Knights, martyrs, soldiers, activists, and daredevils. Titles like these remind us of bravery. As a caricature, courage might look like a hunting, smoking, whiskey-swilling Hemingway. But what about the modern woman? How do you learn a character of bravery, you who seek a life of sincere relationships, holistic beauty, and honest exploration?

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Our definition of courage matures as we do. As children, the ones who spoke their minds were brave. Later, we believed that our brave peers were the impulsive ones, the risk-takers. Whatever our definition of courage is founded on, we often make the mistake of believing that courageous people are fearless. How silly, though. If you don’t fear heights, you don’t need courage to cross a thousand-foot-high suspension bridge. Courage only exists where there is fear.

One of the best examples of bravery I’ve seen is in a man I never met. He lived down the street from the house where I grew up, and every afternoon he walked up and down a nearby hill. Sometimes I would drive by and catch a glimpse of his slow process. He had suffered a stroke and the walks were not leisurely, but they were a literal uphill battle against his body’s rebellion. Unresponsive legs dragged beneath him as he concentrated on setting one crutch in front of the other. Over many years of these rehabilitating walks, his condition never changed.

Courage only exists where there is fear.

I’ve been thinking about him lately and his defiance toward surrender. In retrospect, his journey up and down the hill is emblematic of courage. There was no promise he would get better – in fact, the hill always seemed strenuous for his post-stroke body. So I can only assume he didn’t walk to reach a victorious end but to simply continue taking small, brave steps.

Courage means more to us as we grow older, and that’s because we really begin to need it. Pain and fear are par for the course growing up; the world breaks in through our childish idealism and we experience doubt, anxiety, and shadowy uncertainty. The self-protective parts of me wish I didn’t have to experience weakness to be brave, because being broken is an awful thing to feel. Yet, when things get hard, courage wakes up.

Today, I see bravery as the uphill battles we fight every day. I’m reminded of this as I watch close friends doing hard things this year, overcoming monsters and saying yes to a better-but-still-unclear future. They’re living with courage the best way one can: through small acts every day. By making daily choices that nudge us toward better versions of ourselves, we build a character of courage and move toward the people we were created to be. By saying no to comfort and stepping forward into fresh air, we reject fear and surrender.

… there might be no one watching your small victories or recognizing your incremental efforts. But it’s worth it.

Courage is paying attention to your inner compass and then following where it points. Who are you? More importantly, who are you becoming? Through daily steps in the same direction we shape a character of integrity and boldness. This process of becoming isn’t glamorous, and there might be no one watching your small victories or recognizing your incremental efforts. But it’s worth it. Staying away from things that fuel your addiction is worth it. Choosing to be alone rather than staying in a stagnant relationship is worth it. Actively turning yourself toward the truth and away from comparison and insecurity is worth it.

As you take these steps, recognize that courage does not come easy or cheap. It comes when we feel very scared and small. But also recognize that there is nothing more freeing than losing our self-protective impulses and recovering the ability to look outward and upward. As you look outside yourself, you’ll catch a glimpse of the brighter future that exists when we allow our courage to rise up in proportion to our fear.

One day, you’ll look back on who you are now and be proud of how far you’ve journeyed. Maybe right now a courageous character seems out of reach or maybe you’re looking ahead at tasks that seem too big for you. You will get there. Take heart. Small steps can take you miles.

What’s one small act of bravery you can do today? 

Image via Irina Munteanu

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