Three years ago, I stumbled upon a story that changed my life: a long-forgotten snippet of news from the 1940s about an eccentric and radical group for stage-frightened performers in New York City. The group was called the Society of Timid Souls and together, in their own small way, they learned to be brave.
I was all too aware of my own shortcomings in the courage department and I knew that I wasn’t alone. Timidity has become a contagion in our age of anxiety. As this story turned into something of an obsession, I found myself wondering whether the Timid Souls might be throwing me—or us—a lifeline.
So I quit my job and set off to discover how to be brave. Over the next eighteen months, I interviewed more than a hundred amazing people and heard some incredible tales that resonated loud and clear with the Society of Timid Souls in ways that were startling and counterintuitive. So here are my five top misconceptions about courage:
- That courage is about fearlessness. Fear was the first thing the majority of my interviewees talked about, long before they mentioned so much as a word about courage. Fear was the intuitive foundation of so much of what they’d done. And whether you’re the world’s foremost big-wave surfer, the man who confronted a suicide bomber on the London Underground, or the woman who carried out a caesarean section on herself, being brave turns out to be about overcoming fear.
- That courage is innate: either you are or you aren’t brave. On the contrary, while there may be some temperaments that are naturally bolder than others, talk to firefighters, bullfighters, or freedom fighters and you quickly realize that many of the component parts of courage can be—and are—learned and then rehearsed.
- That courage is beyond words. Wrong. I now recognize that courage is entirely inseparable from the stories we tell about it, from what we think and say it is. Indeed, many of my brave subjects clearly felt a little bemused about being called “courageous.” “I wasn’t brave,” they’d say, “I had no choice.” Or “I know people call it brave, but it’s not. It’s my job.”
- That pretending to be brave is not the same as being brave. Well, notwithstanding outright charlatans and fakes, often it is. The process of “enacting” courage is frequently where being brave begins. I saw it in how soldiers train for the battlefield. I saw it in how a fearful opera singer overcame her stage fright. I saw it in how the husband of a woman dying of cancer said, “Even if there isn’t any hope, you have to put that face on it, don’t you?”
- That courage is a lonely quality, singular, solitary. I now believe quite the reverse: that courage is intimately entwined with our collective experience as human beings and that often it’s much more communal and more attainable than we think. Together, I believe, we could all be just a little bit braver. And wouldn’t the world be better for that?
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