I had not realised until recently that bravery is not an absolute truth. It is a perception.

I suppose we all figure it out in our own ways in our own time, but it never struck home to me in all its clarity until now. It is somewhat similar to physical beauty. Beauty is not absolute. A person is considered ‘beautiful’ when some basic guidelines and expectations are satisfied. The impression varies from person to person, and even changes with the viewer’s developing mind. A picture you consider beautiful today may not appear so gorgeous five or ten years later.

Bravery is not a fact. It is not set in stone. It is an idea that comes out of a person’s actions. It satisfies some predefined principles. A brave person does not go around the world calling himself brave. (Then he becomes something else!) It is his actions that make him appear brave to us. On the other hand, if he goes around the world repeating, “I am not afraid,” then yes, the world does conclude that there is something to him.

Being afraid is not the opposite of being brave. Fear is a very human aspect. Everyone has it. Time and again, I have heard people say “He is not brave. He is afraid.” The speaker even seems to gather some satisfaction from that statement. Of course ‘he’ will be afraid. Because it is human to be afraid. The only difference is how we go forward, despite being afraid. How others see us going forward with that fear. Bravery is just a label, like many other things.

Bravery is about how well you conceal your fear and display courage. You are quivering inside, but you put up a ‘brave face’. (If your tell-tale fingers tremble, you are done for.) You keep the terror from appearing on your face, from your eyes. Everyone else calls you brave. If you confess that you are afraid, they call you weak. Afraid. Not brave. If you confess you are afraid, but smile and laugh when you say it, they call you courageous. But don’t overdo it. The difference is subtle.

I said, “they call you”. Because that is what bravery is. – How your actions are seen by the eyes of the world around you. God did not write on the wall that “this woman is brave” or “that man is a coward” for us to see. We made that up. From what we see. From what it appears to us.

A lady told me she was afraid of what was coming. Why did this happen to me? she repeated. Her face was drawn and tired. She was sad and miserable. She began to withdraw. Nevertheless she took each day as it came; some were rewarding, some were punishing. She cried, she smiled, she talked, she sighed, she got angry, she swung from this extreme to that. She didn’t run away – but only because there was no way to run. There was only one path – forward. I do not know if she is brave or not. One day, someone told me in confidence that this lady “was afraid, she was not as brave as…” This judgement came just because she had admitted that she was terrified and she did not put up a show of defiance or bravery.

There was another person, who had a rather terrible fate. He chuckled even when speaking about his situation. I thought he was handling it rather well, considering that his life had just turned upside down. Days later, his son tells me, “Father is not as brave as he pretends to be.” No one is! I wanted to say. It is the pretension that helped him get over every single minute of his never-ending misery. It was his way of telling himself and others that he wasn’t beaten yet. Probably he just hated the show of sympathy from us. Is that courage, or is it a weakness? Anyone in that state would be horrified, because there was no revoking that fate. It had happened. Life, however unbearable it had become, had to go on. The best he could do, despite everything, was to appear cheerful in front of others. And he did. Was he brave? I do not know. People who saw him smile said he was. His son, who saw his lonely, gloomy interior, said he wasn’t.

Think of a person you consider brave. What makes you think she is? Her actions? Her reaction to a situation? Is she “really” brave, or just good at handling her fear? What’s the difference? Aren’t they two sides of the same old coin? How do we define bravery then?

Everyone is brave. Everyone is afraid. Everyone does some or other act of cowardice, and some or other act of courage.

There is courage in putting up a bold face. There is courage in silence. There is courage in weeping. There is courage in losing control. But the only bravery we see and accept is the one that is well-contained.

Sadly, what is perceived is what lasts. You need not be brave. You only have to appear to be. And only if you care about what the world labels you.