On Being Brave

On January 23, 2003, the crowded metro car I was on stopped short between Arlington, VA and DC. This meant, effectively, that we were stuck under the Potomac River. Looking through the windows simply revealed a concrete tunnel. It was snowing heavily that day, and all around me was the press of winter jackets against my body. I felt the familiar heat of panic rising from my stomach to my throat. Why had I worn a turtleneck?? Why are we stopped? What if it's a terrorist attack? What if we never get out? What if? What if? What if? With each question, the twisting knot in my chest tightened.

I was 22 years old, and brought to my knees by panic. It was not the first time. It would not be the last. I wanted to rip off my clothing and sit down naked in the middle of the train car. Anything to stop the constriction in my chest. I grabbed the jacket of the man next to me and in a voice that would have been recognized as terrified in any language, asked him to help me make room because I thought I was going to pass out. I can still see his face. He made a small area for me to stand in while my fingers fumbled to rip off my jacket, and 8 agonizing minutes later, when the doors opened on the DC side of the river, he blocked traffic so that I could get out first. This wasn't my stop, but it didn't matter.

Last Stop: Foggy Bottom Metro Station, Washington, DC
I stood on the platform until it emptied, leaning my still-shaking body against a large map of the metro system so that I could catch my breath. A metro worker asked me if I needed directions.

These trains, he said, are always stopping when it snows. I mean really, it's like putting a hair dryer in a bathtub.

I walked the mile to my office from the station. Anxiety had won. 

I wouldn't ride on a subway again until 2005.

My third wedding anniversary fell on a warm summer night in June of that year, and my husband's company had scheduled a cooking class event in the North End of Boston. Now living hundreds of miles away from DC, I was determined that I would take the subway to meet him for dinner and beat the fear. 

I left our apartment early. I was relieved that I didn't have a jacket or turtleneck to worry about in the summer temperature. I had timed my ride to be before rush hour, so that the cars wouldn't be crowded. As the doors shut, I focused on how much I wanted to get to the dinner and how good it would feel to get there. And in an unlikely foreshadowing of my later path, I told myself to just keep breathing.

When I burst into the bright sunlight at the top of the escalator at my stop, I remember swallowing in the warm air and feeling just a slight breeze on my cheeks.

I also remember being immensely proud.

Everyone else was commuting. I was being brave.

***

My anxiety still lurks, almost always, below the surface. But I ride the BART all the time now in San Francisco, and rarely think about the close quarters. As I have forged a deeper mindfulness practice and a healthier relationship with how I address fear, I have also developed an arsenal of coping techniques for what used to be instant triggers to my nervous system. Among them, meditation, breathing, and simple resilience.

Plato is often quoted as saying: "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

If this is true (and I believe that it is), than we are also living in the midst of constant acts of bravery by those around us. Triumph over fear does not have to look like an extreme gesture. Not a single soul but my husband knew what a brave act that subway ride was.

When I support people on their journeys, whether it be a personal friendship, a student, or a co-worker, I try to remember what it felt like that day to conquer a fear, however small it looked to those around me. Perhaps even harder, is remembering that same truth for myself when I struggle with fears that seem so difficult and insignificant at the same time.

It would be convenient if every courageous act looked like the summit of a mountain, with big smiles and photos and the accompanying "I made it" status updates on Facebook.

In truth, some of our biggest climbing is putting one foot out of our bed in the morning. And then following with the other.

Fear and anxiety have taught me to appreciate, celebrate, and applaud baby steps. These are the small openings in our wounded beings that invite us to heal ourselves.

Because every struggle we have is a gift. And the universe is a relentless giver.

Try to never forget that someone's bravest moment might look ordinary to you. Courage comes in all shapes and sizes.

Everybody has a subway ride.