I looked up from my coffee and was met with twin pigtail braids wrapped in sparkly barrettes and a slightly timid smile. She had her hands clasped behind her back and she rocked on her tiptoes for a moment, waiting for my reply.
Most of the other kids we’ve encountered in Vietnam just leave at this point, so I returned to my coffee.
“What is your name?” Asked the sweet little voice again, slowly but in almost perfectly annunciated American English
This made me smile. I looked up at her mother, who sat a few feet away at a nearby table. She was watching us, beaming.
“My name is Jessica, what is your name?”
“Jessica.” She said, trying out the syllables. “My name is Loan.”
“How old are you?” Asked Matt, clearly as surprised as I was at the bravery of the little girl.
“I am….” She paused and laughed, unsure of the number. She held up her hands, 8 tiny fingers.
“You are 8 years old!”
There was a pause, and her mother appeared behind her this time. They started to leave, but the mother gave Loan a little poke and the girl turned around and said: “It was nice to meet you. I hope we will meet again soon!” I met the mother’s gaze again, who gave us a smiling wave as she guided her daughter into their car.
Bravery is a trait that can be reinforced.
I’ve always been a shy person. When I was Loan’s age, my parents practically had to force me to talk to my relatives. I didn’t even look at strangers. And while I think some of my shyness was innate, a lot of it was based off fear– either fear other people’s motives or fear of being judged.
There’s a very clear narrative of distrust and danger in the US. It exists in part because of how our minds cling to information– we tend to remember negative reports more than positive reports– and the media obviously caters toward this negativity bias. But I also think the common, driving notion behind distrusting others is that any form of kindness or goodness must have an ulterior motive. This belief is ingrained in our societal discourse, replicated over the years by the great minds including Hobbes, Marx, and Freud.
The fact that it’s difficult for us to believe in the basic, unadulterated goodness of other people also translates into a fear of breaking unspoken social norms. We are afraid, in turn, of being perceived as creepy, suspicious, or weird. We fear going out on a limb because that level of bravery can be met with skepticism or outright rejection. Combating this fear is really quite difficult, especially when we live in such a way that the expectations others have of us is put on display. Social networking sites– while great for reconnecting old friends– can have a pretty large negative impact on our mental well-being. The “there” in “putting yourself out there” has grown to a global audience. We’ve come to base our understanding of ourselves through how we must appear to others, instead of grounding ourselves in our true, nuanced stories.
Being brave is something that has come up for me a lot as I’ve gotten older. I’ve been learning ways to look at my fear to understand where it comes from. I think being brave has a lot to do with being grounded in who we are as individuals, accepting our vulnerabilities and strengths together as a complete package. It comes down to a trust in our own basic goodness and the motivations behind our actions. This is all, of course, easier said than done.
But I can’t help but wonder if it has to be so difficult. Bravery is, after all, a trait. It can be learned, practiced, and reinforced over time. I think it’s also a way of operating in the world, a lens through which to view the environment around us. Take a look at the outside world from a standpoint of bravery, and things just seem to be a lot more possible. Many of my friends are having kids now, and I wonder what kind of society we could build if we taught bravery instead of fear.