When you think of the word “courage,” what pictures comes to your mind? Do you think of a warrior? A soldier? A police officer?
For me personally, (with no disrespect intended toward those folks) the word courage conjures up a different group of people, a group that includes single parents, female executives, small business owners, moms, firefighters, children walking into their first day of kindergarten, and cancer patients undergoing treatment. I think about people sacrificing for a higher good or stepping into unknown territory trusting that a bridge will manifest beneath their feet. I think of people taking the risk to choose love and trust over fear and suspicion, and people who speak for others who may have little or no voice. When I seek out courageous individuals to emulate, I seek out qualities that cannot be forced or pretended but must be honed and refined—qualities like patience, kindness, respect, wisdom, compassion, and openness. In other words, I think about traits—and the words that describe them—that are inherently feminine.
Important note: Each one of us human beings, regardless of our gender identity or sex, holds within us both masculine and feminine attributes. In this usage, the term “feminine,” does not refer exclusively to women, or to the female gender. Neither does the term “patriarchy” refer to men specifically, but to a tiered system of power that is inherently sexist, racist, and classist and doles out position and power through the lens of its many fears (phobias).
Since the election of 2016 (and it can be argued this was festering long before under the skin of our society) American culture has seen a dramatic and frightening shift in the kinds of people who hold positions of power and influence. As a result, dramatic, visible changes are occurring every day at federal, state, and local levels. As understated as that sentence is, these changes scare me to my core. But there are equally dramatic but invisible changes occurring at another level of our society: our shared language, and the words that comprise it. These changes? They scare me even more.
They scare me, because words, like tools, can be used to build or to destroy. They can bring us together in compassion, foster understanding and agreements and safeguard history. But they can also be intentionally twisted to serve the egotistical desires of the user.
A word in and of itself has no meaning. By itself, it is only a random grouping of letters, themselves only random shapes. A word is assigned a meaning—by us, for us. And those meanings are anything but fixed. This is especially easy to see with many of our slang words like “cool,” or “bomb,” or “bet!” (which my teenage daughter has informed me is similar to the way older generations might have said, “right on!”). The meaning of words is interpreted by different people in different times given their particular lens, intention, and understanding. Entire cultures are preserved or destroyed through the use or manipulation of our words. People who understand this recognize that if you change the meaning of words, you can change a culture.
Back to the word courage. Have you noticed lately how the word courage is being used to describe actions that would be better described as bluster, bullying or intimidation? Have you noticed how actions that would be better defined as brash or impulsive have been labeled courageous, even by the media and journalists (people who should know and do better)? Have you seen how everyday people are starting to use the word courage to describe actions that would better be called chest beating, or name calling, or, like the president of the United States firing people via Twitter or cops beating up a girl on a beach, cowardice? Or how an inability to even listen to another side’s position, let alone negotiate, is called “drawing a line,” “digging in” or “standing ground?” Every day, right before our eyes, the word “courage” and its close synonyms “tough” “strength” and “power” are being manipulated to serve the selfish and small needs of the patriarchy.
Frighteningly, it’s working. I find myself today legitimately concerned that too many Americans, especially those who unwaveringly support this administration, see acts of willful stubbornness and immobility, refusals to apologize or reverse course, selective ignorance, impulsivity, impatience, name-calling, yelling, judging, profiling, and discrimination and call them courageous. In a way, I understand why it’s happening: This shift of language and meaning is the only possible way to justify what are otherwise cold, crass, vindictive and lately, with what is in practice if not in name the jailing of children, despicable acts.
David Brooks, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote “This is what George Orwell noticed about the authoritarian brutalists: They don’t use words to illuminate the complexity of reality; they use words to eradicate the complexity of reality.”
This “word robbery” must be stopped. It is up to us to recall and then reinforce a truer meaning of our words. We must deny those who would seek to abuse their power the opportunity to hijack words and redefine them to fit their purposes. We must call out instances when words themselves are warped. We must defend our words from being co-opted and twisted. It might sound like a small or inconsequential thing, especially considering all of the frightening changes in our country, but ensuring the integrity of our words and their meaning is in fact an important and often overlooked act of political activism.
To that end, here are a variety of examples, many right from our headlines, that to me define courage, and others that do not at all.
Courage is the blind faith to recognize danger and leave one’s home with your child and nothing else, following only one’s heart and hopes and a beacon of light, not knowing what will happen when you get there—if you get there.
Courage is not splitting children from their parents after a thousand-mile journey and putting them in what amounts to dog cages while saying through various mouthpieces, “That’ll teach ‘em not to come to my country.” That’s inhumane and callous.
Courage is the discipline to use our words and our presence with skill, kindness and wisdom. It is discipline over our need for approval or acceptance (which we all have) and a well-honed control over our basest animal instincts (which we also all have). Courage is the thoughtful planning, delivery, and follow through of an intention.
It does not take courage to speak from the hip, or off the cuff, or throw away or dismiss prepared notes. It does not take courage to say whatever word or phrase comes to mind in the moment. Courage is not saying whatever will get applause or adoration. That is manipulative and self-serving.
