It’s happening again.
I first encountered the phenomenon during the early days of transition–basically once people were starting to notice and process the changes that they were seeing in my appearance. I refer to the ascription of emotions to those going through an unusual process. The two most commonly mentioned in that case were happiness, as in “I’m glad you’re happy”, or “As long as as you’re happy,” and bravery–“You are so brave!” That I felt neither in those moments often seemed not to register.
“Happiness” missed the cut in the face of Covid19, but once again I hear with some frequency how brave I am, how brave my co-workers are. I cannot speak for them, but I know that I did not feel brave in transition, and I do not feel brave now.
Truth be told, I live with anxiety, and it was not improved either by gender transition or the current pandemic. Those who experience it know that it can be managed more or less effectively, but it tends to persist lifelong, sharing more commonality in that sense with chronic conditions–heart disease, hypertension, diabetes–than the acute but transitory distress of a broken arm. I do give myself some credit for doing relatively well under the circumstances–continuing to work and thrive in a broad sense, maintain a disciplined connection to the resources necessary to do so, and becoming, on balance, more adept at managing the day-to-day stress. If I linger to write my autobiography, I fancy that the subtitle will read something like “My Life as a Well-Coiled Spring”.
I suspect that the attribution of bravery, at least in my case, owes to a lack of familiarity on the part of the observer. Most people have no idea what it is like to experience an identity not conferred upon them by society or biology or both, and understandably feel a bit flummoxed by seeing someone act decisively in the face of such experience–just as I might wonder at the oft-cast image of a soldier in a movie grabbing a nothing more lethal than a flag and charging headlong at an entrenched, well-armed opponent. Inspirational, yes, but not just a tiny bit crazy. Lest any other person, particularly my transgender brothers and sisters bristle at such a word, let me propose that “audacity” is a probably a more apt description, and remind that I am speaking merely of my own odyssey. So too the plight of the present-day healthcare worker, watching the merciless eruption of a deadly epidemic, wondering not whether but when, as the news is framed, “needs will surpass resources.” Why would the general public know what that is going to look like when from the inside I barely grasp it myself?
At any rate, suddenly I am brave again. I find myself in a situation over which I have little control, no genuinely good choices, and ample reason to expect a miserable outcome. I do my job knowing that it is my job to do. I desperately need my family, but fear becoming the vector that silently, invisibly, brings the pestilence home. Aragorn’s “Not this day” speech at the Black Gate bubbles up from somewhere in my subconscious, bringing with it both a flood of both tears and welcome inspiration, but so too does the image of the soldier at Dunkirk dropping his weapons and walking into the waves. I know which figure I more closely resemble.
“Superheroes”, a New York Times editorial called us today, although to be fair, the author made largely the same point that I am. I wonder–is it audacity to set my feet against an onslaught requiring more people, more protection, more resources that I have on hand, or just plain crazy? Will my training, experience and well-honed sense of moral duty be sufficient to hold back the relentless tide of anxiety and despair? The only way to know is to pass through, and I don’t want to. Would that we could linger forever in these last moments when normality is still at least a vivid, recent memory.
No, I am not brave, but perhaps it is not mine to say. One could posit that bravery is a word which must be externally applied–an observed quality as opposed to an experienced internal state. Countless are the times I have heard a parent or a healthcare worker tell a frightened child how brave they are while getting their blood drawn, getting a vaccine or some other immediately unpleasant intervention. Has that not always felt like the right thing to say?
Maybe we celebrate phantom bravery because it is comforting, or simply more comfortable to do so. It is hard enough to see one person in distress; harder still for that distress to spread like contagion to those around. Let there instead be bravery, and heroines, and hope, for so long as there is, the story still seems worth telling.