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How to think about bravery

| Thursday, November 3, 2016

Like any self-respecting Harry Potter connoisseur, I have taken many a Sorting Hat quiz to best determine which Hogwarts house I belong in. After the Pottermore quiz (created by J.K. Rowling herself) designated me as a Gryffindor, I finally accepted my place. For those unfamiliar with the Hogwarts houses, Gryffindors are notorious for their bravery — courage so strong that causes them make stupid decisions for the sake of their friends’ safety. Fictional dormitories aside, this quiz got me thinking — am I a brave person? How can someone as untested and unchallenged as myself really know whether or not they are truly courageous?

With an abundance of examples to choose from, it should be relatively easy to decide what exactly bravery means, and whether or not the term applies to your character. Bravery has been a theme in the arts for as long as people have been telling stories, and history provides us with even more examples. Bards wrote songs professing the king’s fortitude under fire, the knights of early fairytales won the hearts of princesses by slaying the mighty dragon, Jack forsakes his spot on the plank instead choosing certain death in the frigid waters to ensure the safety of Rose. Tales of sacrifice and bravery are told time and time again, and not just in stories and songs. We learn the meaning of courage under fire in history class you read about the deeds of soldiers. We are all familiar of the courage it took to shelter Jews in Nazi Europe, and the phrase “standing up for your beliefs” is epitomized by Rosa Parks when she refused to take a seat in the back of the bus.

Upon further examination, however, one common thread throughout the heroes of fiction and history is missing in my own life, and the lives of many college students: a challenge so daunting or dangerous as to require an act of true courage. I have lived a lucky life in that I have been relatively untested so far. The biggest obstacles I have had to overcome involve schoolwork and friendships — not necessarily the stuff you read about in heroic novels. How can I possibly call myself brave — and equate myself with Gryffindor — if I have never been tested? Sure, I like to think that, should the moment arise where I am asked to sacrifice myself for a friend, or run into a burning building to save a child, I would not hesitate. But as I  —thankfully — have not been faced with any life-or-death struggles, I am left with an unsatisfying “what if?” that I long to have answered. The fact of the matter is, if you are unwilling to view bravery as anything other than the knight-in-shining-armor ideal, it is difficult to truly convince us of our own fortitude until we have been truly tried and tested. Perhaps there are small character traits, noticeable in everyday actions, which make it possible to determine who, if the moment arose, would lead a charge into battle. Maybe it’s the people who confidently thrust their hands up first in class, willing to answer a tough question, or the person who exemplifies the desire to serve others by volunteering during his or her busy weekends. If we can approach the concept of true courage as having the strength to stand up for what is right, to defend a friend or classmate against cruelty or to participate in just causes, it becomes a more manageable, tangible effort.

It is easy to see why Harry is a Gryffindor — after all, he fights a dark lord at age 11.  It is when we examine the other members of Gryffindor where we can find examples for our own lives, whether we look to Neville Longbottom, standing up for what he believes is right against his own friends, or to Hermione Granger, who leads a petition to win more rights for the oppressed house-elves. We hold up the heroic protagonists of our favorite stories on pedestals of nobility, but we should be searching for the smaller acts of courage within these stories, and within our own lives, to serve as models of bravery for ourselves.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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