My eyes meet their match in the mirror, and I’m struggling to keep my hand from trembling as I swipe on a coat of mascara that I know all too well isn’t waterproof. I wish for waterproof mascara while I give myself the talk that I will not cry today. Not yet. Not while there are children to get ready for school, a run to get through, work to do, and a whole day of adult responsibility ahead. I put on my mascara anyway and tell myself that everything will be okay.
Sometimes, my mascara runs before I even have the chance to take my first sip of coffee, but more often than not, the talk I give myself works. I’m okay — at least for a little while. I give myself permission to start the day over, to do my best, and to power through until I have the time to address my emotional state. It might not look like courage, but that’s what it is.
Courage doesn’t always look like rescuing children from a burning building. In fact, I would say it rarely looks that way.
Courage, more often than not, goes unnoticed because it manifests itself in ordinary ways.
Sometimes, courage looks like putting on mascara- not the waterproof kind- on a bad day. It could look like getting out of bed or asking for help or admitting there’s a problem. It could look like making a new friend or falling in love after our hearts have been broken so many times we’re not sure they’ll survive another break.
We don’t think of these things as brave. We certainly don’t term them heroic. And yet, sometimes the bravest thing we can do is keep going when it’s the last thing we feel like doing. And sometimes, the most courageous thing we can do is stop — stop pretending or denying or lying or avoiding.
Our lives are made up of so many opportunities for courage, and too many of them pass us by because we were raised on a diet of fear.
Fear that we won’t be good enough. Fear of failing. Fear of being judged. Fear of change. We cloak ourselves in fear, cling to it like a security blanket, and we forget that we are always capable of changing our lives. We fear vulnerability, and as any Brene Brown enthusiast will tell you, vulnerability and courage are inextricably linked.
Being brave isn’t the same as being fearless. In fact, fear and vulnerability are necessary for courage. If we’re not afraid of a thing, doing it isn’t really brave; it’s just an ordinary action. To feel the fear and do it even though it might not work out? That’s brave.
Too often, we don’t give ourselves credit for the small acts of courage we engage in while we’re struggling. We’re too busy beating ourselves up for the struggle. We’re so deep in shame or resentment or defeat to acknowledge that every effort made toward taking back our power and getting better takes a tremendous amount of courage. We’re too busy counting up all our failings to really focus on the various ways we’ve succeeded in doing what needs to be done when we don’t want to do anything at all but wait for the pain to pass.
A few hours after swiping on mascara and trying not to cry, I had flipped the script on my day. I wasn’t in denial that there was a problem, but I had switched to focusing on solutions rather than staying mired in my feelings. I had talked out the issue with my partner, weighing the pros and cons of different approaches. I’d gone for a mindful walk, paying attention to my surroundings rather than staying deep in my own head. I’d started trouble-shooting potential challenges that the morning brought to the surface. I even chose not to let the entire day be ruined by a tough start, and sometimes just deciding that is half the battle.
The day could have gone so differently. I could have stayed in those emotions, feeding the fears, the frustration, the resentment, and my own sense of helplessness. I could have let it spiral into a bad week or month or year. But I didn’t want to give up so much power to a bad morning or a single challenge. By taking back my power, I moved into the driver’s seat. I could accept the reality of my life, and I could look for opportunities to meet those challenges head-on to influence different outcomes.
My issue was a bad morning, and maybe what someone else is going through is so much harder. I’ve been there, too. Sometimes, the challenges seem insurmountable. We feel small in the face of them. Helpless. Defeated before we even begin. The powerlessness eats at us, and we feel we are made less by it.
We forget that the terror that eats at us, the raw vulnerability that leaves us exposed, is also a part of courage. If we have fear and vulnerability, we have the courage, too. It’s a package deal. Just knowing that we’re afraid can be a reminder that we also have the power to be brave.
We don’t have to start with skydiving to face our fear of heights. We don’t need a big action to prove to ourselves and others that we are brave. We just need to take the first step, no matter how small, in the right direction. It might not look like bravery to swipe on mascara when we’re not sure we’ll be able to make it through the day without crying, but it is. Our bravery is unlikely to get outside validation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t see and acknowledge our own effort and give ourselves a little credit for courage.
And maybe, if we feel especially kind today, we can give someone else credit for their courage. We can acknowledge that they have broken hearts but still made it into work even if they aren’t able to summon their usual effort or best attitude. We can see a mom struggling with a toddler in a store and give her the credit for continuing to shop for her groceries without breaking down sobbing the way she might feel like doing. We can give people the benefit of the doubt by extending them our kindness because we’ll never know their secret struggles.
We can acknowledge that bravery isn’t always the newsworthy act. It’s often the quiet refusal to surrender to our worst moments or hardest days.
It’s trying, despite our fear and pain.
In case no one’s told you- and you aren’t yet ready to tell yourself- it’s heroic.