“Mama, do you believe that a spider, so small and weak, could really capture a snake, so long and quick?” Imani asked.
“I do,” answered Mama.
“Even if no one else believes it?” Imani asked.
“A challenge is only impossible until someone accomplishes it,” Mama said. “Imani, it is only you who must believe.”
from: Imani’s Moon
by JaNay Brown-Wood
illustrated by Hazel Mitchell
When I heard that Stephen Hawking died, I found myself asking myself What is the difference between courage and bravery?
Where does a belief in yourself come from? Probably some combination of confidence, courage and a keen sense of humor. Dr. Hawking said of himself in a 2013 documentary, “I am probably better known for my appearances on ‘The Simpsons’ and on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ than I am for my scientific discoveries.” Part of that is because he knew his work as a theoretical physicist is difficult for most of us to understand. Part of it is because he understood our popular culture and chose be part of it. Mostly, though, it was his sense of humor. He delighted in the tricks of the universe. (I’ll tackle the difference between intelligence and wisdom another time. Dr. Hawking had those, too.)
Courage is different than bravery. It is more thoughtful, longer lasting, more deliberate. Conquering fear is part of it, but action comes after much thought. Action despite knowing the consequences. Like choosing to live with the knowledge that a progressive debilitating disease will kill you and not ignore it, but accommodate to it. Like using a wheelchair to get to work. Like talking with computer assistance. Like continuing to search for an elusive theory that will explain the universe.
My working definition of bravery goes something like this: I’m afraid of getting hurt, physically or emotionally, but this situation demands action. Plow ahead and get it done, anyway. Not as much thought goes into the decision making. Mostly it is a reaction. Like performing at my piano recital. There was real emotional danger in making a mistake. I could embarrass myself and maybe my teacher and maybe even my parents. I could look foolish; but it was my turn and I took a deep breath and went on. All turned out fine. After all, I was eight or nine or ten. All the parents and grandparents were polite, proud, enchanted enough to clap when a child performed.
Dr. Hawking was brave in the face of real danger. He presented revolutionary ideas that sometimes were controversial. He dared to explain the complexities of the universe in ways that even I could understand. He showed us all how to laugh in spite of finding ourselves in awful circumstances.
But he had the courage to live with ALS every day. Because he was interested in our world. Because he cared about sharing his knowledge. And because he loved life.
Thank you, Dr. Stephen Hawking. The universe is better off for having had you in it.