So my cousin Roberta, who, as is common with cousins, is my oldest and best friend, although we haven’t actually seen one another in years because the older we get, the longer that drive from Silver Spring, MD to Uxbridge, MA looms … commented that I had always been braver than she is. The context was a picture I posted of Garry and I riding the Cyclone at Coney Island. They have (or had, anyhow) a camera rigged at that first terrifying drop and it’s hard to resist buying a picture of oneself and friend or mate screaming in abject terror as you go down that nearly vertical drop on an 80-year old wooden roller coaster. It wasn’t like I had volunteered for a dangerous mission to rescue people from danger. I paid my money and delighted in the finest adrenaline rush money can buy.
Some people think I’m brave because I’ve survived some pretty awful stuff. As it happens, I would have been just as happy to skip the terror and stress and lead a pleasantly uneventful life. For excitement, there’s always the Cyclone at Coney Island (since now it has been declared an official National Historical Site and unlikely to be torn down anytime soon).
I’ve managed to slouch into senior citizenship more or less intact. I don’t deserve a medal for this. In an emergency, instinct takes over. I usually don’t remember what was going through my head at the time or what I actually did. Really. I don’t remember much of anything. My brain switches to survival mode and runs on automatic. I save my own life and sometimes I help other folks at the same time, but I am just staying alive.
My definition of bravery or valor requires a conscious, willing decision to take a significant risk in the service of others. Taking risks for the fun of it, to make a killing in the stock market, or because your only other option is death or disaster isn’t courageous.
When it’s fun, I call it entertainment. I love roller coasters. I probably would have liked sky diving had my bad back not precluded it. That’s nothing but a personal passion for something that offers an illusion of danger without real peril.
Taking a risk for profit? Shrewd, yes. Possibly enviable too … but brave?
Saving your own life? Finding a way by hook or crook to keep a roof over your head and food on your table?That’s survival. All living creatures try to survive. Those that don’t … don’t.
I’ve never done anything that I define as courageous. I’ve done stuff that was exciting, entertaining, and fascinating, and some of these adventures were disastrous for me, financially and emotionally. I’ve been occasionally selfless in helping others if I had the wherewithal. But I never put myself in harm’s way. I’ve taken emotional risks and been seriously inconvenienced. I’ve lost money helping others when I could barely help myself, but I don’t think this entitles me to a medal. Doing the right thing is part of being a decent human being. It’s a no-brainer.
I’ve done a lot of reckless things too, but that’s closer to stupidity than valor!
Another thing puzzles me.
“Proud to be an American” is something of a Mantra these days. I don’t get it. Why would one be proud of parentage or country of birth? It’s not as if you chose where you were born, picked your parents or ethnicity. Those were accidents. You made no choice. You just got lucky.
Loving and even admiring ones parents is normal. You’re supposed to love and honor your parents (see the Ten Commandments, Article 4). I’m glad I’m a U.S. citizen and not living in Sarajevo or Somalia … but gratitude and pride are very different. In the past, but not much recently, I’ve been proud of things this country has done and what it stands for and I think our Constitution is a brilliant — albeit hypocritical — document. Proud to BE American? Grateful for sure. Proud seems a bit much.
Noble sentiments and a fondness for adrenaline rushes don’t count. Unless you have made a choice, a conscious decision to take a risk for the sake of another, it’s not brave. It may be fun, shrewd, smart, instinctive, reckless — or seriously dumb — but it isn’t brave.
Anyway, that’s what I think.
Happy Mother’s Day!