Courage Maketh Man

I’m a good 1 week late on putting this issue out because my head has been swimming in a soup of slightly divergent thoughts around this topic but I can’t get them to stick together in a single story. So I’ve given up and decided to write this piece as a collection of thoughts fractured out of a single large bone.

When I was off to college, my father told me to respect my fears. I think he meant to warn me against doing stupid risky things with buddies if they made me uncomfortable.

What I did with that advice was that I used it as a pain reliever every time I took the decision to let a fear win.

I didn’t go on 4 trips with friends because I feared I’ll fall behind on school work. Not only did I miss out on going around, I still only made a 6.8 GPA. But I told myself, hey, I had a fear, I respected it, I’m all good!

I had tickets booked to travel home for Diwali, but I hadn’t informed my supervisor at the institute yet. The day before I was about to fly, I was full of fear about how I had made a plan on short notice. Plus I had so much work to finish and I had a good pace going. I skipped the flight. I didn’t get much done though. But I had respected my fear. I was all good!

Something happened each time I made these decisions. It felt like consuming a pill for pain. It numbed the sensation. But the pain remained somewhere. Today, after so many years, I have been able to put a name to that feeling. It is loathing.

I loathe myself, every time I take a decision out of fear. I can’t stand myself!

In 2017 I worked as a JRF at TIFR with a retired Physicist. We were working on genetic associations of addictions with clinical data from his biologist daughter. The Professor was a hard task master. At one point in the late part of my term, I discovered I had made an error in calculations. I went to tell him that and he exploded at me in a way that shook me. I put in my papers but he convinced me to stay, expressing regret at the torment his outburst caused me. It was also formative experience in my understanding of how science is done. A deep dive into statistics and probability fundamentals that have since served me very well in thinking about technical as well as philosophical problems. It was formative also in that I spent a lot of time staying anxious at my jobs since. I constantly played out scenarios in my head of my boss expressing displeasure and me sternly defending myself. They never did!

While I maintain that the workplace should be a safe place sans emotional outbursts, I can’t help but feel, weak. What would have happened had I been a stronger person? Would I have been affected as much? Would I have had the courage to retaliate and correct the professor right then? Would I have just not been bothered by someone uttering words that were louder than normal? Every time I see a person who is relatively unaffected in the face of anger, and can respond with calm and cool, I get a burning desire to find more strength.

The world needs to be more kind people. And I need to be more strong.

It is worth thinking why we placed Freedom as the highest ideal of our new modern world. What glorious thing does freedom really entail, that makes us clamor for it against great brutality and oppression? Why does it matter that I be able to do what I deem fit? As I understand it, it is because the more someone exercises their freedom, the more they feel good. That seems to be the property of brains. We have accepted through the ages that we have evolved to love freedom. Poems have been written to capture birds pining for freedom. We have agreed that that’s what nature wants for us.

What do we do with freedom? We make choices and risks, learn from them, and keep doing “better” things. Even better is, we get to define what better and worse are.

But the exercise of freedom has a pre-requisite that no constitution in the world guarantees. That is courage. Without courage, it is impossible to truly use one’s agency. In the absence of courage, one looks for an authority to tell them what to do. A God, a government, a boss!

What do you make of people that you find annoying? Most likely, such people appear to have little self-awareness. Like a Michael Scott. Nerdwriter’s video tackles the character and trope in detail. A person, invested so heavily in a performance, that they are convinced will enamor the viewer and earn them respect, almost always achieving the opposite result. What do you make of such a person when they have exhibited a certain level of skill or intelligence in a certain other area of life? You’d think they’d know better! You’d be inclined to think that they’re probably malicious or egoistic. Their performance is full of show-off. Full of attempts to exhibit accomplishment or status. Often this status or accomplishment is limited in its glory. Like a senior position in a government office. Their exhibition of status involves theater of petty power, often on service employees who can’t say or do much. Conversations with them feel uncomfortable because they re-route all topics to themselves.

Shilpa and I were discussing such a character on a long car-drive recently and we asked why would a person care about shoving what they did down their audience’s throat.

It must be a compensation for insecurity, the feeling of inadequacy, perhaps even emasculation. The world seems to be full of such people. People who went through their lives like zombies. Taught to be fearful of risk, fearful of saying what they think, fearful of upsetting authority. Even though no dictator told them they would be jailed for saying what they thought was right, their mother or father did. Having been trained to never exhibit courage and go about life from one “sure-shot path” to another — I can’t help but wonder — do they loathe themselves too? Is it that instead of using the voice of their father, they try to use their accomplishment in (perceived) status to numb that pain? Do they realize inside that that status means nothing? Is that why they perform that status in front of others? Because if we nod our head and validate their lie, they could stand tall in front of the pain and tell it to come back another day? I think it must be that!

I think dear reader, that you are piecing together where I intend to go with this article. The ideal of the year for me is turning out to be courage.

To his credit, my father had always tried to make me repeat that I’m fearless. I think that was the wrong way to go about it. Let me continue to have fear, as long as I develop the courage to overcome it!

Almost everyday, I face a situation, where I find myself wanting to be escapist. I want to watch TV, have a drink, look at Social Media almost the minute I find something getting hard. Fears from far and wide teleport by my side, whispering to me how I will fail at the new task that I’m starting out because that’s the kind of person I am. Telling me I could never survive the confrontation I really need to have. Holding me back each time I’m about to take the plunge. “You will suffer, and how!”, says fear to me in a mocking tone!

And recently, through certain changes and some reflection and perhaps just through the passing of time, I have found started to find the courage to tell fear off! Also, each time I do find the courage to go ahead and not act out of fear, I get a massive kick of dopamine. Just like any other muscle, it seems to be getting strong the more I use it. I’m able to push myself into writing rather than watching TV, leave work early even if I haven’t been productive and take vacations without guilt. I’m able to shun aside things that were stressing me out into sitting in front of the TV for hours just a few months ago.

Every small act of courage gives me a hint into why courage has been a valued currency for earning respect throughout history. It must be more than just about skin-in-the-game. As Taleb writes, the moral thing is to fully partake in the downside of your risks. But why must taking risks be “good” in the first place? The signal of courage and risks and scars must mean something to us evolutionarily. Taking risk and surviving or not, is literally the definition of evolution via natural selection. It is as if nature selected us to have it’s own process embedded in our brains, enabling us to innovate.

If we truly believe freedom to be the highest ideal, then courage must follow as a very close second. As we strive to make the world safer for everyone’s freedom to be expressed, we must also aspire to be stronger! After all, a strong person doesn’t need to be unkind.

My brother recently took me to a climbing gym. I have always had a fear of heights and a quarter way up my first climb itself, I looked down and felt my stomach drop. In climbing, there’s manual and automatic belay. When you have climbed a wall, you have to let go. In a manual belay, your partner lowers you down slowly. Otherwise, there’s a automated gear based system that arrests your fall so that you descend comfortably. I found enough courage to climb certain routes to the top as long as my brother was there on the manual belay. I tried the auto-belay a few times just to test myself but failed to let go at the top. I climbed down to try another time. I intend to meditate on the advice my brother gave me and get myself to climb down using the auto-belay soon this year.

He told me that when I’m at the top and start to feel the fear, “take pause, take a breath, and push!”

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