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The Courage of a Girl, The Health of a Nation

This essay was inspired by rock climber Alex Honnold, profiled in the documentary Free Solo, and also by all of the children in this country who have the courage to live their lives despite also living with anxiety.

There is a man who climbs a 3,000 foot high wall. The wall is a breathtaking almost-vertical slab of granite in Yosemite National Park. The man looks up and carefully configures, move after excruciating move, exactly where to position this particular part of his foot. He concentrates too on the precise position of one hand, and then the precise position of the other hand. One minuscule mistake and the man faces certain death.

He is not using ropes.

Somewhere in another part of the country, during another place in time, there is also a little girl who needs to go to school. Unlike the man who methodically climbs the wall with steady breath, the girl is afraid of school. Interacting with other children is scary. Sitting in a chair full of germs is scary. Forgetting to bring the wrong schoolbooks in her overloaded backpack makes her exceptionally nervous. Her brain plays tricks on her.

And her body betrays her. The pants she wears suddenly become unbearably itchy. The coat she wears is too warm to keep on indoors, but she wears it anyway; she has nowhere to put the coat where it will not be exposed to germs. Sometimes, the nervousness makes her so nauseous that she thinks she might vomit. Her palms sweat and she scratches at her pants. She is unable to use the restroom at school because it is too dirty. So she doesn't drink. She doesn't eat. Sometimes she feels dizzy. Her body aches.

The man who climbs the wall without a rope, on the other hand, is in full control of his breathing and his body. He has already rehearsed the precise movements that will propel him safely to the top of the mountain dozens, maybe hundreds, of times. He claims to have worked through the fear until "it's just not scary anymore." In fact, an MRI of his brain uncovers that when he is exposed to frightening images, there is no activation in the part of the brain that processes fear. The MRI technician explains that the things which are stimulating to the rest of us are not activating his brain. So the man succeeds; he gets to the top of the mountain.

The girl also succeeds. She goes to school. On the way there, she looks out the window of the car and observes the world around her -a world where people are dying from something she can't see. She hears grown-ups and politicians on T.V. talk about people who have died. What if she dies? What if her mom dies? What if her friend hugs her and then the girls hugs her grandmother? Where do the germs go? The girl's brain ignites with an endless array of questions that spin in a loop inside her mind all day. She attempts to center herself by breathing in and out while counting. But the girl gets to school, walks in the door and stays all day. With all the scary stuff.

You likely don't know the man who climbs mountains, but you probably know the girl. Maybe she lives next door to you. Maybe she's in class with your kid. You might be a teacher, and the girl is one of your students. Maybe she's you, when you were a kid. As you think about the man and the girl, consider this: who's braver? The man who scales 3,000 foot high walls without ropes or the little girl who goes to school when she is terrified?

The answer, of course, depends on how you define courage. If courage is defined by facing, with poise, a situation that we all collectively agree is scary, then clearly the man is braver. He is doing something that most of us would consider terrifying, and he is barely breaking a sweat.

If, on the other hand, courage is defined at the individual level simply as feeling immense fear but acting anyway, then the girl is braver. By most markers (psychologically and physically), she is petrified. She is afraid of something objectively ordinary - going to school - but she is afraid nonetheless. And she walks straight into that fear, day after day. This ordinary, everyday determination to move forward with life in the face of what feels frightening is what lies at the heart of true courage.

Why is it so important to understand courage, anyway? Why courage? Why now? Because if there was ever a time to re-frame how we look at mental health, now is the time. We are at a breaking point where millions of Americans, children included, are losing a grip on their own mental health. Even before social isolation began, the CDC estimated that one in five adults experience mental illness, and 17% of young people experience a mental health disorder. Those numbers have increased at astonishing rates in recent months.

What if we were not only able to truly destigmatize mental illness, but also flip the script on how we view those who are experiencing it? What if we mined all of our interactions for small acts of courage? The teenager who finally confesses to his parents how dark his thoughts have become, explaining that he needs their help this time. The employee who risks her job to tell her boss she needs time off because her thoughts keep betraying her. The little girl who goes to school even when her mind is packed to the rafters with anxiety.

What might we discover if we stopped looking to the tops of tall mountains to find courage? Bravery should not exist in our collective imagination as a shiny unattainable object that belongs only to a select few. Instead, we must look for it in all of the small corners of our lives. In order to find it, though, we must search for it with intention. Then we must speak about it. Tell the little girl she is brave. Because it could be the one thing that makes a difference.

Adapted from LinkedIn Article found here.


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