What It Really Means To Be Brave

Written By Andrea Rivera

Author Bio: One of those damn millennials trying to survive as a creative. Sufferer of chronic existentialism. Likes spicy food. - Twitter: @andreyeaah

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My university has this famous battle cry usually shouted during competitions and sporting events. Aside from being the go-to Twitter bio of many proud and spirited freshmen, it also serves as a reminder of what is to be expected of the student body. It goes like this:

Matatapang, matatalino (Brave and intelligent)
Walang takot kahit kanino (Without fear of absolutely anyone) 
Unibersidad ng Pilipinas! (University of the Philippines!)

As an institution notorious for its tough admission process, the “intelligent” part is justifiable. It’s the “brave” part that’s a little problematic. Although it has produced brilliant minds who courageously defied boundaries and oppressive regimes, the university was also home to a lot of cowards. Some of them live ordinary lives, but many of them benefit from the protection of privilege and power. Sometimes, these cowards are the ones responsible for those oppressive regimes. 

Of course, one can’t generalize from a mere pep rally chant. Despite the stereotype, I’ve known a lot of people who are gentle and would rather stay in the sidelines. I guess that’s what really bothers me about this whole expectation of brashness: the university was also home to people like me.

I never really considered myself a brave person. Growing up, I was wrapped in the paralyzing fear of being judged and humiliated for all my deep-seated insecurities. I’ve always thought that I was too slow, too fat, too ugly, and too lame. I barely spoke a word, letting others take me for granted as I hate myself for not being assertive enough. Although I outgrew some of my issues and obtained a little more self-worth, I can still feel the vestiges of my past self seeping through the cracks. I still avoid confrontations and would much rather retreat to the space provided by social media for catharsis. New places still give me anxiety. I cower in fear of public speaking. I can’t even ride certain theme park attractions, dive from a cliff without a vest, or kill large flying cockroaches. In my eyes, I am still a coward.

Just last year, I started going to therapy. I’ve been treated for depression and generalized anxiety, two things that have been with me for so long that they’ve become inseparable from my personality. Two paralyzing things I try to fend off with antidepressants and going out with friends. Am I weak and cowardly because I’m ill or am I ill because I’m weak and cowardly? The lines are blurry and I don’t know where I stand. Sometimes I question if I really needed the meds and therapy. I tell myself, some people have gone through worse. Some have brains more messed up than yours. Other people can go on with their lives without breaking down every five minutes, so why the hell can’t you? 

My mother told me I was brave for starting therapy in the first place. My friend called me brave for confronting a guy I had feelings for. My coworker called me brave for walking home at 3 AM on a road infamous for robbers and people who can do worse. A family friend called me brave for staying at home alone for three days just after my great-grandmother passed away in it. I’ve been told that going through every day battling all the crippling thoughts is a brave thing, but I don’t feel very brave. There are still countless things that I just can’t face. However, now that I’m forcing myself to take more risks than before, I’m starting to think that maybe there’s more to being brave than not being scared.

We all have different ideas on how to be brave, especially as a woman. Some people think it’s roughhousing and defying gender expectations. Some think it’s dominating the boardroom in a patriarchal system. Some say it’s publicly proclaiming defiance despite being faced with legions of supporters. Some women speak out against the violation of their bodies. Some take a bullet in a war zone just to get to school. Others lie low, quietly fighting for their right to live.

In the end, there’s no single indicator on how to be brave. If you look at all the people considered “brave” by the general public, they all have one thing in common: they fight back. Even if they’re scared, even if they’re uncomfortable, even if the odds are against them. Fear doesn’t necessarily translate into cowardice, and one doesn’t have to be loud and aggressive to be called brave. Sometimes gestures as small as saying “no” or acts as simple as waking up can be considered brave. The cowardly thing to do, I guess, is to run away without putting up a fight.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I was afraid of many insects and rats, but fazed by dark corridors I was not. My life has been full of dark corridors recently. Whenever I feel nervous about something, I look back to that girl who walked around the house even with the lights out. That was the girl who once blacked out during an impromptu speech, but that was also the girl who remained calm in the dark even if she was inches away from an armed thief who broke into her house. 

I try to remind myself that she and I are the same. Sometimes, I feel her slipping away every time I am faced with disagreeable people and rejection letters. But every time I decide to keep going, it’s like I’m telling her that she isn’t as cowardly as she thinks. I’ve been too hard on her all these years, and this time I have to make it up to her. I have to let her know that she’s brave for being her. I have to let her know that she’s brave for simply trying to live.