Sometimes you know in advance exactly when you’ll have an opportunity to be courageous.
Olympic athletes know the exact minute their contents will start. And they prepare relentlessly. Did you see the video of Michael Phelps in the ready room before one of his races last year?
You get the feeling that nothing could have thrown him off course. He was prepared; he was in the zone.
You know who else prepared to be courageous? Rosa Parks.
A decision to be courageous
Rosa Parks didn’t plan to take action on that specific bus on that specific date in December 1955. But she had already given the issue some thought—she and her husband had worked with the NAACP for years. So when the bus driver decided to widen the “whites only” seating and ordered Mrs. Parks to move from her seat, she knew what she needed to do.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it.” — Rosa Parks
I don’t mean to equate the courage of Michael Phelps and Rosa Parks. The worst thing that happened to Phelps is that his expression launched a thousand memes. And then he went on to win Olympic gold and even more fame. No one was going to throw him in jail—which is, of course, where Mrs. Parks landed.
But I think they both offer some lessons for us, as the United States returns to a time of widespread protest and deepening injustice. (I would love to be wrong about that, but as you read this I’m standing with tens of thousands of people on a street somewhere in Manhattan, so that’s how it feels to me.)
Lessons in courage
- Don’t let anybody throw you off your game. And by “your game” I mean your commitment to nonviolent action. Phelps may look like he’s about to murder the South African swimmer who’s trying to intimidate him. But he held his temper and kept his course.
- Think before you need to act. Don’t be surprised if you encounter injustice in the world—just deal with it according to the plan you’ve already devised. If you’ve mapped out a set of actions in advance then the only thing you need to figure out in the moment: Do I feel safe enough to put my plan into action? This article from Quartz reminds us:
“It is not selfish to put your own safety first.”
The Quartz article: “How to intervene in a racist attack”
And here’s an illustrated guide on “What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harrassment.” Most important point: Ignore the attacker.
And the Anti-Defamation League has some tips on combating prejudice online. Of course, engaging with the bigots isn’t easy—or particularly useful, at least in my recent experience. And your personal safety is just as much of an issue in cyberspace as in whatever passes for “real life” these days.