Bravery

When I was on visiting family last month, my stepfather referenced this series of posts on character strengths and commented that he was interested to see where the post on bravery would go, since it isn’t a trait most of us have the chance to use often. Since this conversation, I’ve been eager to think through this question more. In a culture where most of us have thankfully not had to face combat or warfare, what does it mean to be brave?

In general speech, bravery is synonymous with courage. While in the VIA character strengths classification system it is just one trait under the umbrella of courage, along with honesty, perseverance, and zest, for the purposes of this post, we can use the two interchangeably. According to the VIA Institute, “To be brave is to face your challenges, threats, or difficulties.” They add that “A central element involves facing – rather than avoiding – fears.” Bravery in this perspective can take three forms: physical bravery, like running into a burning building to save a loved one; psychological bravery, like having a difficult conversation or facing a phobia; or moral bravery, which is doing the right thing even it’s hard or unpopular to do so (see also Niemietz and McGrath, The Power of Character Strengths, 93). 

Fundamentally, it’s about truly showing up to whatever situation we’re facing. In this way, Brene Brown’s Vulnerability Prayer comes to mind: “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.” 

I think there’s a deep connection between vulnerability and bravery: we need to be able to tolerate the exposure that vulnerability requires in order to be brave, and yet, we also need to be brave in order to be vulnerable (see Niemietz and McGrath, 95). While I don’t think the two are exactly the same thing, they do seem to live in a positive feedback loop, each reinforcing the other until they become a lifestyle. Research has also found that this bravery-vulnerability combination helps us develop and maintain close relationships, which are the biggest driver of happiness and human wellbeing. Because bravery is action-oriented, it also helps us grow in our personal development and achieve our goals. When we exercise moral bravery, like speaking up for justice or trying to break a destructive cycle in a family or society, it can have important long-term benefits not just for us but for the whole group. 

Within the Christian tradition, bravery has long been understood as a virtue, particularly in its physical and moral dimensions. Psalm 27 connects bravery with faith in God: “Wait for the LORD: be strong, and let your heart take courage — wait for the LORD!” The sense is that we can be brave because we aren’t simply reliant on our own devices, but on God who empowers and guides us. Similarly Joshua 1.9 says, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Proverbs 28.1 suggests that being right with God is another source of bravery: “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” The sense here is that those who do right in the world have nothing to be afraid of; they can stand tall and proud without shame.

These themes continue in the New Testament, for example, in 1 Corinthians, where Paul’s final commands to the Corinthians are to “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (16.13). The biggest theme I see, however, in the New Testament surrounding bravery is the idea of “boldness,” “public witness,” and “freedom of speech.” The Greek word underlying these translations is παρρησια (parrhesia). The Gospel according to John uses this term to describe Jesus’ teaching: he didn’t hedge or hide behind ornate but meaningless “word salads” but spoke plainly and publicly about the Kingdom (see John 7). In the Acts of the Apostles it is used to describe the surprising openness and boldness of the Apostles’ public proclamations (see Acts 4.13, for example). 

The tie that binds these ideas together is the willingness — and trust — to be seen. 

The Epistles expand this idea to our relationship with God: “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face…” (2 Cor 3.12); or “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary…” (Heb 10.19). So, in the thought of the New Testament, we can say that the old sense of bravery — that we can have enough faith in God to allow ourselves to be seen as we really are, whether on the battlefield or in a relationship — has been supplemented with the same sense of freedom and trust in our relationship with God itself: not only are we called to speak up in public, but are also called to speak up before God.

What happens when bravery goes awry? A lack of bravery is simply fear. Without bravery to help us show up in our fear, fear is all that’s left, which can cause us to avoid necessary conflict, or become so risk-averse that we can’t act. When a bravery deficit swings further and becomes cowardice, it can lead to dereliction of duty, abandoning responsibilities, and abandoning one’s principles to go along with the crowd or popular political sentiment, even to the extent of collaborationism. Yet an excess of bravery is also problematic. Without being balanced by prudence, it can lead to foolhardiness, risky behaviours, a “Kool-Aid Man” disregard for boundaries that can damage relationships, and a “John Wayne Syndrome” emotional detachment from actions and their consequences.

So, how might we increase our healthy bravery? Here are some ideas:

  • Consider an issue you’d like to discuss with a friend or romantic partner. If you are too afraid to do it now, what steps might you take to help you build up to having the conversation?
  • Consider volunteering for a role at work or in your community that involves greater responsibility and accountability
  • Make a list of the things you’ve been avoiding (e.g., making a dentist appointment, going to the bank, etc.) and do one a day
  • When you’re afraid, focus on the benefits of acting not the risks

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