Bravery is something difficult to define. To some people, simply having a high risk tolerance can look like bravery, but I don’t really think that’s it. It’s not brave if I do a bunch of stuff that I don’t think will impact me negatively, even if an outside observer does think those things are dangerous. I prefer the definition of bravery that says it’s when a person does in fact think something is very dangerous, but does it anyway.
Even that, though, is subject to some scrutiny. Let’s say there’s a burning building, which I am very very certain is very very dangerous to me. If my child is inside that building, I’m going in. That’s not bravery – that’s simply me valuing even a slim chance at my child’s life far higher than a high risk to my own. So I’m not sure I’d call that “brave.” Conversely, imagine I ran into the building for no reason at all – is that brave? Or is that just thrill-seeking – me being an adrenaline junky?
So that’s the thing about bravery. It’s tough to define, and it doesn’t simply measure our reaction to risk and danger. Deeper morals and values come into play, for certain. What I do know is that there is a spectrum of people’s willingness to face danger in exchange for benefit, especially “benefit to others” or “benefit to society at large.” So on that note:
If, for any given action, the risk to myself is high, the benefit to myself is marginal, the benefit to society is large, and regardless of my individual choice, someone will perform this action: it’s brave if I do it.
I don’t think it’s brave to do things that don’t need to be done, for instance. That’s thrill-seeking. I also don’t think it’s especially brave to do things of high potential value to you – that’s just risk/reward analysis. But those people that dig tunnels under mountains? Huge risk, huge societal benefit, crappy pay – but if they quit, someone else goes in anyway? I think of those people as brave.
One of the biggest positive externalities of bravery is inspiration in society. Brave people make us want to do better, reach higher, appreciate the world around us more. That isn’t what they set out to do – they set out to dig a tunnel. But as a fantastic side benefit, we hear their stories and we want to become better versions of ourselves.
If you are brave – if you face danger that helps society and does little to benefit you personally – then I applaud you. And you completely, utterly ruin it if you’re a jerk.
The bravest people do the most good if they are also the kindest people. Don’t chide other people for lacking your bravery – inspire them. Don’t push them away as if they were a class of people unworthy of you. Embrace them as if they were the very flock you’re being brave for. If you’re carrying the weight of the world upon your shoulders, shielding others below from having it crash all around them, don’t mock them because they aren’t up there with you. Inspire them, so they want to be.