When I was a kid, I was obsessed with medieval knights. I drew pictures of knights killing dragons, built LEGO castles and acted out exciting adventures, and frequently pretended a wooden spoon was a broadsword and that I was a knight. I read books such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Eragon, and Redwall, and one of my favorite movies was Princess of Thieves. I venerated the characters in those stories and wished that I could join them in their daring adventures. Throughout everything that I played, read, or watched, I was drawn in by the bravery that every hero seemed to have. They would drop everything and jump into the action without a second thought, willingly risking their lives. To me, that was bravery.
To this day, I love the stories that I was obsessed with when I was a kid and the characters that I respected so much are still some of my favorites. Recently, the concept of bravery has given me reason to pause. What is bravery? Does putting yourself in danger qualify as being brave? I think about skydivers and bungee jumpers and surely they are brave, right? This past summer I mountain biked the Kokopelli trail with nearly 25 people, ages ranging from 14 to 50. Not wanting to get stuck at the back, I was almost always one of the front three or four bikers. Two fourteen-year-old bikers, in particular, were always in front of me. My raw stamina and endurance was greater than theirs, but they were more technically skilled. They would constantly take the more difficult path, weaving through rocks and going off jumps. They had no fear and rarely, if ever, crashed. Contrast that with my experience, which was full of wipe-outs and wimp-outs. To me, they were brave.
But what about when you’re not mountain biking, skydiving, or fighting dragons? Can you be brave then? Does bravery have to involve putting your life in danger?
Looking back to the characters that I loved when I was younger, there are common instances that have always puzzled me as they relate to bravery. The situation is familiar: the hero has the villain in their sites and are in the perfect position to end the evil that has plagued the city/country/galaxy. There is frequently a monolog, banter back and forth, and building tension. Then, something happens, and it’s usually not the death of the villain–at least not yet. I’ve always asked myself why the hero didn’t just kill the villain wordlessly, saving a lot of work and possibly several lives. The real-world answer is that scenes like that are key to building drama and developing the story. The in-universe answer? Now, that is something different altogether.
I believe that the best examples come from Star Wars.
Here, Ahsoka Tano bests both the Fifth Brother and the Seventh Sister, who are both inquisitors (followers of the Dark Side who hunt down Jedi). Ahsoka has the Seventh Sister on the ropes and is in a perfect position to simply thrust her lightsaber forward a few feet and end the villain’s life. So why doesn’t she?
Contrast Ahsoka’s battle with Anakin’s and you see a very different outcome. Anakin has bested Count Dooku and is in the position to kill him–and he does. He feels conflict and expresses concern, but ultimately ends Count Dooku’s life, an action that could very likely lead to the end of the war and bring peace to the galaxy. So, what’s different?
These two examples juxtaposed reveal a lot about Anakin and Ahsoka’s character, as well as what makes most heroes hesitate when faced with a perfect opportunity to kill someone.
Ahsoka refrains from killing the Seventh Sister because she holds fast to her principles. She knows that killing the Seventh Sister could very well lead her down a path to the Dark Side. To put it simply, she feels that it is morally wrong to kill someone who is completely defenseless. Ahsoka shows her bravery in facing two inquisitors on her own, but in refraining from killing the Seventh Sister she produces a quality that is delicate, buy much more potent: courage.
According to the thesaurus, courage and bravery are synonyms, but they are in fact quite different. Yes, in order to have courage you must be brave, but courage is more than simply facing impossible odds or placing your life on the line. Courage involves a reason–having a “why.” Courage is fighting for something you believe in, even if it seems like a lost cause, it’s doing the right thing because you know that it’s right, it’s disciplining yourself to improve because you know that you can’t reach your goals without changing. Ahsoka had the courage to refrain from killing, the Founding Fathers had the courage to create a new nation and defy the most powerful country in the world, and every day, people have the courage to stand up for what they believe.
Congressman Trey Gowdy explains the brand of everyday courage that we all should have.
Bravery takes guts, courage takes character.
It takes courage to improve. In order to better yourself, you must diagnose what’s going wrong, make a plan to fix it, and discipline yourself to execute the plan consistently. It hurts to be vulnerable and admit your problems, and it can be hard to always make the right decision. It takes courage to make changes.
Benjamin P. Hardy said, “If it’s normal, it’s average. If it’s average, it’s probably closer to mediocre than you really want to be.” It takes courage to blast through your comfort zone and stretch yourself.
Although I’m not literally on the battlefield fighting enemies or facing dragons, there is still very much a need for me to have courage. I’m not going to be transported to a magical land, but it takes courage to create my own adventure, to realize that my actions have an impact and that my decisions determine my destiny.