Flames torching the willing tinder with more ferocity than even Prometheus could muster, she turns in their direction, her instinct to quash the fire rather than run from it. RPGs exploding in a cacophony that would deafen Francis Scott Key, he does not so much as flinch, all of his efforts tuned to rescuing his pinned-down platoon from sniper fire. No movie could do these selfless acts of heroism justice, though many, many have tried. The lore of bravery is well-rooted in human, and particularly American, history.
Bravery of this stripe is unassailable; though we may find the choices reckless, we cannot and should not ever question them, the decision to risk one’s life being intensely and uniquely personal. I quarrel not with the acts themselves, but with those that co-opt them for their own ends, positing these physically precarious endeavors as the only true measure of the brave. A cult of the macho, reared on Rambo and the false swagger of coddled politicians, tilts us ever further on the path to doom. Macho is a word that connotes the foibles of male dominance, but is equally applicable across the gender spectrum.
Stares lacerating the inherently tense air of the high school cafeteria, they walk purposefully in their pink high heels, dress, and nascent stubble to a table in the center of the room, not dissuaded by the threats of violence both physical and social. Queer jokes lobbing through the air like the myriad footballs at the family reunion, he walks hand in hand with his new boyfriend to his grandmother’s side, no longer afraid to hide his true self. Bullets are not the only weapon that can destroy a person; words and cold shoulders are ultimately just as effective, though the pain is drawn out over decades, not seconds.
I celebrate these acts of bravery just as vigorously as those of the public service and military variety. Sheepish amazement is my only possible reaction to the fortitude necessary to confound expectations, to effectuate lasting change, to throw off the draconian shackles of oppression. While my jaw may drop at a video of a gnarly cliff drop or a high-speed boogie down a rocky line, that is a purely visceral, adrenaline-fueled, childish reaction. To witness true bravery is to have your intestines wrenched, to have your synapses fried, to have your heart break, only to be inspired to piece them all together again.
Tear gas searing eyeballs, attack dogs ripping at clothing, hecklers catcalling on the street, police stomping on skulls, creeps groping in crowded bars, bullies shooting spitballs, online commentators spewing vitriolic speech; the sheer enormity of pitfalls that people are forced to confront is literally staggering. As in, the weight of even contemplating it is enough to make one sink to one’s knees. Now imagine having to stand in the face of hate and ridicule every second of your existence and you may be able to start the lifelong and ultimately fruitless quest to begin to understand what it is like to be a minority in this country, or any other.
Viewed through this lens, the mere act of awaking with a moderately positive attitude is sufficient bravery for an entire lifetime. And yet, this standard is surpassed by orders of magnitude with each act of defiance, with each decision to upend the status quo, with each lesson taught to the next generation. Such is the promise of the land of the free and the home of the brave.