I don’t go in much for pop culture. I’m not much of a TV watcher and I don’t know who most of the people on the covers of fashion magazines even are, much less what they are famous for. But I don’t live under a rock, either, and so I couldn’t possibly have missed the much-talked-about Caitlyn Jenner debut this week. I have witnessed (via my Facebook page) the discussions centering around white privilege, male privilege, and socioeconomic privilege with the same kind of mild interest that I generally reserve for pop culture – basically noting that people are really interested in the parts of things that resonate for them and also that so many folks love tearing away at celebrities for any reason at all. I have acknowledged all of this and not waded into the fray, knowing that the important conversations will rise like cream to the top and the rest will fade away as soon as the next big celebrity story happens – someone will have a baby or get a divorce or drive while drunk and it will all start over again.
But I woke up this morning to this on my Facebook feed. Apparently, Caitlyn Jenner was awarded ESPN’s Courage Award and some people got upset. For whatever reason, I followed the link and spent a few minutes reading about some other athletes who folks thought were overlooked. Normally, that would be the end of it – I would note it all with interest and move on into my day. But the whole thing got me thinking about courage. Reading some of the comments from people on Facebook sparked thoughts about competition. And a blog post was born.
Here’s the thing. I think our culture has a tendency to see things in such stark, black-and-white terms that whenever someone “wins” an award, we assume that whomever didn’t win “lost.” In some cases, that is true. If there is a spelling bee in which hundreds of kids are competing and are gradually eliminated, the ones who didn’t ultimately win the prize lost, by definition. The folks who don’t go home with the Nobel Prize for chemistry “lost,” but they are by no means losers. And I think it is an enormous mistake to frame everything in terms of a competition. In the case of this particular ESPN award, why can’t it just be that Caitlyn Jenner’s courage is one shining example of courage that they felt deserved to be called out? Why does it have to mean that these athletes are pitted against each other and whomever doesn’t get the award is seen as having less courage?
I don’t think it is harmful to praise courage. For the sporting world, which is in many cases patriarchal, paternalistic, and often homophobic, to acknowledge the courage of a transgender athlete is pretty amazing. I hope it signals a turning point for us culturally, and I hope it is a positive sign of things to come. But. I think it is harmful to open a conversation by comparing forms of courage, to pretend that some are more important or more laudable than others.
It takes courage to get up and face a new day when you struggle with depression.
It takes courage to care for a loved one with a chronic physical ailment every single day.
It takes courage to stand up for yourself when you’re being attacked.
It takes courage to walk away from an abusive relationship – any abusive relationship.
It takes courage to start something new.
It takes courage to come out of hiding.
There are so many examples of courageous acts that people undertake each and every day and it is a mistake to believe that some are more important than others. What if we held up all of these instances of courage as things to praise? What if we stopped comparing them and acknowledged that what might be easy for one person is tremendously difficult for another, and that anytime someone can overcome an almost debilitating fear or situation to triumph, that triumph deserves to be celebrated? What if we didn’t talk about courage in terms of “big” or “small?”
I hope that Caitlyn Jenner is proud of her award. And I hope that we can find ways to lift up all of the people in our lives that display acts of courage in their own lives, to remind them that there is no such thing as a small act of courage.