Can We Build Courage Through Motivation or Does It Just Exist Within?

Jaden FlachJune 5, 2023CourageThe Big Question
Can We Build Courage Through Motivation or Does It Just Exist Within?

Artwork by Nubiana Smiley, Age 17

I’ll always remember groggily opening my eyes, confused why I was being woken up at three in the morning on New Year’s Eve, 2022.

These moments are the times when we’re supposed to show strength right? The bad guy attacks a harmless woman and the brave daughter shows no fear and becomes a hero. Well that’s how I thought I would react: like a hero. But courage isn’t easy to harness.

Movies and tv shows trick us into thinking that courage is built within us all. Either that, or we need a Norse god and genius billionaire to form the avengers and save the world. Courage is portrayed as something that can simply be harnessed when it needs to. And if you can’t? Well, those who let fear get the best of them and don’t become the hero are shown to be weak. Dare I say… a coward. Well, by those standards, I guess I’m a coward too.

The truth is, I held myself to an impossible standard in that moment; believing that if I didn't do anything to help, I had failed my mom. What I learned in that moment was that fear is a powerful thing. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful things in our brain. If we are truly afraid of something, our body will hold onto that feeling forever. We can be classically conditioned to avoid that same stimulus. It’s a survival tactic. So does the line between a hero and a coward rest in the fate of fight or flight? Sometimes “flying away” is the best way to save yourself and others. Why should that make you a coward?

Maybe if we stopped shaming people into thinking that you can only be a hero, people would be more comfortable with fear. I know that I was ashamed of the way I froze up when I needed to show up for my mom, even though I knew the woman had left the house. Fear is that powerful. And I’m still ashamed of the fact that I still feel the same fear I had then anytime I find myself alone or at night in the dark. Simple things I could have handled as an elementary schooler. But learning to accept the fear for what it is, knowing that it doesn’t make me weak, might just be the thing that will allow me to have courage in the future.

If what happened to my mom wasn’t enough of a powerful motivator to build courage for me, then will I ever be able to show courage? For months after the attack I asked myself this question. For a while, I decided that I was just courageless. Destined forever to cower in fear. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe courage is like a learning curve. After feeling the weight of terror when I saw an unrecognizable mom before me, I became stronger. Surviving through that time in my life could be like armor. With each life experience I gained a little more. Maybe next time (hopefully there’s never a next time) I'll be a little less afraid and more prepared to recognize fear. And beat it.

Part of dealing with the assault this year was putting my experience into perspective. I needed to validate all the other aspects of my life that required courage and not just the big scary one looming over my head like a storm cloud. What I experienced was a specific type of fear that not many people will experience. So what about the challenges that we all face everyday? Do the obstacles I face in high school build courage? Or is the courage it takes to put in real work built in?

I am a senior in highschool. We all know what that means: college. This year is one of the hardest years to get into college in all of history. Rejection seems to be everywhere and for everyone no matter your accomplishments. We have all heard my story. I took the ACT and SAT combined four times with over a year of preparation just to only submit my scores to less than half of colleges. I applied to 19 schools and got rejected from almost all my top choices. Today this isn't a sob story, it's a reality. As school gets more and more competitive, being a student takes real guts.

In December, when most early application decisions were released I had no idea what was coming. After each deferral or rejection I was crushed. I felt as if my self-worth was being drained away with each application status update. But something changed after that experience. I gained armor. In March when the regular decision came out there were just as many rejections. But after the crush of early decision, I learned to not take each regular decision to heart. I faced it with the courage that had been built from rejection. I knew that it wasn’t a reflection of me but a reflection of covid, competition, and money.

High schoolers today are a different breed. They are truly fighters and survivors. Maybe it didn’t take courage before, but now it certainly does. This year has been the hardest year of my life. There was a time where I viewed everything that has happened to me as pain. But now I see times when I have built courage. And when I couldn’t harness it, I learned from it. Courage is hard, it isn’t built from the first few times you need it. I've learned It’s a lifelong skill, and I’ve just begun.

Jaden Flach is 15 years old and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Art might be her favorite thing in this world. Painting is her escape from reality, and she hopes you enjoy her paintings as much as she enjoys creating them.