• Rei Tangkijngamwong

were you really that brave?

Picture this. You lay in a hospital bed, the kind with hard plastic rails on both sides. Harsh fluorescent light shines from above and the pungent smell of disinfectant engrained in the walls. You lay there thinking of the unfortunate event which landed you here in the first place. Maybe it was a car accident, a disease, cancer? The ponder stops as you notice the bouquet on the side table-it looks even more expensive than the one you got at graduation. The sound of a slow, polite knock arrives from the other side of the door. They slide it open before you respond and you notice it's someone you know, an acquaintance. They come up to you and you notice their name on the bouquet. “You know, you’re really brave for what you’ve gone through.”

It’s times like this where I question English as a language. I mean, it makes sense to a degree. When something terrible happens and you come out of it the other way, you are brave in a sense for having gone through that journey. But upon deeper thought, does it really make sense?

Bravery refers to the presence of courage, to not being deterred by dangers, risks, or pain. In a medical scenario, did you really have a choice of “not being deterred”? Did you have a choice in any of your experiences? For example, if you’re diagnosed with cancer and undergo treatment, “oh, you’re so brave” seems like a common saying among visitors. You’d probably hear it at least thrice by different family members, but the only person who knows if you were deterred by dangers is you. No one else knows how you felt at that first doctor’s appointment or how chemo was like. So do they have the right to assume you were courageous and did not fear the dangers? Do they know if you were scared, or how scared you were?

Of course, bravery is a positive trait, and being commended still feels much better than being criticised. Though it could depend on the tone of the speaker, “you were so brave” sounds condescending in a way, even arrogant at times. Like your “bravery” has to be a source of inspiration or motivation for their own lives, somehow making it about them, deterring from your experience. It’s not like you signed up to be an inspiration for them. You didn’t operate on yourself and take out your own tumour, no you didn’t get cancer just to challenge yourself in the first place. It’s as if they made a narrative about you in their minds. A poor, pitiful individual who worked hard in battling cancer, an underdog who never gave up and won. But this just seems selfish. You didn’t survive cancer for them, they didn’t pay the medical bills, you feel the urge to shout, “stop making this about yourself!” Even as I write this article, I’m starting to feel the frustration in this hypothetical situation.

Maybe I am just overthinking. It’s just one comment made for the niceties of things, and people probably don’t think of all the possible implications of a word. But it is hard to tell what someone’s feeling. Even a psychology degree won’t allow you to know if someone is brave, for even they themself might not know. What we do know is that people like to be treated normally. Even while battling a serious disease or suffering through an injury, a sense of normality could bring calm to an otherwise serious time, and a casual talk or catching up on missed out gossip never hurts. No matter what, nothing you say will cure the disease or easen the condition, so the best you could do is to put a smile on their face.

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