by Michael King
We speak of courage like it’s an innate trait, a characteristic belonging to some, but certainly not all, of us. It’s not like this at all, in my experience. I’ve been cowardly, and I’ve been courageous. They start the same.
Here’s a story of cowardice: When I was twenty-two, I fell into a relationship with my first boyfriend. From the start, I was shaky in my commitment. After sleeping together for the first time, I casually explained that it was a ‘one-time thing’ for me, a curiosity I had needed to satisfy. Two nights later, I’d drive to his place. A few days later, I’d go grab coffee with a female classmate. Looking back, I can’t fathom the highs and lows of that experience for him.
After a few months, I faced myself and started untangling the knots. But, even as I worked toward honesty, step by stubborn step, my cowardice built walls around our relationship. ‘We can’t tell anybody,’ I told him, and ‘not until I’ve told my parents,’ and ‘don’t rush this for me,’ and ‘if this is too much for you, I’m not holding you here.’ Day after day, month after month, he showed up.
We ended in a crumble, a mess of my own making. I’d taken steps – definitive, even courageous ones – but my fears had changed shape. Instead of worrying about whether or not I’d ever muster the nerve to tell my family, I resigned myself to the idea that I wasn’t worth loving. A few months later, I felt myself shatter, felt the pieces of me drop to the floor in shards.
He still showed up. He beckoned me to stand. This time, however, I made him go. He was incredulous, which makes sense to me now. All the walls I’d built around us, and now I was putting him outside. He left, heart broken and hands trembling, and I sat on the couch and scanned the floor around me at the debris my cowardice had brought me.
For me, cowardice has always taken the same shape: I arrive at a moment of truth, and I know what it is I need to do, and I find my limbs heavy and motionless. I’m paralyzed, I find, by fear. Fear of failing, of disappointing myself or others, of finding out I’m not worthy of love, of being alone. The moment passes, and there I am, feeling like a failure, a disappointment, unworthy of love, and totally alone. Cowardice is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here’s a story of courage: I approached my second relationship with a strategy of doing things as differently as I could. My first approach, clinging to control and keeping myself invulnerable, had left me broken and exhausted, and so I tried something new. I showed up, vulnerable and expressive and willing, and I treated love like something worth running for. I did so, looking back, with absolutely no certainty that my affections would be reciprocated.
Perhaps sensing my fervor, my boyfriend set a limitation early: I couldn’t say ‘I love you’ for a year. At first, I was resistant to the idea, but a thought overtook me: I won’t say it to you, I thought, but I’ll make sure you know that I do. And so I set out to do it, to use my actions to paint my love in watercolors throughout our time together.
Later into the relationship, we passed the one-year mark, and the words still felt out of bounds. Do I love him? I found myself asking. I felt conflicted; I did love him, but to say so meant risking his rejection. What if they were too much, these words, and he let me go? I froze, and I decided against taking that leap.
That summer, I told a friend that I planned on saying it. I had a whole preamble planned, a disclaimer: I don’t say this like a question, you don’t have to say it back, we don’t have to say it more. ‘That’s bullshit,’ my friend told me, ‘Just say it.’
Two weeks later, I did. We’d been drinking, and we were sitting outside, but my words were purposeful and accurate. He fell quiet, thanked me. A short time later, I received a call from him letting me know the relationship was over.
That night was hard, and the morning came slowly. When the sun did rise, I went for a run, and I made it back to my apartment before collapsing in sobs. I had done everything, I argued with no one. Given all I had, said everything I’d meant. As the tears subsided, peace fell over me. I had been brave.
I could be brave.
These stories begin the same way: Standing at the threshold of love, of the potential for reaching something my heart craved, I glanced out and saw vulnerability. I saw, dancing in front of me with the opportunity to be loved, the opportunity to be devastated. On one occasion, I froze; on the other, I leapt.
A cynic would say they end the same way, too – me alone, heartbroken, and reaching for my pieces on the floor. It’s worth noting, I suppose, that courage doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the outcome you’re leaping for.
But living through them, these endings, could not have felt more different. The morning after my first relationship found me wrestling with shame, with my self-worth, with isolation I felt like I deserved. The morning after my second relationship found me feeling heartbroken, a little embarrassed, and angry because I felt like I deserved more.
Because, thanks to my courage, I’d shown up. I’d tried. I’d run, and I’d risked, and I’d loved, fully and freely.
And that’s it, I think. Courage is the willingness to show up, to be seen, to try for the things we want even if it means learning we can’t have them. Cowardice tells us it’s keeping us safe, whispers that it’s dangerous to step out. Courage beckons us outward, outward, outward. Outside the walls, and into the light. And it’s there, I think, that all of us are most fully alive.
Which is why, I think, courage is not a trait at all. To be brave is a choice, a practice. A minute-by-minute decision, commitment, to be honest and vulnerable and sincere.