THREE LEVELS OF BRAVERY
Todd Dewett | July 22, 2015
Bravery is defined by Merriam-Webster as having or showing courage. As I think about that definition, it occurs to me that when applied to beliefs and opinions there are levels of bravery.
Level one is being brave enough to be honest with yourself. Brave enough to stop avoiding the truth. Just admit it: You’re a Republican and you’re worried because he’s a Democrat. You want more children even though she does not. You attend church even though you no longer believe. You love your wife’s father, but can’t stand her mother. You’re gay. Who knows – every single person has some sort of monster under their bed.
Instead of facing the monster, we deny and sometimes self-delude. We do this to feel good about ourselves. Sometimes we do it to feel aligned with some standard we feel is important. Other times we delude ourselves to maintain an alignment with the social standards around us – standards valued by people we love and respect.
I have long believed that the honest life is difficult, but a life of denial is far worse. So, when I was a young professional, I slowly began to admit to myself that I didn’t want a normal job and doubted I could survive in a cube. I loved my parents, but I could no longer make decisions just to please them. I wasn’t religious and didn’t want to act like I was any longer. Though cited as a strong communicator, I’m mostly introverted. And so on… By my late twenties I was becoming very internally honest.
I believe that most people eventually gain this type of first level bravery. However, ironically, just as you feel the satisfaction of stepping out from behind the curtain of denial, you realize you’re still trapped. You intrinsically know that you can’t speak to others the way you’ve learned to speak to yourself internally.
Level two is being brave enough to share your thoughts with others, openly, without worrying too much about potential repercussions. Sadly, I believe few of us make it to this level. It requires building comfort with being mentally exposed, potentially judged, criticized, and even ostracized. You see, ideas and opinions are attached to underlying values and beliefs. When others perceive that your values do not match theirs, they can react harshly. Sometimes they keep it to themselves. Other times, they are quite happy to share negative responses.
At this second stage, the outcomes you experience in life can now be threatened. For example, vocationally, how well you are liked explains a lot in terms of how you are rated, the roles you’re offered, and whether or not you’re promoted. If second level bravery reveals values that are not correct in the eyes of the decision makers around you, you could suffer. Honesty might be the best policy, but it can also limit your possibilities.
Finally, we arrive at level three. This highest level of bravery happens when a person is genuinely willing to question their own ideas, and thus their beliefs and values. This is when a person ceases to believe they are somehow “correct” and that they know the “truth.” When someone first realizes that truth is elusive and complex, it’s jarring. Quickly, they begin to see shades of gray where once there was only black and white.
Witness the person who through honest thought and study changes their position. I’m not advocating any particular position, but think about these topics: religion, political affiliation, war, abortion, taxes, the death penalty, marriage, the availability and cost of healthcare, etc. As a true believer in critical thought, nothing tickles me more than watching people make principled changes in how they view key issues in life. It gives me hope.
Bravery is about being honest with yourself. If you’re lucky, you’ll eventually become honest with others. Through this process your core beliefs might even continue to evolve, as they should. If nothing else, scientific training showed me how little I really know. When you finally embrace the fact that you don’t understand “truth” as well as you thought you did, well, that’s when your mind is finally free to start learning.
So, how brave are you?