For many years, I considered myself a coward.
When my good friend from high-school, L., was raped, I should have done something to the rapists (who have never been caught) and done more for L. and her boyfriend H. (whom I had to call that night because L. hadn’t), rather than picking up and leaving to live my own life. When that new teacher, A., was run over by a passenger van when I worked in Vietnam, I should have made the decision to transfer him faster; I should have pointed out to my colleagues how fucked up it was that our employer put me in a position where I had to pay for A.’s medical treatment out of pocket, or else A. would have been taken off life support and left to die. I should have pointed that out no later than when our employer asked A.’s family to pay me back in cash at A.’s funeral in front of everyone. Later on in Vietnam, when my business partner Robert died, I should have advocated for the school that we intended on opening, should have fought for the funding that would have created a tangible legacy in his name for helping those many Vietnamese refugees during the American war. When I became aware of how the broader push for racial and social justice in society and in the professional waters in which I swim were destabilizing democracy, I should have joined efforts to stop that destabilization rather than joining another DEI startup and starting another DEI-focused podcast. I didn’t.
For all of these things, I labeled myself a coward. It became my identity.
Identity is a fascinating thing. As a conflict resolution and racial equity practitioner, identity is central to a lot of the work I do, figuring into theories and frameworks for understanding human behavior and its dynamics. One of the most easily forgotten aspects of identity is that it is not only ourselves who construct identity, but it is something that we construct internally and is also externally formed at the same time. That is, we see ourselves one way, but family, friends, the public, and any other individuals or groups we encounter experience us in other ways, often as different people. Frequently, these views overlap. But not always.
Part of identity is therefore perspective. If we accept the identity of “brave” or “courageous”, we also accept to one degree or another, the value judgments of others. It’s common enough to see on the news one human calling another a “hero” and that person so-named, will often demure, brushing aside that attribution with something humble or uncomfortable, like “I was just doing my job” or “anyone else would have done the same in my position”. But the truth is, someone else wasn’t in that position, so they couldn’t have done the same, even if privately, they feel that they should if in fact they do find themselves in a similar situation.
While I have often considered myself a coward, others have not, much to my surprise. My good friend from high-school, L. wrote me a letter in the days and weeks following her rape. On the envelope was my name followed by “my hero”. It took me a long time to open that letter. Even today, almost twenty years later, when I read it I feel so many things. I feel the burning shame of my cowardice; my heart still aches for L., for H., for L.’s mother, her brother, our friends. I wonder, if in those many years in between then and now, L. has resented me for not keeping in touch, if my being there for her would somehow have helped make things better. I don’t know. I can’t. That’s not what happened and even if I were to ask, it would all be supposition anyway.
What still strikes me is that every word L. wrote resonates still. It’s clear that when she wrote it, I was her hero. And on some level, I have to accept that even if it didn’t feel that way at that time, or on any of the days since. To deny her identification of me in that way would in some sense, be another example of a man exerting his will over a woman’s—not “rape” per se, but the kind of thing that rape is an embodiment of. It is an imposition. It is violence in the way that Galtung describes; it limits true human potential. Such a denial dehumanizes and in that process, it’s not only L. that would be (again) dehumanized, but me too.
That new teacher I met while working in Vietnam, A., well, no one called me a hero for that one and I don’t fault them. But what people did say is that I didn’t have to stick it out the way I did. I disagree. I ended up in that situation because a bartender at the spot I was slated to meet my best friend at, told me that I needed to go to the hospital because he’d been hit by a car, realizing only after I’d accepted responsibility for medical treatment that the new teacher and my best friend shared the same first name, and that I’d only known the new teacher only by his nickname. Friends and colleagues told me that they wouldn’t have been able to make the decision I had to at all; that at least I’d tried. I still have to sit with that sometimes. I’ve wracked my brain over and over again and yeah, if by some stroke of divine intervention, the stars had aligned and I’d done everything perfectly, there would still have been no guarantee of A.’s survival.
In that light, as a flawed human, I have to look that imperfection in the face and accept it as my own, as the face that I present to the world. My other choices were to be perfect (which I am not) or to do nothing, which would have haunted me forever. In embracing that identity, as “imperfect”, as “human”, I do not become stronger, but I do recognize my own resilience. As over-hyped as it is, resilience is deeply important to achieving peace and to advancing racial equity, but it is not courage. Courage is a choice, on one side of the coin. On the other side of the coin, the choice is too horrible not to make and so one makes it, often feeling coerced by one’s own morality and hopes for the best. To me, this is where I’ve most often found myself. What does take courage is making the choice to continue to try to understand and to do what is best, what is right, what is good. And failing, over, and over, and over again, knowing full-well that the chances of success for anything may be slim. Maybe even none.
There is also a certain measure of courage in self-preservation. Yes, culturally, we do consider it to be heroic to die for others, but the most difficult part of any disaster is the aftermath, not the event. When Robert died, I realized that I was burnt out; both from dashed dreams and from unrelenting culture shock that never fully faded into the background. I realized that I needed to go home, or else risk losing myself to a world that wasn’t mine. I uprooted my life and embarked on a career change that took seven years and all of my meager savings to accomplish. To let who I saw myself as emerge and live, I had to let a version of myself dictated by others, die. And that was a painful thing. It still hurts sometimes and man, I do miss Robert. But it had to be done.
