When I was a woman in my twenties, I was fearful, as are most young women, of disapproval. I often say that to young women in our culture, approval is like oxygen -- we are afraid that without it we will perish.
It was when I started to travel to explore the situation of women in the developing world that my feelings shifted about the fears that I did have. I went to Sierra Leone three years ago, and followed International Rescue Commission aid workers -- women younger than myself who were confronting warlords, men who had committed every kind of atrocity, and who were negotiating the release of girls held as sex slaves. These women were fearless for themselves, and their courage was literally saving lives right in front of me. I also met and heard from Sierra Leonean women who had lived through rape, slavery, amputations, horrific attacks, and so on.
When I returned to New York, the scale of my fears seemed very small. I had to go in for emergency but routine surgery. Aren't you worried/upset? I was asked. I felt such serenity that my doctor was trained, the instruments were sterile, I would have anaesthetic -- I had just returned from a place where none of that was the case. The fears of women like myself in the developed world -- especially ego-based fears, such as being derided or criticized or devalued -- seemed suddenly very trivial -- and, in a way, not worthy of our womanhood. I often think of those women and of other women in the developing world when I am ready to be scared by something here. If it is not going to send me to a gulag or get me tortured, I now feel that, on behalf of other women who really face real terror, every day, I had best simply get on with it and be grateful for my relative security and safety. That helps me be braver than I would ordinarily.
I have also thought a lot about the price one pays for courage. Truly, to be brave you have to be willing to pay a price. One of the scariest things I have done recently is name a professor of mine at Yale who committed a sexual impropriety many years ago, and I named the dean who covered up a pattern of this and other abuses against women at Yale. The alumni and the media put pressure on Yale to change things after my story came out, and some change took place. That same dean is now president of Duke University and managing a serious case on campus of a rape allegation against members of the lacrosse team. The attorney general and the press and the president himself are all, finally, treating the accuser's allegations seriously and this time not simply covering up for the athletes and smearing the victim, the pattern in the past. I know that the price I was willing to pay in disrupting things at Yale with my own story -- plenty of criticism and derision -- has a connection, even if just a small one, to the shift in how this president is now handling this later allegation. My willingness to step forward has, however slightly, helped this accuser get a proper hearing.
Often you don't see the ripple effect of your moment of courage or the interconnectedness of all of us -- the way one act of fear hurts someone far away, or one step into relative fearlessness eases the burden of someone else far away. Again, it helps me and heartens me to think of this.
--As written for On Becoming Fearless ... In Love, Work and Life.
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