Courage is the choice to bear a child. From the moment a woman becomes pregnant, she makes a choice to share the most intimate part of herself—her body—with another growing human. She knows that at any time, this baby could die, her own life could be in danger, and no matter the outcome, her body and her life will be irrevocably changed.
Courage is not forcing girls and women to have sex, or children, they are not prepared for. Courage is not sexual assault. It is not catcalling. It is not rape. It is not taking what is not offered.
Courage is the bravery of a woman to walk into a boardroom filled with men. Courage is knowing that she will always have to be smarter, quicker, and harder working than the men and taking that on as a challenge, not a threat. Courage is knowing that speaking her mind might result in men calling her insubordinate and other women calling her a bitch but doing it anyway. Courage is the knowing that we are all better when we are challenged by various points of view, and that even the viewpoint most different from our own has something for us to learn.
Courage is not abusing our privilege and opportunities. Courage is not surrounding ourselves with people who look like us, sound like us, amplify us. That’s fear and insecurity.
Courage is embodied in every MOBB (mother of a black boy), letting her child leave the house to go anywhere—a movie theater, grocery store, theater or school—wondering if he will be home again at night, or if instead someone will find him threatening and call the police. Courage is the black boy who goes out every day with a smile on his face, thinking that this will be the day that people will see his heart and his skin.
Courage is not profiling. It is not detaining or arresting someone based on the color of their skin or clothing choice for walking down the street, waiting for friends in a coffee shop, or buying something at a convenience store. It is not climbing onto a bus and telling everyone to show their visa documentation when you have no legal standing to do so.
Courage is the wisdom to reach out for an appointment with a therapist, show up to a yoga or exercise class where you know no one, or try meditation. Courage is participating in healing of our hurting minds and bodies (which we all have). It is both our duty and our privilege as responsible citizens of this world to do what we can to not continue to react from our wounded past, but be fully aware and alive in the moment.
Courage is not telling people with anxiety or depression to suck it up, or man up, or chill out. It’s not poo-pooing people’s legitimate search for meaning, for purpose, and for some kind of understanding, no matter how different or odd their method may seem to us. This world we have chosen to share is not an easy one. Courage is the compassion to recognize and support another’s search for meaning.
Courage is open arms and an open mind. It’s acceptance, respect and reverence for lifestyles, languages, and worship methods unlike our own. It’s recognizing our limitations and seeking to educate ourselves on what we don’t know no matter our age. It’s recognizing love in all its many forms.
Courage is not blindly and stubbornly refusing to change our opinions, our behaviors, our outlook. Courage is not leaning on old religious texts, carefully cherry-picked, to support our viewpoint. Courage is not forcing the gay couple to go elsewhere to get their cake. That’s hatefulness.
Courage is boldly using our voices to speak up for those who have no voices.
Courage is not shouting out people’s names for attack from a podium, or calling people nicknames on Twitter. That’s bluster and mob-like.
Courage, for those of us with privilege or position of any kind, is about using that privilege to raise others up, not to bully one’s way to the front of the line. It’s about being the first, second, or even third person to speak out. It’s about choosing uncomfortable confrontation over complicit silence.
Courage is not going along to get along. It’s not retiring your seat when the future looks bleak or the road looks rough. It’s not holding back when you can and should be speaking out.
Courage is the willingness to look someone in the eye with whom we have little in common but finding that, in fact, we are the same. We have the same fears, worries, loves, passions. We have the same hopes for our futures, and the same desire for future generations.
Courage is not taking a broad brush over an entire group of people based on the way they dress, talk, pray, love. Again, that’s fear.
Courage is the humility to ask for help when we need it.
Courage is not the arrogance to think no one could do something better than us.
Courage is the grace to apologize or ask for forgiveness when needed.
Courage is not the gall to think that our actions are never mis-measured, mis-judged, misconstrued, in poor taste or just rude. Courage is not refusing to apologize or admit mistakes.
Courage is surrounding a child with books, culture, art, dance, music, history.
Courage is not surrounding a child with AK-47s. That’s dangerous and imbecile.
Courage is decency and kindness toward nature, animals, and all human beings.
Courage is the patience to sit with a sick child through a night, or an aging parent through their last years. It is putting ourselves out there in the world for love, for work, for publication and always facing the reality of rejection. It’s understanding that rejection is a part of life, and that rejection is never an excuse for hurting anyone, let alone taking someone’s life.
Courage is Aslan the Lion, not an angry male gorilla. Courage is Wonder Woman, not the Terminator. Courage is reaching America hoping for asylum, not the man in a uniform carrying a gun ripping them from their parents and locking them in cages.
We must stay awake, and pay attention to how these seemingly small things—like our shifting language and definitions—matter to the preservation of a moral, just and equitable society.
We must remember that courage is active, not passive. It is discerning, not judging. It is awake, not blind. It is love, not fear. It is peace, not war.
Courage is faith, discipline, thoughtfulness, choice, bravery, wisdom, compassion, openness, acceptance, reverence, boldness, willingness, humility, grace, respect, decency, kindness and patience.
Courage is feminine. It’s within all of us. Before things get any worse (and they can get worse) it’s time for all of us to powerfully embody what this word truly represents.