What does it really mean to be brave?
When it comes to human behaviour, emotions, and thinking, the adage “The more I learn, the less I know” is right on. I’ve learned to give up my pursuit of netting certainty and pinning it to the wall. Some days I miss pretending that certitude is within reach. My husband, Steve, always knows I’m mourning the loss of my young-researcher quest when I am holed up in my study listening to David Gray’s song My Oh My on repeat. My favourite lyrics are
‘What on earth is going on in my head?
You know I used to be so sure.
You know I used to be so definite.’
And it’s not just the lyrics; it’s the way that he sings the word def.in.ite. Sometimes, it sounds to me as if he’s mocking the arrogance of believing that we can ever know everything, and other times it sounds like he’s pissed off that we can’t. Either way, singing along makes me feel better. Music always makes me feel less alone in the mess.
While there are really no hard-and-fast absolutes in my field, there are truths about shared experiences that deeply resonate with what we believe and know. For example, the Roosevelt quote that anchors my research on vulnerability and daring gave birth to three truths for me:
I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our a*** kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.
Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.
A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance. The problem is, when we stop caring what people think and stop feeling hurt by cruelty, we lose our ability to connect. But when we’re defined by what people think, we lose the courage to be vulnerable. Therefore, we need to be selective about the feedback we let into our lives. For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your a** kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.
I don’t think of these as “rules,” but they have certainly become guiding principles for me. I believe there are also some basic tenets about being brave, risking vulnerability, and overcoming adversity that are useful to understand before we get started with the Rising Strong process. I think of these as the basic laws of emotional physics: simple but powerful truths that help us understand why courage is both transformational and rare. Here are four of the ten rules of engagement for rising strong.
1. When we commit to showing up and risking falling, we are actually committing to falling. Daring is not saying, “I’m willing to risk failure.” Daring is saying, “I know I will eventually fail and I’m still all in.” Fortune may favour the bold, but so does failure.
2. Once we fall in the service of being brave, we can never go back. We can rise up from our failures, screw ups, and falls, but we can never go back to where we stood before we were brave or before we fell. Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being. This change often brings a deep sense of loss. During the process of rising, we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists. We want to go back to that moment before we walked into the arena, but there’s nowhere to go back to. What makes this more difficult is that now we have a new level of awareness about what it means to be brave. We can’t fake it anymore. We now know when we’re showing up and when we’re hiding out, when we are living our values and when we are not. Our new awareness can also be invigorating—it can reignite our sense of purpose and remind us of our commitment to wholeheartedness. Straddling the tension that lies between wanting to go back to the moment before we risked and fell and being pulled forward to even greater courage is an inescapable part of rising strong.
3. This journey belongs to no one but you; however, no one successfully goes it alone. Since the beginning of time, people have found a way to rise after falling, yet there is no well-worn path leading the way. All of us must make our own way, exploring some of the most universally shared experiences while also navigating a solitude that makes us feel as if we are the first to set foot in uncharted regions. And to add to the complexity, in lieu of the sense of safety to be found in a well-traveled path or a constant companion, we must learn to depend for brief moments on fellow travelers for sanctuary, support, and an occasional willingness to walk side by side. For those of us who fear being alone, coping with the solitude inherent in this process is a daunting challenge. For those of us who prefer to cordon ourselves off from the world and heal alone, the requirement for connection—of asking for and receiving help—becomes the challenge.
4. We’re wired for story. In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there’s a surprisingly simple reason we want to own, integrate, and share our stories of struggle. We do this because we feel the most alive when we’re connecting with others and being brave with our stories—it’s in our biology. The idea of storytelling has become ubiquitous. It’s a platform for everything from creative movements to marketing strategies. But the idea that we’re “wired for story” is more than a catchy phrase. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathise, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA.
My hope is that the Rising Strong process gives us language and a rough map that will guide us in getting back on our feet. I’m sharing everything I know, feel, believe, and have experienced about Rising Strong. What I learned from the research participants continues to save me, and I’m deeply grateful for that. The truth is that falling hurts. The dare is to keep being brave and feel your way back up.