Monday, November 19, 2007

Home of the Brave

What does bravery mean?

If you'd asked me that 20 years ago, I would have had some goofy answer regarding facing things that frighten most other people without fearing it yourself.  This is not bravery, however.  That defines stupidity, or at least a very poor understanding of mortality.

Granted, not all of us are afraid of the same things.  My wife is deathly afraid of spiders.  I don't like them either, and can relate to her phobia.  It's an irrational fear of something.  It's not rational for us to be so afraid of tiny creatures that don't really do much to bother humans.  Nevertheless, we are afraid of them and avoid and/or kill them whenever our paths cross.  But her fear is far greater than mine.

I'm an acrophobe.  I don't like heights; never have.  Roller coasters?  Forget it.  I can't even do Ferris Wheels, because my disdain for high places is so strong.  I freeze up if the ladder to get to the top of a house is too tall.  I could never hang Christmas lights on a house that was two-stories.  Heck, I may not be able to do it at all now, because as I get older, I'm even more cowardly.

But if being brave doesn't mean being unafraid when others might be, what does being brave mean?  I mean, most of us would never rush headlong into a blazing fire, but firefighters do it for a living.  They clearly seem unafraid of something that would make most of us soil our underwear, if we wear it.  So what is bravery, then?

I think, now, that bravery is doing what you have to do despite being afraid.

Each of us has our own private fears, things that make us cower and whimper and weak-kneed.  For some, it's some thing -- like spiders, for instance.  For others, it's some event or catalyst -- like public speaking.  For others, it's situational -- like being unemployed.  When we can face and understand our fears, they're easier to name and to label, box and package and maybe even address.  Some will say we "conquer" our fears.  I disagree ... I don't believe you can conquer all the fears welling up inside the human psyche.  I don't buy into the notion that exposure to something makes it less frightening, either.  I've had some pretty awful situations thrust upon me and my tiny little family, and while we managed to survive them and come out on the other side, we never "conquered" them.  If anything, I'm more afraid of them now, having been exposed to them, than I was before I had to face them.  That certainly wouldn't have gotten a passing grade in a college psychology class, but it's the truth, flat, bald, plain and simple.  I'm more afraid of something because I had to face them than I ever would have been without having experienced them.

And yet, in the face of our fears, we have to do things sometimes.  We have jobs that have to get done, whether that's a literal job, or place of employment, or tasks that face us, or something that has to be addressed during a time of great fear.  If you're in the middle of that blazing inferno and your child is screaming for help in the other room, you're going to find a way to overcome your fear(s) and get to the child or die trying.  If the spider can be dealt with no other way, you will find a way to squash/eliminate him somehow.  You have to do what you have to do, and doing that while you're afraid is the very definition of being brave.  At least I think so.

First responders rush up a building that's been hit by a jet plane.  That's bravery.  They didn't necessarily know the building would collapse on them, but they did know the jet fuel was burning like a crematorium and they went up anyway.  They did what they had to do even if they were afraid.  And I bet they were.

Bravery.  It comes in a lot of forms, in a lot of different acts and events every single day.  We may not always get to see it, because sometimes it's internal, but bravery is the heart of so many actions every day.

True enough, we aren't all "heroes" and go rushing into fiery infernos to save the lives of others.  Sometimes we just squash a spider.  Other times it's bigger, still others even smaller.  We do what we have to do even when we're afraid of the situation, the person, the circumstances or the thing.  Then we are brave, then we are courageous.

With those things in mind, I would like to tell you that I live in the Home of the Brave.  No, not the United States, though I live there as well.  The Home of the Brave, in this case, is the home that my wife has made for me and my children.

She is, without a doubt, the bravest person I've ever met.  She has faced more hardship and tragedy than any one person deserves, just in the last five years of our marriage.  It wasn't at my hands, but it wasn't anything I could prevent, either.  Time and again we were pummeled with situations beyond our controls, circumstances we could not escape, events unfolding around us we could not influence.  And in the middle of all of that, in the midst of a heart broken beyond reckoning, when it seemed even the least of our prayers would go unanswered, she moved forward.  She stayed at my side when she could have done something easier, something different, something less noble.  She chose to cling to me with every precious thing she had slipping away, being ripped from her fingers with no way to stop it.  She stood and faced the ugliness unfolding in front, behind and around her and she never once faltered, failed, slipped or collapsed.

She is the bravest person I've ever met.

I don't think that would have been my answer five years ago.  I don't know that I recognized her strength, her unwavering, unblinking courage, until very recently.  I don't know how many silent tears were shed under starry skies in solitude, how many times she gnashed her teeth and spat resentful curses at everyone and everything.  I don't know how much she wept alone in dark places away from prying eyes, where she would never have to explain.  But I never saw it even once.

I don't know what comfort, if any, she ever received from me during her hardest times.  I think I'm too shallow, self-centered and self-pitying to have noticed she needed it.  I was "dealing" with my own issues and feelings at the time, and God help me, I don't remember offering her a shoulder to cry on for her own solace.  I failed in every aspect as a husband in that time, and she never spoke a word against me.  She never once held a mirror to my weakness, to my pathetic whining and crying.  She did nothing but shoulder her burden without complaining and go on as best she could.  She never asked me for a single thing during that time, never asked me for a listening ear, never sought my understanding and caring.  She never did anything but be the supportive, loving spouse she's always been, the loving, caring, nurturing mother she's always been, and she was always the loyal, trusted, empathetic friend she's always been.

She is the bravest person I've ever met.

Now, the hideous head of our mottled, tumultuous past has reared again, and there she is, silent and stoic, facing her fears again.  She's doing what she has to do in the face of something that would probably reduce me to a quivering blob of nerves and worry.  Actually, it has done that.  She uttered not a sound, made not one groan of weary anguish.  All she did was sigh, and move on.  All she ever does is move on, and do the best she can.

She is the bravest person I've ever met.  The bravest person I've ever known.

The Home of the Brave?

Yes, I live there.


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