Earlier this month, a pizza delivery driver by the name of Nicholas Bostic saw a house on fire. Unlike many people, he not only stopped, he ran into the flames not knowing who might be in there and helped four children escape. Not satisfied, he returned inside the fully-engulfed structure to save one last child, jumping out a window to escape with her. It was an incredibly courageous act, some would say nearly stupidly so, given the enormous risk of walking into a blazing fire and potentially dying to save strangers. It was an extreme act of courage and yet, not the only one I’ve seen recently. It turns out that if you read the news regularly and with an eye for it, you can find good stories too. But what this one really made me think about was what it takes to have that much courage to do a terrifying thing with no guaranteed reward.
Courage is often considered an innate quality; you either have it or you don’t. Like Alex Honnold, the climber, some people just don’t feel fear. The rest of us, though, don’t have to live afraid. We can become courageous. Here are a few ways how:
Learn. Learn all that you can about the thing that scares you, and learn all of the skills and strategies that you can use to address it. For example, the idea of riding a motorcycle still scares me a little. Becoming educated about what causes motorcycle accidents and getting set up with the right gear and training has helped me avoid or manage the more dangerous situations that occur. Finding out that dropping a motorcycle is a fact of life, not something shameful and often not even something that will cause serious injury or damage, has helped me avoid giving up on the skill entirely after the first time my bike went down. I don’t feel braver going out on my bike now, but I sure am being more courageous than I expected I could be before I started riding, just by understanding that many aspects of riding aren’t as bad as I once thought.
Stretch a little. There is a space between comfortable and horrendous. Call it intimidating, frightening, or maybe just kind of icky and gross. Dipping your toes into that in-between is where you can learn courage, by stretching the borders of your comfort a bit at a time until what was once beyond imagination for you to handle becomes only another small step. My firearms training journey was like that: taking a class with friends and from a local instructor at a local range, then changing one aspect of that at a time until now I’m driving and flying across the country on my own to train with teachers I know by reputation and not knowing who will be fellow students. I didn’t have to jump onto a plane at the very beginning to get to where what I do today looks courageous to somebody at the beginning of their journey. Plus part of taking small steps slowly is being able to build support into the next step, like finding out friends will be at that out-of-state class.
Allow yourself to be afraid. Courage is not necessarily fearlessness so much as being willing to act in spite of the fear. You’re going to probably roll your eyes at this next part, but there’s no better way to put it: allow yourself to feel that fear, sit with it, accept it, lean into it. Allow it to sharpen your senses and focus, to raise your heart rate a little, to make you catch your breath. Welcome the frisson of adrenaline. In other words, don’t be afraid of fear. From here, it’s not about figuring out how to cram down the fear so it doesn’t exist, it’s about deciding that you will go on with the fear still with you. When I stand at the top of a ski trail or the edge of a bungee jump, of course I’m anxious and afraid. Almost anybody would be. Courage is embracing that fear and jumping off the ledge anyway. Smartly, safely, hopefully, but jumping nonetheless.
Surround yourself with other courageous people. Not only is courage a skill you can learn, it is one you can acquire by contagion. You know how we all have that friend who will lead us into the temptation of poor ideas? That friend who seems to always be able to drag us along to do something that would seem unwise if you stopped to think a moment? That friend who cheers us on no matter how uncertain any of us are about this grand plan we’re trying to execute? Sometimes those friends can get us into all sorts of trouble. But it’s that same kind of attitude that makes for friends that can get us into all sorts of courage. Leaning on moral support and using cheerleaders to find courage does not dilute it or make it less; it simply makes it more possible for many of us.
Remember that courage is not all-or-nothing. You can be courageous in one area and not another, perhaps nearly fearless when it comes to trying a new recipe but reticent when it comes to traveling alone. Over time, you can use the confidence you gain by being able to do the scary things in one part of your life to take on the scary things elsewhere. Perhaps you love trying new foods, no matter how exotic they may be or how burn-your-mouth spicy someone claims that they are. If you have the courage to take a bite of anything edible offered to you, perhaps you can translate that to having the courage to travel to a place where you know nobody and can’t speak the language. Instead of trying a new food, you’ll try a new place. Or you can be satisfied with being a daring eater because you are courageous at the table and that’s perfectly okay too.