Superman is the most iconic comic book superhero in the world. He represents moral goodness and justice. He is loved by millions. But he isn’t brave.
In fact, he can’t be brave. To understand why, let’s start by enumerating his superpowers:
- Superhuman strength, intelligence, speed, hearing and vision
- Ability to fly
- Instant healing
- X-ray vision
- Heat vision
- Eidetic memory
- Ice breath
- Fire breath
- Telepathy and more…
He has dozens more superpowers, but you get the idea. He’s basically a living god. He knows he’ll win every battle in advance. He need not fear his opponents. If anything doesn’t go his way, he can just reverse the earth’s rotation to turn back time. The only internal struggle he has to worry about is finding out who the bad guys are and deciding if he should intervene or not. That’s why Superman isn’t brave. Vulnerability is necessary for bravery, and Superman can’t be vulnerable.
Real bravery is many things. It’s having the moral strength to face danger, fear and adversity despite not knowing how things will work out. Bravery is taking the road less traveled instead of the beaten path. It is marching to the beat of your own drummer, refusing to conform to society’s standards. It is confronting your worst fears. It is doing the right thing when others turn a blind eye. Bravery is staying true to yourself in tough circumstances. It goes hand in hand with fear and uncertainty. Bravery isn’t easy, but it is contagious.
We all have our own personal struggles. Then there are struggles we share in common with everyone else. We all get sick. We grow old and frail and eventually we die. We aren’t guaranteed of a good outcome in life. We face a universe that is indifferent to our existence. There’s a real possibility that our species could destroy itself, forever extinguishing the only source of intelligent life we know of. But confronting that reality isn’t something we do by choice. Even for people that seem to ignore reality, it’s still there in the very back of their mind, often expressing itself in indirect ways. As such, facing reality isn’t usually seen as bravery since we have no other option.
But, I want to give you something to consider: If you look at people who have acted bravely in the name of justice or good, they often did so because they couldn’t continue any other way. Their psychic reality more or less forced them into bravery. Look at Edward Snowden for example. In case you didn’t know, he put his life and freedom at risk to tell the American people that our government is illegally spying on all of us. Here is what he said:
“If I had just wanted to harm the US? You could shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon. But that’s not my intention. I think for anyone making that argument they need to think, if they were in my position and you live a privileged life, you’re living in Hawaii, in paradise, and making a ton of money, ‘What would it take you to leave everything behind?'”
You can tell he felt an obligation toward his country and that obligation, for him, outweighed his own life. He wasn’t trying to be brave in leaking classified documents. He simply found himself in a situation where his conscience wouldn’t let him ignore the injustice of mass surveillance any longer. With Snowden, 2 things are clear. Number 1 is he felt that something wrong was going on in government and he couldn’t stand idly by. Number 2 is he felt that he couldn’t walk away from it because if he didn’t speak up, no one else would. Combine those 2 factors and you see he was basically forced into whistleblowing. Just because you are forced into a difficult situation, that doesn’t mean enduring it isn’t brave or noble.
When I decided to drop my university classes in order to keep my computing freedom, I found myself in a similar situation to Snowden, albeit with less extreme consequences. I felt there was an injustice being done in the university that I couldn’t ignore. And there was no way for me to challenge the proprietary software from within the university. I had exhausted my available options, so I was forced into dropping classes. It only felt right to make a strong statement about why I left which is why this blog even exists. Voices outside of the free software community and even a few within it told me I was making a big mistake. I still stand by that decision today because I realized that if I didn’t do what I had done, nobody else would. Student groups at my university had already tried unsuccessfully to get professors to use different software. Through my efforts, I made the issue of free software known to many students and professors, got the department chair to mention the ethical concerns during class, gained informative experiences, started this blog, inspired members of the FSF and hopefully showed other students fighting for computing freedom in education that they are not alone.
You don’t need to go full martyr like Snowden or sacrifice as much as I did to be brave. Some would say what I did was foolish, not brave. But the point is bravery can be any situation where you are vulnerable, but you persist anyway. It can be conquering a phobia, trying new things, putting yourself out there, or facing difficult tasks head on. Acting in spite of your fear is what bravery feels like. Try being brave even for 30 seconds per day. Don’t overwhelm yourself, but do something where you don’t know what the outcome will be. If you do that enough times, you’ll gain confidence in uncertain situations and it might just change your life.