One thing I’ve learned as a conflict resolution and racial equity practitioner is that if I’m not doing well (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc.), I’m in no position to help and support others to do better and in fact, can make things worse. This is why rather than joining efforts to combat the harms to democracy that the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion field has wrought, or joining direct efforts to stabilize democracy, I’ve joined DiVerity PBC as their Community Engagement Lead in an attempt to create space for conversations around that idea within the DEI professional community. By addressing the inequities that DEI consultants face, DiVerity has the potential to serve as a community where DEI professionals can develop ways of advancing racial equity that do not destabilize democracy. As professionals, we have the capacity to be outwardly brave, to perform courageously even, but how much harder is it for those whose social and professional status stems from helping and supporting others for financial gain, to help and to support other professionals like themselves so that we can collectively show up to model for organizations, our communities, and our societies how we can lean into difficult conversations, hard choices, and brutal realities especially when it doesn’t guarantee greater profits or a solid, predictable return on investment?
In addition to being a choice, courage is a practice. It is also a skill. Unfortunately, it is not the kind of practice or skill that follows a predictable schedule for most of us. It is the kind of thing we need when we are backed into corners—and so much of human civilization is dedicated to ensuring that the majority of us never find ourselves in such situations to begin with. To knowingly be vulnerable to uncertainty, to knowingly walk without a safety net, has meaning. It is humility. But, if we don’t have the courage to be humble, it can be hard to choose to be courageous, or to enter the practice of being courageous. The practice of intentionally not doing nothing, even when success is a far-off horizon, is courage. It is this prolonged effort that allows us to develop courage as a skill, but not until then.
By not idealizing courage, by not making courage and bravery the purview of heroes, we can help others to see the everyday courage that is happening all around us; the mother that forgoes meals to feed her children, the passerby who checks to see if the passed-out person sleeping on a park bench is still breathing, the person who picks up the phone in the small hours of the morning when the person on the other end of the line couldn’t possibly have good news. We can understand that those who display courage are often those who need our help, whose hands would welcome others to make light work of impossible burdens.
The dividends of courage are not always great; sometimes, there is no financial reward. Sometimes, there is just a note, handwritten, folded, and addressed (if we’re lucky) with great care. Sometimes, part of that note will read as follows:
“I can’t figure out why I called you first, though I am so glad that I did. Maybe somehow I knew how helpful you would be to me. Somehow I realized how much you cared. You came when I called. You held my hand. These things alone helped me in ways you might never know. I have always respected you, but I just never realized how much. I’ve been talking with H., and he feels the same way. We are both so appreciative for everything you have done.”
In my current line of work, there is the very real danger of being canceled. In the conflict resolution and peacebuilding field, we know very well that decrying abuses and murder of Palestinians publicly will provoke a slew of accusations of anti-semitism. In the DEI and social and racial justice worlds, the idea that efforts to advance racial equity could somehow have a negative impact on democracy could easily result in me being branded a racist, a GOP apologist, or worse. In my experience, doing the brave or courageous thing often gets little to no attention, usually, not even a note. When it does capture attention, when people start coming out of the woodwork to jump on the bandwagon or to express their support, doing that thing again—the thing that took courage in the first place—doesn’t take as much courage anymore.
Yes, it may still take some courage, but a safety net arises and sometimes that safety becomes all-encompassing. It easily becomes a forcefield, an echo chamber. Even a tomb. The dead don’t need courage. The status quo doesn’t need courage. It needs maintenance, to keep those who have become powerful through doing that initially courageous thing, in power. Jumping on the bandwagon, it must be made clear, is never an act of courage, even if it is to try to silence something that may be dangerous to a cause that we personally hold to be just, moral, and good. The brave thing, the courageous thing may just be to listen, process, and (with respect) question, challenge, or. But to cancel? That is an act of the deepest cowardice. It is pulling the blankets of our own comfort over our heads in a way that is utterly lacking in reflection, introspection, and yes, humility. And that, that can never contribute to peace. Courage does not cancel. It enables.
To be truly courageous, it is not enough to be brave in one episode or another, or even across episodes. True courage comes from continuing to choose to do what we think or know to the best of our abilities, is right and good. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone. This means not falling into the trap of establishing our own status quo, of resting on our own laurels. It means challenging what we know to be right and good, continuing to grapple with hard questions and stark realities, and doing the best we can with what we have, not just in the moment, but over time.
So, pick up the phone when it rings. Especially if it’s late. Go to where you are called, even if you’re afraid. Hold the hand that needs comfort. Be there through the horror, the misery, the pain. Again and again, and again. That’s courage. But don’t forget; once things are “ok enough”, taking care of yourself—even if it feels like cowardice—can be courageous too. If we don’t have the courage to do that, to be intentional about showing up as our best-selves when others call, can we really take care of ourselves and each other? If we can’t do that, is peace achievable? If so, at what cost? It may very well be that the cost of peace—a peace that is proactive, adaptive, centered on humanity and human potential—is humility, is resilience, is courage. Peace is ours to choose, but in that choice we will have to grapple with complexity and navigate it.
The inner peace (if one will permit me to separate the phrase from connotations of Eastern spirituality and practice) that I have built for myself has come from sitting with complexity. I am a coward, yes. I am also a hero to at least one person. I am someone whose choices led to the death of another. I am a failed business owner. I am a racial equity practitioner who acknowledges that some racial equity efforts have fed into dynamics that destabilize the fragile peace that exists in the US. I am all of these things, but above all I am someone who continually tries to understand my impact and what else I could be doing to create the kind of peace that serves the greatest proportion of humanity possible, in spite of everything. I am someone who makes choices and lives with them. And I’m hoping that with others who are of similar bent, that we can continue to choose courageous ways forward.
Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, peace, and peace research. Journal of peace research, 6(3), 167-191. http://www.jstor.org/stable/422690