When I decided to make 2021 my Year of Courage, I was thinking about the future, all the courageous things I may be doing, how I could do something courageous every day, this type of thing. Eventually, I realized that, as courage means something else to each one of us, I needed to consider is what it means for me. And that’s when I started to think about what I would call the most courageous thing I’ve done in my life so far.
There are a couple of obvious candidates, among them me moving to the US by myself in my mid-20s for my first job out of grad school, to a place where I had never been and didn’t know anyone—but quite honestly, this never felt particularly courageous to me. I am not saying that moving abroad isn’t courageous—it may well make top of your list if you did something like that right—but for me, it was just this big adventure I was so excited about and courage didn’t come into play.
So I took more time to journal, and I found a couple of other things—like giving up my admission into a highly competitive MBA program to go for a master’s in literature instead, or being the first person in my family to ask their spouse for a divorce. That all felt closer, but not what I was looking for quite yet. I didn’t want my most courageous thing to be a decision against something my family or society would have expected me to do (get that MBA and stay married, damnit!). I wanted it to be something meaningful for me and my life. The real thing came as a surprise, but I realized immediately that this is it—my most courageous act.
The most courageous thing I’ve done in my life is deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral. That took a lot of courage in so many respects. First off, it was a really large audience of several hundred people. I didn’t care too much about all the strangers from the various stages of my dad’s career I didn’t know. But there were dozens and dozens of people who had made up the fabric of my early life it was almost overwhelming.
I never thought about not doing it, though. The thing is, when my dad—himself a great speech writer and speaker—died, I owed him a speech. He had asked me for years and I had, well, not exactly bailed but put it off because speeches are a big deal in my family, and I knew the expectations were sky-high. I was supposed to speak at his big 70th birthday celebration, but then I was in the U.S. having the job I mentioned earlier and flying to Europe for a weekend was something that seemed completely unrealistic and crazy to me back in the day. As my thinking went, this gave me just a couple extra years to speak at his 75th or 80th or both. No big deal, right? And then he just died, at 72.
Instead of me shining bright with a witty birthday address, my speech became a eulogy.
There was no question that I would do it. For my dad was my person, and this was my first speech for him—and my last—so I needed it to be true and raw and real. A thing between him and me, but in front of a huge audience.
So I sat down and wrote. I expected to need a few drafts, but I didn’t. The whole thing flowed out of me in one session—one painful, heartbroken hour—and it was done. It was everything I wanted to say. It still is when I reread it today.
Why I consider it the most courageous thing I’ve ever done? Because I laid my soul and my love and my grief bare for hundreds of people to see (not an easy feat if you are German, I can tell you), because it mattered to me to really do it. To honor my dad and the promise I had made in happier days. It was the last thing I would ever do for him, my final goodbye. When I stood there delivering the eulogy, I knew he would have been so proud of me.
By loving me unconditionally, he had given me so many gifts along the way—confidence and strength and a bit of a rebellious streak come to mind most of all. And those helped me to muster the courage and get up and say my piece as I felt it, conventions be damned. And I guess, with this my dad gave me a last gift: For the past 22 years I haven’t been afraid of any stage, no matter my topic or the audience. As public speaking goes, it’s all been downhill from here.