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What is courage?

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, it is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Courage, in other words, is volunteering to venture outside of your personal safety zone and stay there, come what may.

In her TED talk exploring human connection, researcher and storyteller Brené Brown reminds us that the word courage is rooted in cuer or heart, and the original definition is “…. the willingness to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” It’s the willingness, she says,  “… to be imperfect.”

According to Brown, that kind of courage allows us to make human connections, because connection requires authenticity. She found that the people she studied who felt a strong sense of love and belonging, “… were willing to let go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were.”

Courage has been on my mind these past weeks. I first started thinking about it while preparing to review The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich.

Povich provides a candid, step-by-step account of how in 1970, she and 45 other women working at Newsweek had the courage to be who they were, rather than who they thought they should be. These women shed their “good girl” upbringing, spoke up, defied the boss, and charged the magazine with discrimination in hiring and promotion.

The book reminds us that there is no such thing as “post-feminist” and that backsliding is easy, while forward progress is difficult, and the battle for equality and fairness must be fought over and over again. Today’s war on women and attempts to suppress the vote are certainly evidence of that.

And because October is breast cancer awareness month, First Lady Betty Ford has also been on my mind.

Ford exhibited enormous courage when she went against the culture of the time and publicized her own breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in 1974. My mother died of the disease in 1972, too soon to benefit from Ford’s candor, but twenty years later, her honesty helped me.

Instead of the whispered conversations I overheard as a teen when my mom was diagnosed, I talked openly with my two young sons about my own diagnosis and treatment. Sure, I was afraid. Terrified, in fact, that they would experience the same devastating loss that I had. That they, too, would be forced to learn how to live without a mother.

But because Ford was willing to shine a bright light on her own journey, as unpleasant, painful, and embarrassing as that may have been, it was much easier for me to talk about my illness with others. And though I often felt isolated during that time, I never felt alone.

Another woman who is taking the power by publicly discussing her experience with cancer is 24-year-old Suleika Jaouad. I have been following Jaouad’s New York Times column, “Life Interrupted,” for several months. She wisely and eloquently conveys what it’s like to grapple with a life-threatening disease while at the very beginning of independent adulthood.

Jaouad doesn’t mince words when it comes to the tough realities she faces. If, for instance, you have any doubts about the need for universal healthcare, perhaps her column on the topic will convince you.

Although Jaouad writes about her experience as a young adult with cancer, much of what she shares will resonate with anyone who has had the disease.

For example, this photo she posted on@SuleikaJaouad, reminds me of how victorious I felt when I brought home my first puppy one year after completing nine months of breast cancer treatments.

Photo by Seamus McKiernen, used with permission.

Seeing her with her new puppy reawakened the sense of urgency I felt both during and after my treatments: I’d better get that dog, take those trips, and give that child what he needs. Now.

Just like Betty Ford, Jaouad’s willingness to share who she is and what she is going through will connect her with and make a difference to those who read her words for decades to come.

Povich et al., Ford, and Jaouad, all exhibit Merriam Webster’s definition of courage — they all were willing to step out of their personal safety zones and stay there. As a result, they all have helped make the world a fairer and more accepting place.

But by also fulfilling the original definition of courage —the willingness to be imperfect, to tell their story with their whole heart — they connect with the rest of us in a deeper, more meaningful way. By opening the door so we can see ourselves in their struggles, they invite us to care and to join them. It’s a kind of courage that we can all aim for.

According to Brown, those who feel worthy of connection are not afraid to show their fullest, truest selves because they believe that what makes us vulnerable, makes us beautiful.

It makes us powerful, too.

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