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You Don’t Need to Be Brave

<img src="hands.jpg" alt="hand holding to offer comfort"/>

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“Bravery is the suppression or masking of fear but sharing one’s fear makes more sense to me.”

I’m sitting in the waiting room at Vanderbilt Medical Center while my wife is with a radiologist. I strike up a conversation with the woman sitting across from me. She tells me that her husband is dying. She said she would pray for my wife. I said I would pray for her husband and I did—right there, silently: “May he be free from fear. May he be free from compulsion. May he be blessed with love. May he be blessed with peace.” I offered the same prayer on her behalf as well. She wasn’t aware I was doing this, yet her face softened, and she looked at me and said, “All you can do is try to be brave.”

I smiled outwardly. Inwardly I frowned.

Bravery is the suppression or masking of fear but sharing one’s fear makes more sense to me than denying or masking them in the name of bravery.

To this woman’s “All you can do is be brave” I could have said, “Perhaps not. Perhaps you can be frightened instead. Perhaps you can share your fears with one another and find in this sharing a catalyst for a deepening of love. Perhaps, rather than putting on a brave face, you can reveal to one another your true faces.”

I didn’t say this, of course. I never challenge a person’s coping mechanism in such situations. If she and her husband need to be brave, then let them be brave. But what if she needs her husband to be brave while he needs to be honest and scared?

The prayer I offered them begins with “May you be free from fear.” You can’t be free from fear if you don’t acknowledge and express it. If you are pretending you aren’t afraid, the fear only festers. But if you can admit what is true, the fear will, in time, lessen and perhaps dissipate altogether. As fear lessens, love grows.

The second line of the prayer says, “May you be free from compulsion.” Compulsion—actions repeated over and over without achieving anything of value—is fueled by fear. When you are free from fear you are free from compulsion. When you are free from both you are blessed with love and peace. Or so I have experienced.

If you are dying—when you are dying— don’t put on a brave face. Reveal your true face. Those who love you will only love you more. Those who don’t will distance themselves. You will be blessed by both reactions.

For more contemplation, read Karen Rushen’s story on her work as a hospital chaplain in “What the Dying Taught Me about Living.”

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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