Today’s assembly is on bravery. I thought about it all last week.
My first plan was to make a slide show of lots of brave people – maybe a video – and celebrate their achievements but my thoughts went in a different less comfortable direction.
I began thinking about what bravery and courage are and the difference between them.
I thought a lot about why we need them and realised we can’t really understand these words without beginning with something much less pleasant.
So today I want to talk to you about fear and bravery and courage. I hope you find what I have to say interesting.
First of all we must consider – think about – fear. Fear is not a pleasant emotion. It is the feeling in your stomach something bad – perhaps something very bad – is about to happen. It comes accompanied with a sense of losing control. When we experience fear we find it much harder to think straight. We can behave defensively. We can shut down. We often get angry – often with the people we trust the most and those trying to help us.
In response to fear we talk about being brave a lot.
When my two year old daughter falls and scrapes her knee – after cuddles, kisses and reassurance – we tell her to be brave.
When someone suddenly gets nervous before singing a song in front of the whole school their Head of Year might tell them ‘be brave! You can do it!’ When our Y11s go into their final exams as a school we will wish them well and we might say to them ‘we know it’s hard but give it your best shot! Be brave!’
I think a lot of the time when we save ‘be brave’ what we really mean is ‘don’t make a fuss.’ We mean we know something is hard but the best way to deal with it is to, in the words our school poem ‘just buckle in with a bit of a grin,’ step forward and confront it head on.
This is not always bad advice. Life is not always comfortable. There are lots of things in the world we don’t want to do but have to.
Some things – like exams and driving tests and presentations at work – are scary but unavoidable. In those cases – for most but not all of us – working hard, mastering our discomfort and doing our best is the most positive step we can take.
This is something understood by many cultures in the world. When I lived in Ethiopia my friends used the phrase ‘Iszo, ambessar!” when I was poorly or had a lot of work to do or was really tired. It means ‘be brave, lion!” and was meant as a positive affirmation of my ability to deal with my problems and the faith of my friends that I could.
But it is interesting we only seem to say ‘be brave’ in situations that might be very uncomfortable but don’t fill us with deep dread. We tend not to say ‘be brave’ to people diagnosed with a very serious disease. We don’t say ‘be brave’ to someone who has just lost a loved one or to someone who has been in a terrible accident resulting in life changing injuries.
I think this is because we know ‘be brave’ often really means ‘get on with it’ and when things are very serious this become inappropriate and grotesque advice. When things are at their very worst – when we feel the bite of life’s jaws most – we do not want someone to tell us not to moan or complain.
I know this well and so do many of you.
When life is at its stormiest – when clouds make it feel as if there is no hope, we need courage, which is a word with a different heavier feel.
Courage is frightening because it comes wrapped in pain, sorry, shame and loss.
It is what we hope and pray for when we question our capacity to cope with the things terrifying us. It is uncomfortable and disconcerting because it means looking into our hearts and acknowledging the weaknesses and flaws inside. It means admitting we doubt our ourselves and feel scared, small and alone. It means wishing what was happening wasn’t happening to us – perhaps even wishing it would happen to someone else – and fighting the urge to run and hide or to let someone else take on our burden.
This feeling can be actually physically disabling.
Once – in a hospital facing news too big to take in – I found myself hunched on the floor of a stairwell struggling to breathe and unable to stand for quite a long time
I did not need someone to tell me to be brave then. Oh no. I did not want that. That would not have been welcome at all.
At terrible times when we need courage the start of comfort is knowing we are not the first people to feel like this and will not be the last. Fear and the courage we need to master it are part of what it means to be human and as we are all human it is in us. It is.
In Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew from the Hobbit – who some of you have met in form time reading – confides to the wizard Gandalf he wishes he could live in a different time. Gandalf replies with one of the most well-known passages in the trilogy.
So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Like all great fiction it is true.
Courage is small day-by-day, minute-by-minute and second-by-second acts. It is making lots of small, hard decision with uncertain outcomes not because they will result in a happy ending but because they are the right thing to do. This is also something understood by Frodo’s best friend Sam Gangee, who encourages him in a dark moment by saying the reason the most important stories are different to everyday stories is because:
“Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
This is courage. It is the putting of one foot in front of the other even when at the time it appears futile to do so.
This is something also expressed well – beautifully actually – by one of my old students who as an eleven-year-old wrote an essay in which she said “I know I am not naturally a very brave person so I have to try really hard every day to do the things that scare me.”
This has stayed with me ever since.
In her honesty about her fears she defined courage better than I have ever seen done before or since
True courage is the recognition we are small and weak and cannot carry our burdens all alone. It a scared, exhausted voice saying to a friend ‘I don’t think I can do this. I need help.’
Fear is different for all of us. What some of us find just uncomfortable others find terrifying and it is not our place to question what other people say they feel. Some nurses who specialise in helping those in great physical pain measure it in their patients by saying ‘it hurts as much as they say it hurts whenever they say it hurts, for as long as they say it hurts’.
I think this is a helpful way of thinking about fear in others too.
We should not gaslight or question or doubt what people say. Instead we should pay respectful attention and believe what we are told.
What then should we do?
The word encourage – to give courage – is what I would like you to leave this assembly thinking about. When someone we know in our community at home or in school is feeling fear and doubting themselves what can we do to give them courage? How can we be Sam to Frodo to our own family and friends? What can we do which is better than saying ‘be brave’ and walking away? What can we do to show them that while the road they walk might be twisting and dark and uneven and have no end in sight they are not all alone.
And actually I will finish with a video. I tricked you by suggesting we would not be watching one at the beginning because I didn’t want you distracted by thoughts of what was to come. Sorry about that. The video shows true courage. You may have seen it before – I am certain your teachers will have – but if you have I hope you will see it differently after this assembly.
The video shows 400m sprinter Derek Redmond -a talented athlete unlucky with injuries – in his last Olympics . All the athletes running were brave of course. To train that hard for that long and to put yourself up against the best in the world requires great bravery. But there is much more than that in this video. Half-way round the track Derek Redmond’s hamstring goes. He goes down. There is no hope of victory. He drops to his knees – his dreams in tatters around him. All his worst fears have been realised in front of the whole world.
Then – for no reason but it is the right thing to do he gets up and he hops round the rest of the way. This is courage. He can’t win but carries on because it is the right thing to do. And then what happens? His father – knowing what this means and the courage his son is showing runs onto the track to help him. To encourage. And what do the crowd do? They see this courage and they respond. They are on their feet cheering not because Derek Redmond will win but because they know they are witnessing something even more important.
They too encourage.
Here it is.
So what will you do to encourage? Perhaps there isn’t a more important question.