Pain, Courage, and Resilience

Female running in police vestOne of my squad members in peace officer skills training (police academy) asked me how I recovered so fast from being pepper sprayed. I don’t think I provided the best answer; I just mumbled something about indifference to pain. But I believe this is a subject that deserves further thought.

Courage and the Paradox of Pain

Courage and indifference to pain are often seen as intertwined concepts. A courageous act might conjure images of a stoic warrior, unfazed by wounds, or a law enforcement officer charging into a school to confront an active shooter. However, the relationship between these two is more complex than it seems. True courage can coexist with the authentic experience of pain, both physical and emotional.

The Nuance of Courage

True courage isn’t about feeling invincible or being numb to pain. It’s about acting in the face of fear, doubt, and, yes, even pain. It’s the firefighter who acknowledges the danger but enters the flames anyway, driven by the desire to save lives. It’s the student who speaks up against injustice despite the risk of social isolation or administrative retaliation. Courage requires acknowledging the risk and the potential for pain but acting despite those fears.

Pain as a Compass

Pain, both physical and emotional, serves an essential purpose. It signals that something is wrong, urging us to take action. A runner who ignores the searing pain in their leg risks serious injury. Similarly, emotional pain can alert us to a toxic relationship or a situation that requires reevaluation. But sometimes, we must push past the pain to protect and serve others.

The Role of Resilience

Courage isn’t the absence of fear or pain; it’s the ability to move forward despite them. This is where resilience comes in. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks, to learn from experiences, and to keep moving forward. A courageous person might feel the sting of defeat, the physical exhaustion of a long battle, or the emotional burden of a difficult decision. However, their resilience allows them to process these experiences and continue on their chosen path.

The Power of Vulnerability

Embracing vulnerability can also be a form of courage. Sharing our fears, doubts, and struggles can be incredibly difficult. Yet, by acknowledging our limitations, we open ourselves up to support, connection, and growth. This vulnerability can inspire others to do the same, creating a ripple effect of courage.

In Conclusion

Courage isn’t about being impervious to pain. It’s about acknowledging its presence, understanding its message, and having the resilience to keep moving forward despite the discomfort. It’s about facing our fears, doubts, and vulnerabilities and acting on what we believe is right. True courage lies in the space between the fear and the action, in the choice to move forward even when it hurts. This is what kept me running, handcuffing, and controlling subjects despite the burning pain of being pepper sprayed that day. That’s what I mean by “indifference to pain.” I didn’t actually “recover” faster than anyone else; I decided to push through the pain and accomplish my tactical objectives. This is no more or less than what countless law enforcement officers do daily, driven by the desire to protect and serve their communities. Maybe you have that desire to protect and serve. Talk to the law enforcement program director at your local tribal college to learn more about serving others by tapping into that warrior within.

Rachel Peterman, JD, is a graduate of Leech Lake Tribal College.


Review on the Conceptual Framework of Teacher Resilience. (2023). Frontiers in Psychology.

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