Who Am I? (Part 4: Courage)

Last week I sent my first query letters to agents in the hopes of finding representation for my novel. I’ve written lots of novels — 23 to date, per the live count — but this is the first one I’ve sent out into the world, the first one I’m putting somewhere it can hurt. If people don’t like my fic stories, they might leave me a nasty comment or review, but they are usually drowned out by the positive comments and reviews I receive. One rejection against ten affirmations doesn’t dig too far into my skin.

But with this, it’s the opposite. The novel may get 30 rejections, or 50. Or 100. It may not be a novel which is ready to publish. It may be ready, but the market won’t support it. It could just hit bad luck 100 times in a row. Whatever the reason, I am bracing myself for rejections and lots of them. I expect to get my feelings hurt on this one, maybe again and again and again.

But I’m doing it anyway.

Sending that first query felt like being speared in the gut by a javelin. It was a thrill of terror not unlike falling off a climbing wall or missing a step on the stairs and bracing myself to plummet. The fear wasn’t philosophical or theoretical — it was real, measurable, empirical. If I’d wanted, I could have tracked how my pulse and blood pressure changed as I sent off the second and third. I could have categorized the adrenaline in my blood, timed the tremor in my fingers. That wasn’t the existential dread of “what if?” This was real fear, visceral and immediate.

There’s a line I took from myself, from my real life philosophy, and stuck in this novel, and it’s never been so appropriate.

“Fear is just pain in advance.”

As a species, we experience fear as a warning, a part of our instincts whose sole job is to keep us alive. It tells us not to climb too high or risk a deadly fall, not to stick our hands in the firepit if we want to keep our fingers, not to turn our backs to the unknown in the dark. Fear can be debilitating, but it’s intention is healthy and useful — without it, we’d have died out long ago. Any creature that as no fear doesn’t make it in the long run.

But any creature who acts only based on fear won’t make it in the long run, either.

Think of a city pigeon. They’re interesting birds even when they are kind of the flying equivalent of rats. But they have an incredible ability to resist fear. Pigeons tend to be overweight from eating all the stuff they scrounge, to say nothing of people feeding them. And they’re not the lightest birds to start with. Pigeons need a huge amount of energy and time to take to the air — that’s why you see them resting and walking more than flying most of the time. The act of flying might burn their reserves, might use up all the calories they’ve consumed in the last day.

Watch pigeons next time you see some. Watch how close they get to people, to cars, to dogs. It’s not stupidity. It’s not that they don’t know any better, or don’t realize that they could be in mortal peril up against something a million times their size. It’s that they’ve instinctively done the math. If they flee, they’ll live, but it will cost them. So they stick it out until they cannot any longer, taking the risk of getting hurt in the hope that they’ll escape without having to use up those reserves.

It isn’t that the pigeon isn’t afraid of the barking dog or the garbage truck or the angry kid with a stick — it’s that they can’t afford to be afraid. So they face down their fear because courage is the only way they preserve what they risked everything for in the first place. And sometimes it burns them, but more often the gamble pays off and they can waddle along, conserving their energy and living to eat and fly another day.

Pigeons have stopped letting future pain define their current choices.

The world is full of platitudes about courage. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it” by Nelson Mandela. Or “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once” by Shakespeare. Or “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face” by Eleanor Roosevelt. It has been said that courage is the root of all other virtues, because you can’t have honor or justice or kindness or truth without it. It has been said that there is no trust which is not inherently brave, nor doubt which is inherently cowardly.

They all seem to agree on two things — the courage is important, and that it is a choice. No courage comes without risk, or without pain, and it is a conscious decision that must be made. No one has courage as an innate quality. It must be learned, honed, and practiced.

“Fear is just pain in advance.”

Because the first act of Courage is the decision, the judgement, of what is most important. If avoiding pain or discomfort or difficulty is the priority, then no amount of Courage will carry a person past those things. It is painful, or difficult, to challenge someone one respects, to call out bad behavior and risk censure or the loss of a friendship. Courage is doing it anyway.

Because Courage means deciding that the difficult act is more important than the risk or the consequences.

That’s why firefighters go into burning buildings to rescue people — because the life of the innocent is more important than any risk to their own. It’s why doctors stay in warzones knowing they may be at risk to be hurt or killed — because their patients need them more than they fear being hurt. It’s why people stand up and march for rights, for accountability, for protest of an immoral system — because their cause is worth more than their safety.

