The core of her email-- summed up into a pretty, little nutshell-- was simple: You’re not brave. You might be this or you might be that, but you’re not brave. And you shouldn’t bother telling people that you’re brave because you’re too young to be brave, and life hasn’t hit you fully enough for you to be brave, and your life is too pretty to be brave. You need to do x, y, & z before you think you’re brave. Basically, you need to “LIVE A LITTLE” before you get to call yourself brave.
That’s the more eloquent version of the email that greeted me first in my inbox this morning. It was in response to a status I put up yesterday about handing in my first round of book rewrites and feeling in all of it, for the first time in my life, that I was brave. And I’d be all sorts of lying to you if I said I didn’t read the email, digest it, get a little sad, and call my best friend to ask her for a vent session so that I could keep this email from ruining my morning.
I know these kinds of words from a stranger aren’t supposed to matter to me. I’ve read all the advice from other writers who suggest you just tack on the line “Hi, I am a complete stranger dropping into your inbox to give you some advice on your own life...” before you read a single sentence and it will somehow soften the blow. But it doesn’t take away from the truth: words sting. Words cut. As one of my readers once told me, “Words can be weapons or balms, depending on how we use them.” And it hurts to read what people actually think about you-- whether their addressing you out of truth, anger, jealousy, or genuine concern.
I get these emails. It’s not the first time. They can be a lot harsher than this. They can be a lot quicker. They can simply say, “I think you should die and I am going to go on wearing my leggings as pants.” Right on, you should. These emails arrive. And I still read most of them. And I brush it off after a few moments. And I have to make a real effort not to carry these negative words around with me for the rest of the day.
And I was never actually going to give this message from a girl who doesn't know me a second thought until I realized that this email really bothered me. And it wasn’t her anger that bothered me, it wasn’t her mean words, it was just this: You don’t actually get to stand beside someone and tell them whether or not they’ve reached a level of bravery. You don’t actually get to determine what does or does not make a person brave, or lovely, or worthy, or good. That’s not your right. That’s not your calling. That’s just a tactic to try to keep someone else from reaching their full potential. If you ask me, the world already has enough of that floating around.
We’re surrounded by it. The negativity. It brews. And it’s thick. And it’s real. And this email didn't make me bitter, it made me very genuinely worried. Because, you see, I have thick skin. And I can take criticism. But I remember a time when that wasn’t the case. And I remember that I was just waiting for someone to come and shut me up so I could use it as an excuse to never move and never try and never push and never break the box I kept putting myself in. I was hungry for someone to tell me I couldn’t do something because, as strange as it seems, I wanted to use that as an escape route for never stepping out there and daring to get my heart a little mangled by the chase of it all. And so truthfully, this email made me really worried for the person who can’t easily say that they’re strong when it comes to these kinds of things. It makes me really worried because we are surrounded by people who want to tell us what we can or cannot be and I guess I’m just really worried that you might be listening to them.
The things I face on my own journey call me to approach new levels of bravery that are relative for me on a daily basis. Bravery might look different to you. We all have different experiences with bravery, we all different ideas of it. To some, bravery is chemotherapy treatments that they endure week after week after week just to survive and keep scribbling in a leather-bound journal about the sunsets. To others, bravery is finding a way to feed 5 hungry mouths at the end of each day. To some, bravery is just being able to get out to bed and try. That, to some, takes a mammoth amount of bravery-- to just stomach themselves in a mirror or stand in the middle of a relationship though they haven’t been honestly able to say since last September, “I love him. And I want to be faithful to him. And even when he hurts me, I stay.”
Here is the truth about bravery. Here is her essence-- she can’t defined by a measuring cup or a yardstick or a square foot. Bravery isn’t the kind of thing you measure, it is the kind of thing you activate. It’s pretty obvious to everyone-- we walked into a life that isn’t always kind or bearable or comfortable or good and it takes a real chunk of bravery to just get through a day sometimes.
Bravery-- if you ask me-- is the day my best friend told me that she was getting sober and I watched her hands tremble over the hurdles of what would come next. Bravery-- if you ask me-- is watching a dear friend of mine raise four beautiful children with all the grit she’s got, and showing up for those children even when she is tired & broken & worn. That, my friends, is titanical bravery to me. Bravery-- if you ask me-- is the day he was diagnosed with cancer and the only response on his lips was this, “I will fight this thing. I will be relentless and I will fight this thing.” Bravery-- if you ask me-- is just her showing up at my door, the one with the big red handle, and speaking the truth out loud, “I want more. I have been afraid to say it for a really long while but I want more for this life of mine.”
So no, you don’t get to stand here and tell someone that a hurdle that has taken them years to finally get over is something they should have learned to limbo under several yesterdays ago. That’s not kind. That’s not true. That’s just small.
And that is exactly the problem with the culture we are standing inside of today: we are constantly dictated by people that tell us that bravery is Elsewhere. And beauty is Elsewhere. And life, or a life you can actually be proud of, is Elsewhere. And Elsewhere is just a flimsy little measure we never plan to reach but it does its justice in keeping us from showing up to the life we’ve been given for this moment. Elsewhere is just a defense mechanism that allows you to keep your fists clenched and your heart not open to what life could look like when you grant it the permission to take your heart and run with it.
And as long as someone is telling us that we still need to do this and that and the other thing before we finally arrive into a space of worth, we get content with wasting space. And we don’t show up. And we stay on the insides of ourselves, just trying to fix every little thing that other people have told us is wrong, hoping we will eventually fix enough that we become adequate to help someone else. And darling, that’s not gonna amount to bravery, it's only going to look cowardly of us in the end.
The criticism won’t stop coming. Really, it won’t. It will show up in big boxes and tiny vessels. At your front door and at your back window. And it will invite in the doubt & the fear & the worries. You make the action plan that gets you out of the grips of these things but it will surely keep coming. I can’t make many promises but I can promise you that.
No matter how far you go, or whatever kind of success or failure meets you, or whatever you do that seems noble or good or quite the opposite, people will continue to try to kick you down. They will try to tell you you’re not good enough. They will try to convince you that you’re not brave. That is the way of life. You can call it insecurity. You can call it anger. You know what, don’t even waste your time trying to give it a name. Just please don’t let it be the thing that keeps you from starting. You’re not supposed to stay standing in that one spot for too long.
Since some Mondays are worse than Sallie Mae, I created a little breakfast club/secret society to help kick Mondays off right. You are reading me right. Every Monday. Me. You. We roll out via email and your morning brew. I promise to meet you with only the good stuff. Highly recommended for movers, shakers, and original gangsters. No rules. You feeling me, boo?