During my military training, a handful of my fellow soldiers and I, all of us still wet behind the ears, were soaking up the wisdom of a grizzled paratrooper before we left for Airborne School ourselves.
"Were you ever afraid of jumping out a plane?" one of our gaggle of fresh faces asked the man.
Even cleanly shaven, the veteran's face seemed covered in a sandpaper sheen of grey stubble. "Every time," he answered honestly, turning his head so he could meet each pair of riveted eyes in turn. "And each and every time I was more scared than the time before."
He was an experienced veteran of hundreds of drops, had leapt out of planes in the midst of combat, and here he sat in a rickety wooden chair, telling us that the fear never went away, it only grew worse.
"You see," he explained, "your brain can't comprehend jumping from something that far off the ground. It's not part of your evolution. We didn't jump off cliffs and survive on our way to modern times. So your brain just shuts off. You jump out of the plane, there's this blank spot in your memory, and you're on the ground. Each time, you brain remembers a little bit more. You remember the wind blasting just outside the door. The riser's hitting you in the face. Whippin' ass over tea kettle as you wait for your shoot to open. Each time you jump you remember a little bit more. Each time you're a little more aware of what you’re doing, of what could go wrong. Each jump is scarier than the one before."
"So why do you do it?" our mouthpiece asked, following up his initial question.
The old warrior leaned forward, looking at each of us intently once more. "'cause the day you let fear beat you is the day you start to die."
Everyone is afraid. Each of us has something we're scared of, whether it's a need that sends us double-checking to make sure our doors are locked at night or the fear of being rejected when we share who we truly are with someone we care about and respect.
Fear can take countless forms. When an author is encouraged to, "write what you know," it's not simply a matter of tackling subjects your familiar with but a process of sharing parts of your own soul, your own journey, and the challenges you face in your own world. Courage isn't the absence of fear; it's the willingness to steer true when you're truly afraid. Our fears don't have to growl with literal teeth; they can wait quietly in our inner shadows that we hide from the world around us.
One of my favorite examples of courage is from an anime called Clannad. The series is about a group of classmates who meet in high school and slowly become friends, sharing the journey of self-discovery as they come of age. One of the characters, Tomoya, is a study in quiet hidden fear. A skilled basketball player, his shoulder is injured in an altercation with his abusive father and he can no longer raise his dominant arm above his chest. Giving up the sport, he becomes a juvenile delinquent who finds an unlikely friend in the sweet Nagisa. Nagisa has a tremendously frail constitution and often questions her own abilities. Their connection gives Tomoya a positive outlet for his fear as he watches over, helps, and protects Tomoya. He faces his fear by growing close to her, by developing a friendship with Nagisa's own father, and eventually building bridges with his own dad. Nagisa and Tomoya fall in love, are married, and Tomoya faces the fear of becoming like his alcoholic father, putting everything into becoming a partner and provider. When Nagisa becomes pregnant, there are grave concerns about her health, but Tomoya stands beside her and they decide to have the child.
A snow storm delays the midwife as Nagisa goes into labor. While the child is delivered safely, Tomoya dies.
Tomoya finds it more than he can face and abandons the child, leaving his daughter in the care of her Nagisa's parents. Years pass. Tomoya's in-laws convince him to go on a vacation with him, disappearing at the last moment and leaving him to travel with the child alone. After a reunion with his paternal grandmother shines light on his own father's journey, Tomoya discovers that his way of facing his fears is finding something only he can protect and, filled with questions, he returns to the field where he left his daughter alone.
There is so much quiet courage in this scene. Tomoya knowing that he's been a horrible parent and asking for another chance; his daughter asking if she can entrust herself to the embrace of a father who abandoned her. To each, there is an unseen monster lurking to attack the moment they lower their defenses.
As both an author and a reader, some of my favorite stories are about heroes overcoming impossible odds to protect what they believe in. While it's easy to put a sword in the heroine's hand, true courage often runs deeper, found in the moment we understand the fear and choose to steer true despite the threat of losing it all - whether that's our life, our dreams, or simply an intimate and precious piece of ourselves.