Holly skiing in Vail's Blue Sky Basin.

Cultivating bravery: Choosing the harder thing

My friend and I leaned hard against the tilting boat, pushing back against the fierce winds whipping the Potomac. As the boat capsized and my head went beneath the surface, I thought to myself, “at least I just got all of those shots.” After all, the Potomac doesn’t have a reputation as the cleanest river in America. I’d recently finished a course of exotic-sounding immunizations in preparation for upcoming travel abroad. I joked to my friends that in this case, the need for shots was coming much closer to home.

The fact is, I just shouldn’t be a sailor. I’m at peace on the water, a product of a mostly positive childhood spent boating and kayaking the lakes and rivers of northwestern Montana, followed by a few years as a varsity rower in college. Sailboats, however, seem to be my nemesis.

I’ve sailed a total of three times; once as a teenager, on an absolutely windless day that brought no challenge (and barely any movement) to our craft; once, on my honeymoon, when my inexperience overcame my new husband’s Navy training leading to a sudden capsize and my husband gouging his feet on the shallow reef — incidentally, not the best way to build partnership on a honeymoon. And finally, my outing with my girlfriend along the Potomac. She was patient with my inexperience, but was learning to handle a new boat herself, and when the wind came upon us suddenly, we went overboard.

I was wildly uncomfortable on the sailboat that day, even before we flipped. Of course, there were moments of excitement. I soaked up the sight of the small fleet of sailboats racing along the river, with the white monuments of Washington and Jefferson peeking through the trees. I shared laughs with my friend and shuddered as my abs were put through the unexpected rigors of a sailing workout. And I persevered, consciously recognizing I was putting myself in a place of discomfort, where I was slightly afraid, despite the fact that I was at no time in any recognizable, actual, danger.

The intentional cultivation of bravery has been a touchpoint throughout my life, although it’s not often that I encounter it as starkly as I did that day on the river.  I’m not sure whether it grew out of childhood admiration for Laura Ingalls Wilder and other adventurous heroines, was a byproduct of growing up in the Colorado mountains or was an exaggerated counterbalance to my mother’s anxiety. Regardless of the cause, however, I’ve repeatedly sought the opportunity put myself on the more challenging path.

The writer SCUBA diving in Bonaire, the Caribbean.
The writer SCUBA diving in Bonaire, the Caribbean.

Despite my fear and perhaps because of it, I’ve pushed my limits. I’ve tried to keep up with friends on steep and powdery ski slopes, and encountered the deep while SCUBA diving among wrecks and sharks. I’ve come to love backpacking, even in the midst of torrential rains, flooded campsites, and surprise snow. Each time I’ve stepped beyond my previously known boundary, slowly building my foundation of courage. But I’ve also relied on this bravery in the other hard times of my life. When the sudden death of my mother threw my world into an uncontrolled spin, it was on the trails and in confronting the harsh winter winds that I found myself once more.

It’s easy to think that bravery is for Big Things. As a society, we recognize the incredible. We applaud adventurers, calling out those paragons who have crossed Antarctica on skis, or climbed Mount Everest, or led scientific expeditions, or sky-dived from space. These people are absolutely brave, and deserve recognition for pushing the barriers of the human experience.

But for the rest of us — bravery can be its own reward. It’s no less worthy of pursuit for its relative humility. I haven’t claimed first ascents or mapped new corners of the globe; I haven’t even gone bungee-jumping or sky-diving. But in my own life, where I’ve had the option, I’ve tried to cultivate bravery by choosing the harder thing.

Bravery, for me, is about putting myself out there again and again. It’s refusing to settle into a comfortable existence of routine, and seeking to explore the unturned pages of my life. It’s a core value and a never-ending challenge, showing myself that I can do things that are hard, and scary, and maybe even dangerous.

I’m still afraid of grizzly bears, though.

About the writer
Holly is a Colorado and Montana-bred freelance writer who loves travel, the outdoors and stories of adventure. She’s visited 43 states and 35 countries and particularly loves trail running, backpacking, yoga, any kind of snow sport and SCUBA diving. She writes about her recreational adventures, pursuit of intentional living and love of reading at her blog and is also active on instagram.

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