Acts of Courage can be great or they can be tiny. It is an act of Courage to stand against a tank armed only with a bag of groceries, and it is also an act of Courage to raise a hand and ask a question in a business meeting. It is an act of Courage to join a new club or try a new sport, and it is an act of Courage to speak out into a deafening, unsympathetic void.

The size of the act of Courage has nothing to do with its value; Courage is measured only by the person practicing it.

The most Courageous person I know is Sarah, because she is afraid all the time. Her anxiety makes it so that her entire world is one long trial of different kinds of fears, different kinds of impossible risks. What I might take for granted as nothing or simple may be a supreme act of desperate bravery for her. She lives her life shackled by terror which she cannot control or evade, and SHE LIVES IT ANYWAY.

I live in awe of Sarah’s Courage.

For myself, I have made a lot of decisions in my life which could be categorized as brave (and there’s a startling number of them which can also be categorized as pretty dumb). I have spoken up when it cost me friends and sometimes family. I have lived a life unashamed of loving another woman. I have stood up for kids being bullied and got bullied myself in return. I have waded into physical confrontations when I was the least capable person in the room. I have faced down a drunken man half-again my weight armed only with a broom (and with three terrified girls in my wake) (yes it really happened) (it was in Australia) (did we mention that weird shit happens around me sometimes?). I have heard a noise in the night and charged to meet it even knowing that the best I could hope to do would be to buy time for Sarah to call for help.

Courage is important to me because it doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s easier now than it was, but I was not a brave kid to start with, I don’t think. I was scared of the dark, of spiders, of bad dreams. I was scared of movies and ghosts and rejection. I never learned to skate because I got so scared of falling down.

But at some point I figured out that if I wanted to be the kind of person I dreamed about, I was going to have to do better. I realized I could never be a hero like the ones I so looked up to if I didn’t make the choices they would make. I taught myself that being afraid was something I would have to feel, but it wasn’t something I had to choose.

And it has never steered me wrong.

I abandoned the only home I’d ever known and went 1,000 miles away for college. I stood up and sang solos in front of groups even though I was shaking inside. I dared admitting real feelings to people who could hurt me, because those truths mattered more than silence. I faced down protesters and vicious attacks online, and I stood firm.

More than a decade ago, I added to my “Fear is just pain in advance” with another one — a promise to myself to live with no regrets. I’ve regretted things, but they were almost always chances I didn’t take, leaps I didn’t dare. I’ve made mistakes, sure, but the real regrets are always those when I didn’t try one more time, or didn’t walk away sooner. The times that I let fear or indecision hold me back from what I knew was the path forward.

Of the things I’ve regretted, living by Courage has never been one of them.

When faced with a difficult decision, or an uncomfortable choice, all other things being equal, I come down to the same mental equation — is this being decided based on being afraid? Afraid of failure? Of pain? Afraid of not being able to handle whatever comes next?

And any time my answer is “Yes,” then I choose the opposite way from the fear.

Because fuck fear anyway.

(That’s some of my Defiance coming out. Defiance doesn’t exist without Courage, of course.)

I know as I begin querying this novel that I’m going to get rejected, and those rejections are going to hurt. I know that. I know that I’m probably going to get a rejection one awful day and it will make my heart feel like the sky is caving in. I know that I’m probably going to doubt myself, doubt the worth of this story.

Endurance will be me sending more letters anyway. Defiance will be me the day I get an agent (assuming I do, for this novel or the next or the next) in the face of so much failure.

Courage is me welcoming the pain, knowing it’s a choice I made willingly, eagerly — because the end is worth it.

Courage is also me knowing I’m going to learn from this experience, even when it hurts, and there’s value in that, too.

Courage is opening up my heart again, to new people, to new feelings, to new failures, no matter how many times I’d rather slam it shut.

Courage is taking a breath and deciding to step forward, even when the path is filled with rattlesnakes.

Ray Bradbury once said in an interview, “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.” There’s Defiance in there, too, but the step off, the willingness to jump and trust in oneself to make wings, to endure the fall, to fly or survive the crash landing, that’s all Courage.

I build my wings better every single day, and I have never regretted it.

Fear is just pain in advance.

Fuck pain. Fuck fear. They keep me from that which matters far more than they ever could.

I’d rather live fiercely, ardently, eagerly, and fall, then never take the leap at all.

The sky is calling. Time to fly.

Next week — Kindness.