I believe in courage.
Not bravery, exactly, though I do admire firefighters and soldiers, surgeons and inner-city schoolteachers. Not audacity either, though I’ve had bosses and professors who exhibit copious quantities of it, and can sometimes even make it look good.
What I believe in is courage—the strength to act on your beliefs.
It was the trait I lacked all through high school, the void that made me doubt my every move and call my best friend each morning to double-check my choice in outfit, eyeliner, shampoo, and even breakfast foods.
I think we’re all born with an abundance of courage, but adolescence beats it out of us and we spend most of the rest of our lives trying to get it back. Take a look at any toddler. If she’s hungry, she’s hungry. There’s no doubt, no rationalization, no arguing her out of it. Ditto if she wants a toy, doesn’t want a bath, has decided to play outside in January without her shoes, or refuses a diaper change. Temerity at its best.
By the time she hits twelve, however, that unwavering resolve will have faded into oblivion, and she’ll need second and third opinions to decide which movie she wants to see on Friday night and which pizza toppings suit her best—or if she can eat pizza at all, for that matter.
Some of us regain our courage once we pass those tumultuous teen years, some of us live forever in the shadows of other people’s decisions. This hit me for the first time a few weeks ago, standing at the checkout counter in the local grocery store. The cashier scanned the first item—a jug of laundry detergent—and spun around to stow it in a plastic bag. I stopped her by holding up my giant pink tote, and she raised her eyebrows.
“You want me to use that?”
I nodded. “If you could, thanks.”
The woman behind me in line reached out and pinched the pink canvas. “Wow,” she breathed, still holding the bag between her fingers. “I wish I could do that. You know, be environmental and responsible and everything.”
Thoughts of her darted across my mind as I drove home. Why couldn’t a grown woman carry a canvas tote bag into the grocery store? What was there to prevent her from doing something she wanted to do?
My conclusion was that the Image Police were lurking behind every corner, and she couldn’t dare to be seen living out her convictions. Far better to smother her beliefs and parade her conformity for the world to see.
There’s nothing really wrong with conformity, I decided, just as there’s nothing wrong with a person going out of her way to be unique or even outlandish—assuming neither is being used to disguise a person’s true beliefs for the sake of image.
If you don’t have the courage to act on your principles, you might be better off giving them up altogether.
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