainly, we have unique personalities, passions, strengths, weaknesses, and character traits that bud in our infancy, growing full bloom as we age. Anyone who has had children knows this.
But these are not the only substance of the self. From how I understand it, the self is also composed of an intertwined relationship of heart, mind, and spirit—which means it evolves.
My 33 year-old heart, mind, and spirit are not what they were at 21 years of age, praise God! And they haven’t simply matured into a more sophisticated version of what they once were—they’ve changed.
So, here’s my point.
Our girls need to learn another kind of bravery. One not dependent on the current status of the self. They need to learn how to face their fears and move forward, instead of being allowed to shrink back. How to do the hard thing when it is right. This learning is a gentle, gradual process, and in my opinion, it has little to do with ear piercing or cliff jumping.
When I was teaching, I saw this type of courage in a girl:
When she defended an unpopular opinion.
When she took creative risks with an assignment.
When she offered her story for writing workshop.
When she refused to let a failure defeat her.
When she stood up and spoke, in spite of her shyness.
When she supported a friend who was being ostracized.
When she shared her unique perspective in class discussion.
When she extended friendship to the lonely student.
And in their writing, my students shared their brave, vulnerable moments:
When she turned down that drink.
When she stood up for a friend.
When she told a difficult truth.
When she forgave a parent who left.
When she grieved the death of a loved one.
When she sought help for an eating disorder.
When she continued to speak while being silenced.
When she showed up and reached out during an onslaught of cyber bullying.
When she experienced genuine compassion and acted on it.
In these brave moments, girls often have to fight the voices in their heads—the ones that scream “give up,” the ones that taunt “you’re a loser,” the ones that lie “you’re all alone,” the ones that speak the fear of “you’ll never be good enough.”
Brené Brown calls these critical internal voices our “shame gremlins.” And when their taunts are at full volume, it can be a difficult task distinguishing them from the still small voice of truth.
This is why, in my opinion, looking inward can’t be the only source of bravery.
Yes, be true to yourself. Sometimes this is the answer. This is what I did when I walked away from a career in order to stay home with my girls and write. This is what I did when I decided to homeschool. Both decisions went against popular opinion, yet both emerged from deep within me. I knew each was the best HARD choice. At these moments, I understood my heart, and I trusted it.
But the internal voice isn’t always that clear. Sometimes it’s muddled, and sometimes it’s silent, and sometimes I simply can’t distinguish it from all the other voices. Am I starting to sound a bit crazy here? Well, it is a bit crazy! But with us TRUTH SEEKERS, sometimes we have to wade in the craziness in order to find what is right.
So in these moments—when I lose sight of truth— I look outward for direction.
I look to others who have walked this path before me.
I look to my faith and to the God in whom I trust.
I look to writers and prophets of our age.
I look to my children, who daily remind me of what matters most.
I look to nature, where I often find peace and clarity.
I look to empathy, to hope, to goodness, to justice, to mercy.
Because here’s the deal, I am not the source of all goodness and truth. I get it wrong. A lot. Being true to self is important, and the freedom to do this (remember that so many women historically and culturally never dreamed of enjoying this freedom) is a great source of joy in my life. A joy that I hope and pray my daughters will also experience.
But I’m afraid that if we only look to ourselves for guidance, we will become the center of our own little universe.
And this is not what I want for my daughters. Because I believe that it is in the giving of ourselves—opening up to love and courage and faith and joy and vulnerability and sacrifice—that we in turn find our meaning.
And this is why, no matter how much I adore her, I cannot agree to Glennon’s redefinition of bravery. Yes, let’s honor brave moments such as Tish’s, let’s give “being true to self” and “following your heart” its rightful place, its own bullet point in bravery’s list of multiple definitions. But please, may it not stand alone.