a tome of the brave

It’s hard for me to hear the word “brave” without imagining that supposedly inspirational but somewhat annoying song. You’re welcome for the reminder.

When most of us hear that word, we might think of some of our society’s standard heroes, like the military, police officers, firefighters, etc. I don’t want to discount that in any way, but a few years ago my primary visualization of bravery changed. I don’t want this post to be all about me, but I do want to explain what happened.

As many of you know, I went through a long period of depression. I probably still exist on some scale of slightly, permanently depressed; it seems to be part of my personality. And, in a few very dark moments, I’ve even been suicidal.

I heard an analogy recently that made a lot of sense to me. Someone teetering between severe depression and suicide is like being in a tall building that’s on fire: you feel like your only choices are to jump or to be burned alive. In other words, it sucks.

Thankfully, I eventually got the help I needed. I got some really good therapy, and was given the tools to deal with my past and take control of my own life. I finally learned and was able to accept that life would not always be amazing or even good. Life could be difficult. Really difficult. And painful. But, living became worth it.

At some point during my therapy, I was trying to explain some of the things I was learning to my wife. And she looked me straight in the eyes and told me something I’ll never forget: “You are really brave.”

That was the exact moment that my understanding of bravery changed.

I’m assuming it’s not easy or painless for anyone to deal with their past, or to really work through their emotions. It definitely wasn’t for me. It took everything in me to drive to my therapist’s office and open my mouth, barely able to say a few words through all the tears. It would’ve been much easier to not fight my demons. I could have just accepted the voices in my head telling me I would never be “good enough” and that I should just give up.

Here are some of the people I now think about when I hear the word “bravery”:

The single parent struggling to raise a child because they stood up to an abuser.

The person who creates boundaries with the toxic people in their life.

Someone suffering intense mental or physical pain but chooses to endure.

The teacher who doesn’t immediately see the impact they’re having on their students’ lives, but keeps fighting for them every single day.

The social worker who has no idea if what they’re doing is actually benefiting anyone.

The person who works a seemingly dead end job for years until it finally pays off, leading to a promotion or a better job.

The pregnant teenager who knows she can’t take care of a child, and makes the difficult decision of not bringing that child into those circumstances.

The black worker who refuses to be treated as less than anyone else.

The transgender man or woman who begins the long process of transitioning to the person they know they’ve always been .

Last week, I was privileged to spend some time with an old acquaintance who I hope I can now call a friend. We never really knew each other very well, but we went to school together from junior high to high school. As I’ve learned more of his story, it’s given me some perspective on the reality that the people around us might be going through some pretty difficult things.

Taylor made a documentary in 2008 about some pretty important events in his life at the age of twelve (I highly recommend that you watch it for free here). One of the events was that he was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Another was that he had his first sexual experience (with a man much older than him, only much later being able to accept that it was sexual abuse). And, finally, his older brother was stabbed to death.

The documentary became gut wrenching to watch at certain points. But, the thing that hit me the hardest was when he went to the prison to meet with the man convicted of killing his brother. I can’t imagine having the courage to do something like that. It was very inspiring to watch, and Taylor has officially been added to my list of heroes.

Facing the abyss at the center of existence comes in many different forms. Sometimes, we simply lack the courage to keep on keeping on, and the void wins. Sometimes, we don’t heed Nietzsche’s warning, fighting with monsters only to end up becoming monsters ourselves. But, sometimes, we stare directly into the pain and the death, and we give it the universal middle finger.

And, one person’s bravery makes us all better.

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