the bravest people I’ve ever known lived in autocracies

We can all tell a good story, but the truth is that most of the time being brave is optional. We can live a perfectly happy and acceptable life by doing the easiest thing, not the best thing. Maybe not a great life. Maybe not a joyous or contented life. But a happy enough life doing pleasant enough things and letting the world get a little worse around you. It’s not even really a conscious choice. It can just fail to occur to us to do anything else. And life is fine that way. Maybe the occasional twinge that we could be something more (anyone else listen to the Bosstones?) but nothing you can’t painlessly ignore.

The bravest people I have ever known lived in Turkmenistan. Under Turkmenbashi, a mad dictator who fired doctors for having bad grammar, remade the names of the month and the streets in his own image, and turned national statistics on education and epidemiology into state secrets. In Turkmenistan, it was treason to discuss the infant mortality rate or admit that the country had anyone in it living with HIV. In Turkmenistan, you could be brave or you could be complicit. Walking along making the easy choice was the path to evil (and possibly wealth) and everyone knew it.

I met so many extraordinary people. I saw a pediatrician risk her job and literal exile to fight for better health care for children in her district. I saw NGO leaders risk their lives to do work that mattered to them. Over and over, in big ways and small, I saw people choose the path of bravery.

Jeff Atwood writes here about realizing it’s time for him to be brave. In 2014, I saw Boniface Mwangi give a stunner of a TED talk about the time he realized he had to start standing up. It is not pleasant to realize that 1) you’ve gone though your life sitting and 2) it’s time to stick your neck out. But it’s always been time. We just didn’t notice until now.

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