I once served under an Ops Sergeant named Smitty—SFC D. Smith—who I always looked up to as the type of soldier I wanted be. Smitty fearlessly grabbed satchels full of explosives and tossed them over his shoulder. He walked toward the sound of gunfire, no matter the context. We could be in the middle of a conversation when in the distance the crack of gunfire could pop, and he’d stop, look up and walk in that direction.
Smitty was an old school Ranger, having gone through that trial-by-fire long before its courses had been modified for we Sappers. He walked ahead of us, stayed behind when danger followed, and always called for a charge from the front; never the rear or the middle.
But Smitty was afraid of snakes. I’ve never seen a man, weighted down with forty pounds of ammunition and explosives, jump as high as he did when seeing a thin figure of a serpent at his feet.
Being a country boy myself, I’d long ago learned how to safely handle snakes, able to grab one by the tail, apply the gentlest pressure to the back of the neck then pick it up behind the head. Important when trying to clear snakes from animal feed bins in the barn. They were there for the mice.
After the first time I tossed a snake aside for Smitty, he showed near awe at my handling of it, then a higher degree of respect afterward. To me it was a simple thing. Practiced a hundred times in my youth, requiring no special level of bravery. But to him, it seemed I had crossed some barrier of manhood that he hadn’t achieved yet.
Being a cock sure young man, I just basked in the moment. But with an old man’s hindsight I realize that though brave, Smitty was as much a victim of insecurity and fear as the rest of us; as much as I was and am.
Bravery isn’t a trait one is born with. It’s a choice. And without that choice, we only seem brave about things that either we developed no fear for, or conquered so long ago we don’t remember ever being afraid.
Today, the notion of bravery has changed. Fear taints nearly every aspect of our lives here in the western world and we’ve let it run over us like some powerful storm rather than the weak malignant fog that it is. It’s cultivated now. Farmed and distributed in bulk, fear has become a commodity to trade in, sell, and control with.
Fear of other races, fear of other religions, fear of other political parties, fear of our own actions. It took the globalization of communications to bring the entire population to heel and is now used against us by media, politics, and commerce. The fear of attack, the fear of rape, murder, and pain are old familiar fears. But a new one has taken center stage and is the one that chills society to petrified inaction far more than the others—fear of what others will think.
We drift in a wind of our own making, letting the fear of what our circle will think, guide our actions. That makes us victims.
So what’s missing?
Conviction is forming a code within yourself and following it despite what others may think. The convictions we share with our same-thinking-circles isn’t bravery—that is being spurred on by a mob. That puts a lot of pressure on us to be right. Fear of being wrong can be paralyzing.
Convictions aren’t based in fear. If you find yourself brave in your anger then you aren’t acting on your convictions; you’re acting in fear. Fear and anger always travel together.
What’s missing is the sense of responsibility to self reflect and adjust when we are wrong.
The most fearsome monsters we battle in our lives are demons of our own making. And like that snake that I feel so comfortable picking up, can create confusion, panic, and violence in those who haven’t learned not to fear it. When one is so blinded by the fear of something they don’t understand, or worse, have been convinced is different and dangerous, a wall is built in the mind, holding that fear in place and preventing reason from examining the truth.
So how does one stop fearing so that they might have bravery? You don’t. Fear doesn’t actually go away. It’s always there. That’s why it’s so easy for politicians, media, and corporations to use it against you. The moment you think you have no fear is the moment they can move in and own you, lock stock and barrel. Fear never dies.
The trick is seeing fear for what it is; a tiny chemical cocktail, injected into our minds to warn us of our mortality. Each time it floods our senses, anger rises to counter it. It’s a trick of the mind and in this modern age, is all but useless as anything but a marketing tool for those who would control us. Reason can answer nearly all of our concerns. But instead, we’ve learned to let fear and anger do it.
Conviction is what allows us to fight past our fear and do what is right. And it doesn’t mean throwing yourself on a grenade to save your squad, though that action would certainly require the courage of your convictions.
Convictions are based in character. Character follows our actions. Actions are moved by our Convictions. It’s a cycle. And as with any cycle, it can be interrupted with enough force. If fear taints your actions, then your character becomes fearful, and your conviction becomes self preservation. If your convictions are based in large part by self preservation, you will never be your own person. You will forever be tossed like a leaf at the mercy of the winds created by others.
How to change your character
The cool thing about character is that it is easy to change. All you have to do is visualize the type of character you wish to be, then think like that person before taking action. In the literary world, this is called character arc. The more you do it, the more your brain is reprogrammed in your new image. You are literally sculpting your character from the clay once formed entirely by your environment. The person you were, the one you didn’t have a voice in creating is someone entirely different.
The tough part
But with the realization of the need to change comes the burden of acknowledging the flaws of your past and present. Fear of being wrong, and thus, the fear of judgement will be the most critical battle you face. Your actions, past and present, are yours and yours alone, even if you do change your character. Ownership of past actions is important in creating good character because without that ownership, without taking responsibility, the fear of being wrong and being judged will suck you right back down.
The answer is acceptance. Acceptance is how you banish fear to its minor role in your life. If you’re wrong, accept it. “Shit. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” That’s the answer right there. The “I’m sorry” part will be larger or smaller depending on the magnitude of the error (sorry, let’s try that again, here let me fix that, lets stitch that wound up), but the solution is always the same. “Shit. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” Don’t skip the “shit” part. That’s your apology to yourself. It’s the acknowledgement to yourself that you made a mistake. Without it, “I was wrong. I’m sorry” becomes an assault on your ego. You need that “Shit”, “darn”, “damn it”, “aw hell”, or whatever suits your character, to sooth your bruised ego. It’s okay to be wrong. Just fix it, remember it for next time, and tell your ego to go back to sleep.
By creating your own character arc, shifting your character to be what you envision (adjusting it as necessary or desired), you become the sole master of your life and a shining example of bravery for the rest of the world. So next time you jump because a snake crosses your path, say “well shit. that was silly. show me how to pick it up”.
Now if anyone has the ear of politicians, media, and corporations, please pass that along to them. There is a desperate shortage these days.