Courage Is in the Eye of the Beholder



Would you ever think it possible that a child of nine, raised in an orphanage in a country on the other side of the world, could be one of the most courageous people I know? 

“Courage” typically evokes images of first responders running into burning buildings or servicemen defending our country under dangerous circumstances. While these examples are unquestionably accurate and profound illustrations of courage, I have learned that courage is not about being fearless; it is the act of moving forward despite fear.

Courage has many different meanings. According to, the word “courage” is defined as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.” The root of “courage” is cor – the Latin word for heart.  This remains a common metaphor for inner strength. Today, we typically associate courage with valor and fearlessness.

My perception of courage has been redefined by my adopted daughter, Sydney. Sydney spent the first nine years of her life in an orphanage in Jiangxi, China. She bravely looked fear in the eye and agreed to accept her forever family of a different culture and nationality. In spite of the fact that her new family looked and spoke differently, she traveled to the other side of the world, trusting that we had her best interests at heart. Although she did not receive adequate love and nurturing in her early years in China, she was willing to bravely move forward, holding on to the hope of a better life on the other side of her uncertainties. It was only when she became proficient in the English language that we discovered the falsehoods she had been told about Americans—especially the ones she now calls “Mom” and “Dad.”

Orphanage caregivers are motivated to present well-behaved children to adoptive parents.  Saving face is a strong motivating force in Chinese culture; therefore, to ensure that she would be at her best, our daughter was told that her new family would bury her in the back yard if she misbehaved. The caregivers were aware that our home was in a country setting and they capitalized on this fact to frighten her. She associated these circumstances with China’s Terra Cotta Warriors: thousands of life-size clay soldiers buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, to protect the emperor in his afterlife. She speculated that she would be buried in an upright position and she began to envision her plan of escape. One of her rather resourceful (albeit slightly naïve) solutions to this situation, if it came about, was to just dig a hole back to China.

She was also told that older children are often adopted to harvest their body parts. She was told that her eyes were valuable for medicinal purposes. She believed that her eyes would be plucked out and she would subsequently bleed to death. She was surprised and delighted to discover that harvesting organs is illegal in the United States. How many of us, with this concept of what America held in store for us, would be brave enough to consider stepping foot on U.S. soil?

Despite these early misconceptions, Sydney has demonstrated profound resilience in adapting to her new life in America. She was anxious to enter fourth grade and make new friends, despite having no knowledge of the English language. Since that time, she has participated in three Summer Dramatics musicals as well as dancing and singing lessons. She enjoys attending church services. Currently, roller skating is her favorite pastime.

Courage undoubtedly means different things to different people. “Hero,” “bravery,” “valor,” and “daring” are words used often associated with courage. Courage is not cowardice, timidity, or weakness. Courage is rarely about being fearless; it is the act of moving forward in spite of fear. 

As with our deep-rooted desire to seek out a higher power or to discover a meaning for our life, courage is planted deep down in the DNA of each of us. It was placed there to be at our disposal when life situations demand we step out of our comfort zones, no matter our circumstances.

My daughter demonstrated courage in a profound way by fearing what might lie ahead for her in America and boarding the plane anyway. And maybe, just maybe, the stacks of legal papers, interviews, home studies, and the financial responsibility of the trip to China may somehow mean that my husband and I were courageous as well.