May 19, 2017

Editor’s Note: There are many forms of courage, and this series seeks to convey them in a relatable manner. In this piece, you will discover that courage can be about abandoning yourself in the moment, and giving strength to someone else. It’s about placing importance on another’s well-being, over your own self. At the end of the day, it’s not who we are that defines us, but the people we love the most.


Courage, Conversation and Comparison

It was the end of another night photographing people in commensality—this time a group of women considered influential from society’s perspective. As Singaporeans, being the foodies we are, we tend to bare more of ourselves when we connect over food and drink. This makes dining table conversations a personal favourite to photograph. These were women who were each considered courageous in their own professional endeavours but putting them all together in the same space and hearing stories being exchanged, you begin to realise that courage is a relative concept.

In this age where social media propagates pervasive personal branding and everyone can become heroic, we are increasingly indifferent to stories of courage (similar to how compassion fatigue sets in). Courage can become an abstract concept when seen in comparison. However, it is more engaging when we think about it in direct relation to the people around us. Having to relate to someone instead of comparing with someone confers meaning differently, and the notion of encouragement versus courage is that exact difference.

Encourage = In + Courage

I remember being pleasantly surprised when I discovered that to encourage someone is to literally put courage in them. The word “courage” originates from the word corin Latin for heart, and suddenly it makes sense why we encourage people by telling them to “take heart”. Having heart makes all the difference between seeing people as they are and seeing people beyond who they are.

Encouragement includes two things that are inherent. First, it’s about having the capacity to celebrate the wins of others. Second, it’s about being able to lose well. These are not mutually exclusive but definitely separate parameters that make a person bigger and better. It’s easy to encourage someone else when you’re in a good place. But it carries a different weight when you are able to encourage others even when you’re in a bad place yourself.

Consider these scenarios:

1. To be encouraged by someone who has no idea what you are going through but they want the best for you

2. To be encouraged by someone who has gone through a similar challenge and come out of it successfully

3. To be encouraged by someone who is going through a similar challenge and they’re still stuck in it, with pain that still stings


To Live A Life Larger Than Yourself

I’d like to dedicate this piece to those who were hurt and in pain, and yet had hearts big enough to encourage someone else. These are the stories of encouragers whose graciousness reaches out where logic ends.

You, whose newly-wedded husband had passed away suddenly and tragically, and you had lost the will for life. Yet, you had the capacity to encourage someone else whose mum had just been given a death sentence by the doctors.

You, whose lover had made you so much smaller than you were and insisted on splitting the tab for everything including your abortion bill. Yet, you had the capacity to encourage someone else to leave their lover who was lying about being divorced, but was actually still married.

You, whose dreams of building theatre sets and making art were demolished by the emotional disorder that had taken you over. Yet, you had the capacity to encourage someone else to make art like never before and even build an exhibition together over countless wee hours from conceptualisation to show.

You, whose body had open sores from the very same cancer that also kept you up at night by incessant coughing. Yet, you had the capacity to encourage someone else who was suffering a headache by boiling Chinese herbs to curb the pain.

You, whose public world was the social image of success, while your private world was a crumbling failure and you could not find a way to reconcile the hypocrite you felt you were. Yet, you had the capacity to encourage another person going through tough times too, and even managed to make them feel like they were the best person in the world on all fronts.

Verbs Instead of Nouns

I wouldn’t immediately classify the people mentioned above as people of courage. However, the fact they could encourage someone else even when they themselves didn’t feel quite well (physically, emotionally and mentally), speaks volumes. It’s about verbin’ even when the nouns don’t suit.

I’ve always wondered how society would change if you looked at things more in terms of verbs instead of nouns. For instance, what if we had to introduce our vocations as what we did specifically, as opposed to nouns like “banker”, “entrepreneur”, “artist”? In that similar regard, how would we be verbin’ “influencers” if we took that noun away?

Even when we can’t quite find the words to name our own state of hearts and minds, may we still be able to encourage the people around us. It may seem like a mathematical paradox, but you don’t always need courage to encourage someone else, and that results in a greater display of inherent courage.