When my children were little, I read a story in a magazine that stopped my heart. A mom had sent her daughter to the corner grocery store to buy some bread and milk. Her daughter was walking home with the purchases when a stranger in a car pulled to the curb beside her. He smiled at the girl, used her name—which he had overheard the clerk use at the store—and told her to get in the car.
The girl, who was 10 or 11, was confused. She knew better than to get into a car with a stranger, but she had been taught to be polite and respectful to adults. Against her better judgment, she obeyed.
Luckily, a woman driving by saw the interaction and noticed the look of terror on the young girl’s face. The bystander acted quickly, blocking the man’s car with her own so he could not speed away.
It turned out the abductor was a registered sex offender recently released from prison and on parole. If not for the brave bystander who intervened, something horrible might have happened. Ever since I read that story, I have marveled at that bystander’s bravery—and her willingness to take action to save someone’s life.
What Is Bravery?
Bravery is a virtue that was considered fundamental in the ancient world, but what is it, exactly? Is it even relevant today? Let’s take a look.
In the time of the Iliad—an Ancient Greek epic poem about a hero named Odysseus that describes the last year of the Trojan War—the Greeks called bravery thumos, the Greek word for “liver.”
The Ancient Greeks believed the liver to be the seat of many emotions that people in today’s world would more readily attribute to the brain or the heart. Courage, confidence, “spirit”—these were things that came from that big, fleshy, reddish-brown organ in your torso, according to the Greeks.
Achilles, the strongest warrior of the Trojan War, who looms large in the Iliad, had plenty of thumos. But the Ancient Greeks also valued other qualities, many of which were embodied in Odysseus. It was Odysseus, after all, who made the plan to defeat Troy by hiding soldiers in a giant hollowed-out horse that he offered to them as a gift of peace. Odysseus had clever ways of dealing with problems, and shrewd judgment. He knew how to win a battle no matter what it took. He also personified persistence in the face of adversity—part of the Ancient Greek idea of bravery.
Bravery in war was a primary virtue. But the Greeks also valued cunning, pride, know-how, good judgment, and skill in war.
Aristotle: Bravery Means Balance
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived several centuries after the Iliad was composed, also grappled with the question of bravery in his writing on ethics. For Aristotle, bravery was about balance: too little of it, and you have cowardice; too much, and you have foolhardiness.
Aristotle did not believe more bravery was better. He argued that bravery had to be gauged to the danger. The brave fear what should be feared, and are bold when the situation demands.
Combining Courage With Good Character
Confucius, the Classical Chinese philosopher whose ideas had a formative influence on Chinese culture, had a slightly different idea of bravery. Confucius argued that courage needed to be combined with good character. No one would admire the bravery of a rapacious evildoer, as such boldness would amplify vice, rather than embody virtue.
In fact, to possess bravery without a strong sense of right and wrong would turn bravery into wickedness, according to Confucius. In The Analects of Confucius, a collection of his aphorisms published after his death in 479 B.C., he wrote, “An ordinary person with courage but no righteousness would become a bandit.”
Bravely Breaking Totalitarian Laws
In the modern world, the best examples of bravery may be people who have gone against the current of their societies to stand up for what is right—for example, the Germans, Poles, and other Europeans who resisted the Nazis during World War II, hiding Jewish people in their homes, even as they knew they could be killed for doing so.
These resisters were truly brave. So were the Americans who lived in the Deep South before the Civil War who refused to obey unjust laws and instead secreted escaped slaves to the North where they could live freely. And the Chinese students and other demonstrators who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989 to demand democracy and freedom of speech in Communist China. Standing unarmed against a totalitarian force, the demonstrators showed extraordinary bravery.
When you are truly brave, you do not merely endure the troubles that come your way, but put yourself in jeopardy against overwhelming odds in order to fight for what is right.
Against the Consensus
While being brave was highly valued in Ancient Greece and Classical China, most people in the Western world don’t talk much about bravery today. You may hear people say someone “bravely fought cancer,” but bravery these days is more about trying new foods, asking someone you just met out on a date, or doing something that creates personal risk, like skydiving or bungee jumping.
For most people, there are certainly fewer physical threats today than there were in the ancient world. But are there fewer opportunities for bravery?
Most people feel a tremendous amount of pressure to unquestioningly go along with what is happening in today’s world, and there seems to be less tolerance for people to use their own conscience to make choices outside of the societal current.
But going along with the status quo is not being brave. Bravery is when you do something that your conscience tells you to do—or that you know is right—even though it is outside the social norm.
The situations in our lives that require courage today are often quiet ones. We show bravery when we stand up to a boss at work, defend someone from a bully, or tell a friend about their child’s missteps. When we do the brave thing in these everyday situations, we aren’t going to be recognized for our courage. No epic poem or magazine article will be written about our heroic deeds. Instead, we become everyday unsung heroes, acting with virtue in the face of challenges.
Are You Brave?
Are you sleepwalking through your life, going along to get along, or are you acting with integrity, even when it is difficult to do so? Do you make your own decisions, or just go along with whatever is easiest, and grumble about it afterwards? If you don’t make your own decisions and back them up with action, are you really your own person? Are you living a virtuous life, or a life of conformity?
There may not be an imminent battle to win or lose with swords, but these questions make it clear that the personal stakes for courage are as high as ever. When you act with cowardice or remain quiet in the face of unkindness or evil, you lose your sense of self.
When you act with bravery, you increase your self-respect. And as you act with bravery more often, you also gain confidence that you can make a difference, and aren’t helpless or passive, in your life or in the world at large.
How to Be Brave
You know when you feel afraid. Maybe your heart starts to race, or your hands get sweaty, or you start to get lightheaded. When you feel that fear, check in with yourself and acknowledge it. But don’t let the fear stop you. The voice in your head telling you not to act is the voice to ignore.
Instead, ask yourself how the person or mentor you look up to the most would act facing the same situation. Then channel that person—whether it is Jesus, Ganesha, the Biblical David who stood up to Goliath, your closest friend, a parent, your spouse, or another relative—and use their bravery as your own. This means telling your close colleague that you disagree with their decision to get a nonessential surgery (though you will support whatever choice they make); insisting that you get remunerated by your clients for the time you spent on a job even as they try not to pay you; or writing a letter to the editor or an opinion piece for the newspaper explaining why you disagree with your local politicians’ attempt to enact popular but unethical legislation.
When You Act Rightly
In his short essay “The Great Learning,” Confucius wrote that when you act rightly and affect your small sphere of direct contacts and family, it’s worthwhile because it’s the right thing to do, but also because right action reverberates to produce an outsized effect. In other words, your right action influences the people who you affect and those who see you doing the right thing. Then those people, in turn, act just a little differently with their contacts, and your circle of influence spreads like ripples in a pond. The effect you have diffuses, spreading outward through society. Maybe you can’t completely change society, but every ripple affects the whole pond. Your actions matter.
“I think it’s always brave to do what we know is right, even if it isn’t popular or will not benefit us personally,” says Christine Gross-Loh, Ph.D., an expert in Asian studies and coauthor of the book “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” which includes a chapter on Confucius. “I think we all benefit in the long run by having done the right thing.”
The Butterfly Effect
The “butterfly effect” is an idea first proposed by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1963 and later championed by mathematicians, physicists, and other thinkers interested in chaos theory. Lorenz proposed that every time a butterfly flaps its wings, the weather across the planet is affected. The idea behind his theory is that small actions can have a nonlinear impact on a much larger system.
That’s what your bravery can do today. Being brave, in both small and large ways, has a positive impact on the world.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and book author. Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net