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Bravery or dogged endurance?

By Brian Holden - posted Friday, 9 July 2010

In her last agonising days, a friend of a friend of mine refused all pain relief. She had been an outstandingly strong person since childhood and she was not going to weaken at the end. She must have been frightened of the misery ahead and the risk was that she would not stick to her plan - which would have added disgust with herself to the sad situation. Would you judge her to be a brave person?

I would judge her to be brave as what she did was calculated. On the other hand as she had no children to inspire, it seemed to be pointless. This example makes me realise that identifying bravery is not clear-cut.

To answer the question, “what place has bravery in modern society?”, we need to define what a brave act is. To my understanding it is the action of a person who:

  • has carefully identified the objective, weighed up the risks, and, even though fearful;
  • has decided to take his or her chances; and
  • that action has to be of some advantage to others other than to that person’s self-image.

So, it came as a disappointment when I realised that our Victoria Crosses have probably been awarded for acts of momentary madness when rage caused all sense of danger to vanish. (I was first alerted to this probability by the movie They Came to Cordura.)

I don’t know what the risk of disease or violence is for those who work for Médecins Sans Frontièrs, but I suspect that this work also meets the above criteria and offers the opportunity to be quietly brave in modern society. I say “quietly brave” as the brave are not necessarily where the media is looking. The media needs a Jessica Watson.

Confusing dogged endurance with bravery

The coloured image I had of myself led me to agree to partner a very fit friend walking a route in Europe called the SR5. Our packs were so heavy that each time I put mine on I had to get it up onto a ledge and then back into it to get my shoulders under the straps.

I bore the pain and near-exhaustion rather than admit to making a mistake. But after putting one foot in front of the other for 700 kilometers, I gave up. My companion continued on to complete the 2,100 kilometers.

I felt a failure and my children’s only reaction was to declare that I was an old fool to attempt what I did (I was aged 55 at the time). That experience caused me to ponder the pointlessness of obsessive sports training when to be unplaced is to be ignored by the public.


Solo sailor Jessica Watson took a gamble. If she did not attain her objective, the project would have been a sad memory. Not bravery but foolishness would have been the judgment of the media-molded minds of the public. If there was an expensive rescue, the public may have been angry. Fortunately, her gamble paid off.

Jessica says that she is not a hero. She is right. She simply thinks on a different level to the vast majority. She saw the voyage ahead of her as a job to be done. When she visualised her craft in a howling gale in the black of night, she did not break out into a cold sweat. Instead she visualised the equipment doing its job and she doing her job. She would never have sailed otherwise. Her parents are to be commended for being such realists. They knew their daughter. Their critics did not.

If there was a danger, then it was that Jessica would be knocked unconscious - and not able to manage the risk. This could have happened even if she took every precaution that it did not. Otherwise, with almost pinpoint GPS navigation, emergency beacons, daily radio contact, unsinkable floats equipped to keep a sailor alive for days until located by an air search - she was at very little risk.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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