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  • Bravery

    Posted on February 1st, 2010 Sheila Yair 1 comment

    cliffHow do we define bravery? What makes us admire a certain action and call it bravery? Everybody is telling me how brave my mom is. She is lying on her death bed, her body filled with cancer. She is staring death right in the eye without even flinching. Death is all around her and within her, snooping about watching her every move, waiting to claim her and she totally disregards it brushing it off, for now, with a few good books, marijuana cookies and some movies.

    So let’s see if we can make some sense of bravery.

    It is said that there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness. We tend to associate bravery with success and failure with inanity. So bravery has an element of chance to it. It is something we define retrospectively. It can not be judged alone without looking at the consequences. Military history is filled with stories of commanders who defied all odds with risky maneuvers. The successful ones are considered heroes and the ones who failed are usually forgotten or some times shamefully disgraced by history. Many times it was weather or a mistake on the enemy’s side or any other uncontrollable event that sealed the fate of the maneuver and with it the bravery or failure of the commander. But it is not only in the military where we judge bravery this way. Let’s say we have a start-up company and a certain fellow who invests all his money in this risky company, is that brave? Well if the company succeeds and the investment grows a tenfold no one will say there walks a dumb man but if it collapses very few will say this is one brave investor. Albeit being the same man who took the same action, consequences beyond his control will determine his bravery. The only time we are willing to accept lack of success and associate it with bravery is when one sacrifices himself for a greater cause. A fireman jumping in to a burning house is brave no matter what the outcome is. Aid workers who travel to war torn hazardous places are brave whether they succeed or fail in helping the people. But if a person walked a tightrope, without any greater cause, and fell would we still call him brave? It is just as dangerous as a fire or a war torn country. So we have another element to the equation, we judge bravery by outcome and whether there is some greater cause or sacrifice involved.

    Speaking of tightropes I have recently seen “Man on Wire”, the incredible story of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the world trade center. All the images of the twin towers bring back memories, like watching photos of a dear one that is no longer with us, but there is one photo that shows the roof of one of the towers, a tiny Philippe standing above it and the 450 meter abyss below him. That one shot sent shivers down my one meter spine, all of a sudden I realized the proportions, the height, the scale of these buildings, the size of his challenge. He was going to cross this unfathomable depth on a narrow rope. He had to hide from authorities, lug up a lot of heavy equipment, coordinate two teams and finally walk across the abyss. He succeeded and won world fame. And of course is considered a very brave man. So this is what we have so far to define bravery, you have to go against something illogical, to dare do something that seems impossible. You need to succeed in it or have some greater cause involved. But logic is a very general term. Each of us has what he or she defines as logical or illogical. And many times our logic is not very “logical”. Staying on the tightrope, if someone was to attempt walking across a tightrope between two buildings that are 50 meters high that would not be considered as brave as Mr. Petit’s World Trade Center walk. Even though a fall from either endeavor would most likely have the exact same result, one less tightrope walker. That is because our logic is not binary, we do not operate on ones and zeros alone like all the handy computerized devices that we surround ourselves with. What we call logic a lot of times has a great deal of emotion in it. For a claustrophobic person it is probably very illogical to walk in to an office. And it is very brave to spend day after day there with only the fear of being fired and forced to leave that small confined space. Now before all you office workers start fanaticizing about having a documentary done about you, shedding light on your courageous life, how you walked time and time again in to that cramped office space defying no open windows, circulated air and artificial light, remember that you are the majority. Since there is no “logical” logic, we have to go by numbers. Most people fear heights, especially ones that rise up to 450 meters, but Philippe Petit doesn’t, so that is bravery, on the other hand most people are not claustrophobic, so walking in to an office, that is ordinary. I guess my 3 year brush with corporate America will never be documented. We also don’t really pay heed to probability in our logic. For example there are about 3000 automobile accident related deaths a day. That is about a million a year. So I guess we can say we have less than one sixtieth of a percent chance to die in a car. But actually I calculate that based on 6.8 billion people, if we calculate based on the people who actually have and use cars, around 600 million, it is a sixth of a percent each year, 1 out of 160. That is fairly dangerous yet hardly anyone thinks twice before stepping in a car and heading towards the highway. So now the office workers who were denied their documentary for being in an office are saying lets roll the cameras because here is a real danger, statistically proven, that they endure and face each day. But again disappointment, for there is no bravery without fear and fear has little to do with probability. We are dealing with a collective notion, if all society was alliumphobic eating garlic bread would be courageous but there are so very few who fear garlic or even use that word. On the other hand if we would not fear anything in this world than Philippe Petit would only be a commuter, walking between two office buildings he would probably even have to stand in line to get on the tightrope. Since not many people fear automobiles getting into a car is not brave. So we are progressing, to be brave you have to defy something that is feared by most people, you have to succeed in it or at least have a greater cause involved. But documentary films aside bravery like logic and fear should be individual. It is brave to walk into an office if you are claustrophobic, it is brave to eat a garlic knot if you are alliumphobic. To talk to your boss, to take a vacation, to admit your wrong, to run a marathon all these things involve overcoming anxiety therefore they are brave. Bravery is the ability to disconnect yourself from your surroundings, the determination to go ahead and achieve something even when in dire circumstances when danger is lurking and fear is in you.

    So back to my mom who is lying in her room. With cancer the logic above is abolished since it is brave to fight the disease but also brave to accept it and deny treatment. Are we so generous with bravery because we give respect to the sick or because fatal illness is so tightly integrated with our greatest fear of all, the fear of death? I don’t know. Is my mom brave? I also can’t say. I know she made a choice long ago to never get old, to never live without the ability to run and swim and hike. And now she is following this decision adamantly even in harsh circumstances and on the edge of death. And I also know she is acting in a way very few people could bring themselves to act.