I bought this painting for my six-year-old daughter earlier this month at a local art show. She picked it out because she likes pink and purple and the Sara Bareilles song, “Brave.”
I want her to be brave.
I want to be brave, too.
Yet much of what I’ve been seeing and feeling lately is closer to indignation—that wonderful and sexy intellectual anger that feels so good. To feel indignant is to feel utterly right and absolutely certain. It’s a state of mind with hard edges and firm boundaries, and if others don’t agree with your indignation, they are not invited in. For me, indignation is a creative force, too, helping me locate perfect metaphors and elegantly package my anger for public consumption.
At its best, indignation finds a rousing rhythm: a beautiful speech, an op-ed laced with persuasive poetics.
At its worst, it’s lashing out in a fit of rage on social media.
Not only am I outstanding at expressing indignation, I am confident that I know exactly when to be indignant.
But when I focus the internal discussion on bravery, my confidence falters a bit. That’s because bravery is slippery and nearly always outlined with uncertainty. Bravery is fundamentally uncomfortable. To be brave is to put yourself at risk in one way or another, to willingly put yourself in a space where the safety of words and metaphors are not so helpful.
I’m thinking about all of this today because I read something over the weekend that I can’t shake. (That’s an excellent sign to pay attention.) I read it on the page of a private Facebook group, so I can only share the broad outline of the story. It goes like this: The day before Thanksgiving, a guy (white) was in the checkout line at a grocery store, standing there the way you do when you’re waiting for your groceries to be scanned. A man (also white) behind him pointed to the cover of a magazine and loudly made a racist and sexist comment. I’m not going to repeat it here, but assume the maximum amount of meanness. The guy waiting to pay for his groceries didn’t know what to do or say. He could see that no one around him seemed to know what to do or say. They shook their heads in disgust, but they all immediately looked down. He looked down, too. He felt indignation brewing. I feel it brewing even as I type this.
But then . . . he slipped into bravery. In his post, he talks about how he was shaking, and he didn’t know if the right words were going to come. But he made himself look up. He made himself look this man in the eye. He firmly addressed the man (who had continued to say terrible things) and told him to stop talking. Then he asked his fellow shoppers to help him out and look up, too—to look at this man saying the terrible things.
And one by one, they did.
They looked up.
No one threw punches (though I do understand that desire). They just looked at the man saying terrible things, until he was suddenly the one looking down. And then, as the guy who wrote the post describes it, the checkout lines erupted in chatter—not chatter about what had just happened, but people just talking to each other, telling each other their Thanksgiving plans, remarking on the weather. You know, just being people.
Bravery. Cousin to indignation, but not the same at all.
There have always been (and there will always be) hateful people saying terrible things. Indignation alone won’t do much to change that.
Looking up might.
Being brave might. Even when you’re the bystander and have the hidden privilege of it not being about you.
I know how to turn a phrase, but I wonder if I would have the courage to be brave like that? What would I do in that situation, when adrenaline makes the moment feel like a slippery fish and it is not at all clear what to do? I hope that after I looked down and sealed myself in indignation, I would then look up and open myself to bravery.
I hope we all would.