Bravado refers to a “pretentious, swaggering display of courage”; putting on a brave front for show. Displays of courage are sometimes overrated – we commend those who have picked themselves up from a difficult experience. In so doing, we tend to mask those who are still in the midst of wallowing in sadness, making bravado an attractive option. It is superficial recovery. In this piece I hope to propose that the act of basking in our sadness, too, takes courage. In my favourite read of all time, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli, Dobelli warns against believing in the idea that something has to “get worse before it gets better”. The theory that things have to worsen before improving is a dangerous one to believe for things that traditionally follow a linear progression – if a marketing technique is proposed to improve sales, why should a dip in sales after the publicity stint happen before sales begin to pick up again? In the case of recovering from sadness, though, I do think we sometimes have to trod through the phase of “getting worse before getting better”.
This weekend I’m on a retreat – consecutive off days from work to find time for myself and family, for the communities that have been so much a part of my growth (gratitude) and for the reflections that necessarily follow results release(introspection). For a start on Friday, I had the privilege of attending the Words Go Round Event part of Singapore Writer’s Festival Outreach Program. During which, inspiring spoken word poet Marc Nair and singer/songwriter Crystal Goh spoke of the Diamonds on the Street Program they had run in a girls’ home: the idea is that words shape what we make out of our experiences. In the program, through songwriting and poetry, these girls were taught to reframe their experiences. Every narrative of crisis can have two versions – one in which we are the victims, the other in which we are survivors. Whichever we choose to tell, the tears and difficult emotions from the setback are necessary details. The focus on these details are as important as the conclusion we choose to make at the end of the story.
I once wrote about the importance of telling ourselves an oscillating narrative – instead of telling ourselves the story of our becoming in a consistent upward or downward trend, we should acknowledge all the ups and downs with due credit for it is the oscillation that turns into our strength. Then, courage would not only be to get up after a down but to allow ourselves to be down following an up. It takes courage to admit you’re not ok and to cry. There is strength in experiencing weakness and vulnerability.
For this reason, I got chills from listening to spoken word poet Marc Nair share his story through his poem titled “Paper Bullets”. The reverberations in his voice as he told the story so close to heart about the bullying he had once experienced allowed a curtain of inspiration to fall upon the audience before him. Every year since 2013, I have attended the National Young Leaders’ Day event by Halogen Foundation. Each time, seated in the cushioned seats of the theatre, I am inspired by the speakers’ sharing of vulnerability and stories of crisis along with the rest of the students in the crowd. Stories of crisis with their details of sadness and challenges resonate so deeply with us exactly because they are the basis for courage – the part where it “gets worse” is so, so important.
Consolation is not mandatory, but perhaps we could try reframing how we view people who are immersed in sadness from setbacks. Crying takes more courage than bravado.