This I Believe: I Believe In Bravery, Not Perfection

Jun 6, 2019

Essayist Nora Van Horn

I believe in bravery, not perfection.

When I was growing up, I learned how to be brave at the lake in New Hampshire my family visited every summer. I would jump off swings, rocks and boats, soaking myself in the murky water. My siblings would watch in awe. I was the daredevil, the center of attention—and I loved it. At the lake, I possessed a kingdom of my own, and I determined that I would conquer the world.

When I returned to elementary school each fall after these trips to the lake, I was fearless. I dominated the soccer field and played football with the boys. I shared my opinion in class discussions, never fearing I was wrong. Judgment from others wasn’t a concern of mine.

But eventually, my family stopped returning to the New Hampshire shores. I felt as if I had lost my value; after all, what is a ruler without her lands? Over time, I started to care about how others perceived me. I developed a debilitating case of perfectionism. I stopped playing football because I wasn’t the best. I stopped racing others for fear I would lose. Criticism began to deeply affect me. What was I, if not perfect?

One day when I was in high school, my older sister found pictures of us at the lake, and the memories of who I once was came rushing back. That small girl, wearing a paper mache crown and wielding a gold sword, was fearless and brave—qualities I now lacked. I knew what had changed: I was no longer brave because I wanted so desperately, so futilely, to be perfect.

A few months later, after a particularly stressful day, I spent the afternoon with tears in my eyes. But I refused to cry. My tears would make me seem weak, so I fought them. When I made my way to my dorm room at my boarding school that night, the tears finally began to escape. Through them, I saw an envelope taped to my door. The letter inside was anonymous, from someone who identified herself only as a fellow student. In the letter, she described me as a role model, as an inspiration. I was flabbergasted; I couldn’t believe someone who had clearly seen my pain and worry could respect and admire me nonetheless. I realized there was no one waiting for me to fail, to criticize or judge me. I was sacrificing my happiness to create an image of perfection that mattered only to me.

The confidence I had in New Hampshire as a child had made me feel invincible. My unwavering self-assurance at the time made sense—I had been unaware that I could be judged. I wasn’t brave despite my fears; I was brave because I lacked them. Now, instead of living without fears, I have come to learn I can find courage in spite of them.

I still fear being judged, but I attempt to be myself—to be fearless—despite it. In a way, I’m braver now than I was in New Hampshire. I have overcome my fear of judgment to feel like I can conquer the world again.

I believe in bravery, not perfection.

Nora Van Horn is a student at Penn State double majoring in community, environment and development and Chinese. She went to high school at the Grier School in Tyrone.