Courage? Embrace your inner scaredy-cat

Don't be put off by those bigger, braver, souls out there.
Crosscut archive image.
Don't be put off by those bigger, braver, souls out there.

Editor's Note: This essay is part of an occasional series on courage that will run in advance of Crosscut's first annual "Courage Awards" ceremony on October 31st.

In the original "Wizard of Oz," L. Frank Baum's novel, the Cowardly Lion is convinced he is full of fear and therefore has no courage. Even so, he performs acts of tremendous bravery: jumping across huge gaping holes in the yellow brick road, his friends on his back, or fighting off monsters with tiger heads and bear bodies.

Of course, what we realize in watching the Cowardly Lion is that he has great courage. Courage is, in fact, acting in the face of fear. In the words of Nelson Mandela: “The brave man is not he who is not afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Over the past 12 years of working in the field of immigrant and human rights, I have watched people take enormous risks in order to tell their stories and be part of a collective movement for change. I have also seen courage manifest around me in countless ways as we live our lives, often protected from some of the worst calamities.

I think of Celeste, whose undocumented husband climbed out of the window of their house to avoid being picked up for detention, leaving her and their one-year-old son (both U.S. citizens) to fight for him and for their family as he was on the run for years. I think of women who are victims of violence and come forward to show their bruised bodies and souls, in spite of tremendous fear of reprisal. I think of undocumented DREAMers who dare to dream publicly in spite of their status.

I think of Brian Murphy, a policeman who was shot 19 times as he tried to protect people at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and then instructed first responders to help other victims first. I think of men and women who “come out” to their friends and families to announce who they really are. I think of natural disasters — Katrina, Sandy and El Reno — when neighbors helped neighbors and strangers helped strangers, not only in the immediate time of the disaster, but in the aftermath as everyone had to bury children and rebuild lives. 

There are many more stories of courage and bravery, but most important is the question lying underneath them all: What allows us to access our courage? I believe that every human being is born with both fear and courage. Fear is more easily accessible, though — a visceral emotion that too often comes unbidden, uninvited, even unnoticed. Fear seems so much a part of us. 

Courage is just as much a part of us, but it takes more effort, more intentionality. We must either call upon it to come forward or create the space for it to emerge — unbidden but necessary so that we can act in integrity with our basic human goodness. It is often the response to a choice put before us. In the wake of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to dampen our courage to speak out and do right. “You’re either with us or you are with the terrorists,” he proclaimed. And yet, thousands of Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs came forward and spoke out at tremendous personal cost. They were driven by fear for themselves and their communities, but also by a genuine sense of injustice and moral outrage.

And, as is often the case, single acts of courage inspired others. Courage is a quality that, when tended to, increases — not only for the person who is courageous, but for those around them. Courageous acts are like snowballs rolling down a hill, gathering steam, first one, then a hundred, then a thousand acts of courage, coming together like a symphony orchestra.

Great leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Rosie Parks, Sojourner Truth and Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated courage guided by intuitive moral choices that had enormous societal impact. We need inspiration and leadership like that to remind ourselves of what we are capable of and to remember that courage is not just something for someone bigger and braver and stronger than us.

But, like the Cowardly Lion, each one of us has the ability to call forward courage or to let it be called forward. And most probably, we do call it forward each day with dozens of courageous acts, some that are unnoticed by a bigger public.

As important as those larger-than-life leaders may seem, courage is also something that happens in the quiet of the night, at home, when no one is watching.

If someone asked me what my most courageous act was, they might be surprised to know that it wasn’t starting Hate Free Zone/OneAmerica in the wake of 9/11, challenging the Federal government for racial profiling and civil liberties violations or getting arrested in the streets for civil disobedience. 

No, I think I would answer that it was standing by my baby son’s NICU unit, when he was born at 26.5 weeks and weighing just a few ounces shy of two pounds, and believing every day that he would live, while knowing that the odds were that he would die.

It was a silent act of courage — with no cameras, no public posture and not even the words to talk about what it meant in the moment. But it allowed me to trust myself, to believe that if I could make it through that experience, I could make it through everything. It showed me what I was made of. And, without a doubt, it gave me more courage — as my son got older and better — to prepare me for those later moments of courage in my life that were public, about building a better society and a better country.

Ultimately, it is our acts of courage that save ourselves and save our communities. Courage is a personal act, but almost always has an impact that is about someone else, about others who benefit. Courage is, in my mind, about humanity — about tending to others at a cost to oneself, about believing in our innate goodness as human beings, about conquering fear and speaking from a place of love.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is a Democratic member of Congress, representing Washington state's 7th District.