What Does It Mean to Be Brave?

Ships Running Aground by Ludolf Bakhuizen

“Brave” is an adjective which can be defined as “willing to do things which are difficult or dangerous without showing fear.” So, a person who is brave has the willingness to take on dangerous and/or difficult tasks without showing fear. Does that mean they are not afraid? Not necessarily. Of course, fear can be an involuntary emotional response to stimuli in our environment. As humans, we do not necessarily control the emotions we feel in response to the world around us, but we can choose how we act in response to those emotions going on in our minds and bodies.

Someone who is brave then is not necessarily someone who does not feel fear. In fact, it is commonly understood that feeling fear is necessary to be brave. For if one does not feel fear, what have they to overcome? A brave individual certainly feels fear, for the feeling of fear brings with it many benefits when properly controlled. They simply do not allow their fear to impede or prevent them from completing difficult or dangerous tasks. This requires great emotional control, which is another concept to be discussed.

What exactly is “emotional control” or “emotional self-regulation.” Again, this does not mean one never feels fear, or any other emotion. Fear is a perfectly normal response to danger. In fact, it would arguably be abnormal if one did not feel fear in the presence of something dangerous or threatening. A person with great emotional control simply has the experience in dealing with heightened emotional states and has practiced calming themselves through either intentional techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, and even cognitive reframing; or just through dealing with difficult situations and learning from experience.

D-Day Landing at Normandy
On June 6, 1944, the Battle of Normandy began with the D-Day invasion.

Another important thing to discuss is how to be brave. What if one does not feel brave, yet wants to? How do they reach that psychological state of confidence in themselves and their abilities, such that they do not give into fear? For me, and many others, that achievement is found through training. Of course, one often naturally grows braver as they get older. So, if you are young, you need only grow. However, deliberate and organized training certainly accelerates the learning process of any skill or ability one is seeking to hone.

Preparation abates worry. If you are worried you forgot something when packing for a trip, it is likely because you did not form a checklist of everything you should bring and check off items as they were packed. If you are feeling so nervous during a job interview that you cannot speak clearly when the interviewer asks you questions, it is likely because you did not practice beforehand with a career coach or other trusted person who trained you in what to say and do under that pressure.

So, how do you stay calm, think clearly, and act deliberately in a dangerous situation? Through training, simulations, and conditioning yourself to do what you need to do through repetitions. Being trained is being prepared. Plus, learning new skills and honing them can be a fun experience that is rewarding in its own right, such as practicing martial arts or operating a vehicle.

The "Tank Man"
The “Tank Man” is an unidentified Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks in communist-controlled Beijing on June 5, 1989 after the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

I remember one day I was driving down a two-lane street in a no-passing zone, just minding my own business and running some errands. On the incoming side of the street, a long line had formed at an intersection that wrapped around some tress, blocking the part of the street I was one from view to drivers further back on the incoming side. This was the reason why the street was a no-passing zone, yet one impatient driver decided to risk skipping the line and drove into my lane, approaching me head on.

Without thinking, I instinctively swerved around the incoming car at the last moment as it drove straight toward me. Luckily, there was room enough in the grass on the side of the road for me to do so. My passenger screamed hysterically, yet I calmly navigated the situation without panicking or shutting down. It was just second nature to me to evade the incoming obstacle. How? Well, I had been driving for years and was familiar with how a car operates and the feel of a vehicle’s momentum, and I had a lot of experience with driving simulators where avoiding such danger was a common requirement. I have lost count of how many times I have avoided a would-be fatal accident like that in simulations, so it came naturally to me to perform the necessary evasive maneuver without much thought. Training was my salvation.

Often, the fear we feel is our anticipation of a threat, and it subsides when the danger passes or is thrust upon us. When the threat is near and we see it approaching, we feel fear in anticipation. When it is present and must be addressed, we are immersed in the danger we anticipated, and our brains hyper-focus on sensory information. This experience often involves reduced critical thinking skills as we fall back on our training to make up for the intense focus on gross motor movements and reaction time.

Two Knights
Before the invention of the crossbow, it is said that one or two knights could defend a village from an entire raiding party of bandits.

Also, there is great utility in fear during situations where we do have time to experience it. So long as one does not give into fear and make way for panic, fear itself can be a powerful motivator and guiding force. It can make us see more clearly and think quicker, as there is less time to make a decision. Our brains recognize this in the presence of a threat, and can temporarily give us access to heightened senses and more sensory data which our brains may usually ignore. Yet, there is of course a natural tendency for fear to give way to panic, and this is often the consequence of an untrained, unprepared mind.

This is why training is so important. In a dangerous situation, your training may be all you have to work with once your brain goes into threat-response mode. Fight or flight leaves little time to think. You act quickly with little time to reflect on your options, so what you trained to do with countless repetitions becomes the actions you take in that moment. Thus, there may at times be no experience of fear before one does something brave, as there is no time to think about much of anything. When I evaded that oncoming car immediately and without warning, I did not have time for any feeling or thinking, and immediately acted upon what I was trained to do.

Thus, training is paramount. Training and preparation for the challenges ahead are the key to success in dangerous or difficult situations. With the right training, one can be confident in their preparedness for the hurdles life will throw at them. Yet, how do we know what we should be prepared for? As human beings, we are not psychic. We cannot see the days ahead before they arrive, and can only plan for what we expect to encounter. Those expectations are shaped by our past experiences and what we have learned from those who came before us.

Spelling Bee competition
For some, being brave may be as simple as speaking in front of a crowd at a spelling bee instead of falling silent and running away.

What we can do is hope for the best and plan for the worst. We prepare ourselves for the future by training and planning for the challenges we foresee as best as we are able. One bit of personal advice I would have for others, and something I strive for in my own life, is to be prepared the most for those situations which I assume will never happen to me. Do I drive around with a spare tire because I believe I am going to need it every time I go out? No. On the contrary, I expect to never need it. However, if I find myself in a situation where I need the spare tire and do not have it, that will be a most difficult crisis to endure.

I like to think about the most demanding, challenging, and dangerous crises which may befall me or my family and prepare for those as best I can. For it is those situations which will be the most harrowing should I not be prepared, and it can help me to overprepare for smaller crises – for which there is no such thing as being “too prepared.” Through training, planning, and preparation, I gain the confidence that even when life gets hard, I will be able to find my way through. It is with this confidence that I am able to be brave in the face of fear and keep moving forward on my way through life.

What does bravery mean to you? How do you overcome your fears in life? What are your thoughts on fear? Do you experience fear as something useful, or do you feel it holds you back? If you feel your fear is stopping you from accomplishing your goals, what are some steps you might take to overcome it?

This weekend was the anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The soldiers who landed on the shores of Normandy and the Tank Man who stood before the communist tanks prompted me to write this thought piece, pondering what bravery means to me and what I can do to be more brave moving forward. While I can only hope to some day be as brave as those who accomplished faced such unimaginable danger, I will certainly do my best overcome my daily fears and live up to the legacy of the great humans who have come before me.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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