Bravery for the 2020s

There’s a movie my kids watch obsessively, The Secret Life of Pets 2. The main character, Max, a dog, has developed anxiety because he tries to keep Liam, a toddler in his family, safe in a very dangerous world. Sounds familiar…is this movie for kids or their parents? There’s a scene where Max goes through a trial with this other dog, Rooster, voiced by Harrison Ford. Rooster is a tough love kind of mentor, and Max finally admits that he’s too scared to rescue a sheep that could fall to its death at any moment. “Fake it!” Rooster orders Max. It being courage. It’s a macho message that Max uses to rescue the sheep. Having then faked it and made it, Max is transformed. He takes on the subsequent challenges in the movie with resolve. The movie ends with a message of accepting uncertainty and being brave. But we’re left with only one technique, and it’s a technique especially suited to momentary fears. What about anxiety? Pervasive, climate-and-or-creeping-totalitarianism anxiety? The kind I have all the time.

During the shutdown in 2020 my kids and I discovered a podcast, Journey with Story. A story called The Monster Who Grew Small was what came on one day, and she prefaced the story with a question, “Do you ever get scared?” Katherine yelled, “No!” And Asa said, “oh yeah, all the time.” “What scares you?” the narrator asked. “That a black hole will swallow the earth,” Asa said. “Global warming,” I said. Katherine ignored us and the rest of the story, in which a boy goes through a series of trials with a rabbit (who lives in the moon) as his guide. His second trial is overcome with the same kind of strategy Max used to save the sheep, fake it ‘til you make it. For his third trial he uses cunning to escape a couple of giant snakes. It is from the fourth trial that the story gets its name:

The boy, Miobi, comes to a village where everyone is sad. He learns they are lamenting because a terrible monster (that is too horrible to even talk about) is going to eat them all. Having developed some courage, he offers, to his own surprise, to kill the monster. Here’s an excerpt from the next part of the story:

Climbing the mountain took him a long time, but when he was halfway up he could see the Monster quite clearly. …it looked about three times as big as the Royal Barge …. Miobi said to himself, “I won’t look at it again until I have climbed all the distance between me and the cave. Otherwise I might feel too much like running away to be able to go on climbing.” When next he looked at the Monster he expected it to be much larger than it had seemed from farther away. But instead it looked quite definitely smaller, only a little bigger than one Royal Barge instead of three. The Monster saw him. It snorted angrily, and the snort flared down the mountainside and scorched Miobi. He ran back rather a long way before he could make himself stop. Now the Monster seemed to have grown larger again. It was quite three times as large as the Royal Barge – perhaps four. Miobi said to himself, “This is very curious indeed. The farther I run away from the Monster, the larger it seems, and the nearer I am to it, the smaller it seems. Perhaps if I was very close it might be a reasonable size for me to kill with my dagger.” So that he would not be blinded by the fiery breath, he shut his eyes. And so that he would not drop his dagger, he clasped it very tightly. And so that he would not have time to start being frightened, he ran as fast as he could up the mountain to the cave. When he opened his eyes he couldn’t see anything which needed killing. …Then he felt something hot touch his right foot. He looked down, and there was the Monster – and it was as small as a frog! He picked it up in his hand and scratched its back.

Miobi uses a few strategies here to face the monster: fake it til you make it, face it when you have to face it (rather than worry ahead of time), and hold on to something tight (it could be a loved one, but he has a dagger). All these are applicable strategies to the world we live in.

But Asa’s fear, black holes, and my fear, climate change, cannot be approached. Getting closer to a black hole would suck you in (not to mention be very expensive) and getting closer to climate change only reveals its enormity, variability, and complexity. But I didn’t yet tell you about Miobi’s first trial.

Miobi’s name actually means “the fearful one.” And he’s super scared of everything. One day he’s walking in the scariest part of the forest and hears a cry for help. But he’s so scared in the forest that he tries to block it out and keep running. “But his heart was louder than his fear,” the story says. “You know what it’s like to be scared, don’t you think you should help?” And so he ventures deeper in to what he is most scared of, and there he finds the rabbit, trapped. He frees the rabbit and it agrees to help him find courage. But to me this incident is more important than the subsequent trials.

In this time of ecological collapse and dissolution of democracy, the only legitimate means through which I can manage bravery is through the method of plunging in to what I fear most knowing that, though I am scared, other people and other beings are more vulnerable and just as scared as me. Not for chivalry, not to be tough, but to connect and love. Sorry not sorry, cue up the Roxette: “Listen to your heart…

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