Courage and Fear

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

What is to give light must endure the burning.

  • Eleanor Roosevelt


This week marked the funeral of South Australian nurse, Kirsty Boden, who was killed by the terrorists who launched an attack on innocent people on London Bridge. It was hard not to read of the young woman’s selfless response in deliberately putting herself in harm’s way to protect innocent strangers, without being moved by her courage and devotion to her calling.

I suppose beyond love (to which it is closely linked), courage would be the most admired human trait.

If we examine the nature of modern life it is hard not to conclude that fear is perhaps the central issue of our times.

In the brutal world of our prehistoric ancestors, fear was an adaptive emotion that caused us to flee danger, thus in general terms prolonging our lives and ensuring the propagation of our species.

To deliberately put ourselves in harm’s way is to negate our most fundamental ingrained response to avoid danger.

Mind you some would argue that the terrorists who slew the gallant nurse acted in the same way. They would have known that once they had embarked on their atrocity that they would most likely be killed, as indeed they were.

It could therefore be argued that they were courageous as well, and so they were in an insanely perverted way. But there is a distinctive difference between the courage of Kirsty and the courage of the terrorists. Kirsty’s courage was inspired by altruism whereas the terrorists were more than likely convinced by their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that by committing their appalling acts and dying in the process they would gain access to paradise. (I have written in other essays with respect to terrorism pointing out what a dangerous idea this is!)

But it must be said that these Jihadis must have strong beliefs in the glory of their afterlives. Many other believers have notions of a delightful afterlife but few seem to be in a hurry to get there!

If we are to define true courage then surely its benefits need to be directed to someone other than ourselves.

So then courage is our noblest reaction to fear. Our greatest heroes, despite their magnificent responses to danger, felt fear just as you and I do. It is the fact that they acted in the face of their fear that made them heroic. But as we shall soon exemplify, most of us avoid those situations that might invoke our fears and thus, unwittingly, give our fears greater influence on our lives.


Our greatest fears stem from two sources:

  • The physical annihilation of self.
  • The abrogation of crucial parts of our self-concept.

Death is the fundamental fear from which many others fears derive. Every sentient creature struggles against the threat of extinction.

Yet for more and more of us physical death is not as fearful as an attack on our psyche. This is demonstrated by the growing number of people who commit suicide. For young people suicide is now a more common cause of death than motor vehicle accidents. (Some insights into this process are gained from an understanding of James Marcia’s Identity Status Theory, outlined in last week’s essay.) A person committing suicide puts their physical survival behind concerns for their perception of self.

Although physical death is inevitable, the cultivation of a robust sense of self ensures that dangers associated with attacks on our psyche are minimised. To enjoy the time our physical body provides in this world our psychological well-being needs to be attended to.

(The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote:

Forget safety.

Live where you fear to live.

Destroy your reputation.

Be notorious.

That prescription could only be followed by someone with a robust sense of self!)

For many however, the world is a fearful place. There are many legitimate fears, but our fearful minds distort our perception of the world. Every now and then the newspapers will be full of something else to fear – a flu pandemic, swarms of killer bees, shark attacks, collisions with asteroids, and so on. The probability that any of these threats will directly affect us are generally minute, but our minds exaggerate their likely impact.

Rumi’s thoughts above are insightful from a psychological perspective. Fear is a disorientating emotion which can either render us helpless or drive us to irrational behaviour. When fear becomes chronic, we call it anxiety and in such a state we are continuously assailed by worry and unease. Under these circumstances we will do anything to avoid situations that trigger our anxiety. And in doing so we place ourselves in a cocoon that isolates us from life. We are now faced with a conundrum – the attempts to evade our fears actually make them worse. On the other hand (as the quotes from Rumi and Eleanor Roosevelt imply) the only way to overcome fear is to confront it. Many phobias are cured using this approach and the technique is generally labelled desensitisation.

Our genetic inheritance has laid down instinctual fears that were once useful survival aids. Most of us still have illogical fears of snakes and spiders. These were useful fears for our hunter/gatherer ancestors. But how many of my readers know of someone who has died of snakebite or the bite of a spider? Very few, if any, I would suspect.

In today’s world it would be more useful if we had instinctual fears regarding speeding motor vehicles or frayed electrical cords. But of course such things have only appeared in our environment in relatively recent times and our evolutionary processes are too slow to yet accommodate such threats.

But these irrational fears trick us into inappropriate actions. After the terrorist destruction of the twin towers many Americans had a heightened fear of flying and started to drive long distances rather than fly. Driving is inherently a far more dangerous activity than flying and consequently statisticians calculate many hundreds of additional people died from this illogical choice than normally would have.

Now in a world full of fear, courage and heroism are greatly revered. But it seems to me that the notion of heroism is devalued by excessive use. We call people heroes for merely doing their duty even when they have faced little threat to their personal well-being. We use the term to describe our elite sportsmen when they show remarkable endurance and athletic prowess. Or these days we are inclined to use the epithet for anyone who puts on a uniform. But this is not true heroism, in the sense that Kirsty Boden is a heroine.

(I am always reminded of the story told of one of Australia’s great cricketing all-rounders, Keith Miller. Miller, as well as being a multi-talented sportsman had been a fighter pilot during World War II. A young reporter interviewing him posed the question, “Mr Miller how do you deal with the pressure of test cricket?” Miller laughed in a patronising way and replied, “Son, that’s not pressure. Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse!” [As a note of explanation to a younger generation a Messerscmitt was a German fighter plane.] For someone who routinely put his life on the line such things as test match pressures were put in to a more reasonable perspective.)

In his book The Thing You Think You Cannot Do, psychiatrist Gordon Livingston points out that courage is a virtue that requires both personal choice and risk. When a surgeon is called a hero for performing a difficult, but life-saving procedure and responds, “I was just doing my job” we might think he was being modest whereas he was being truthful. That is not of course to denigrate the life-saving skills of a consummate professional but using Livingston’s criteria his efforts are not heroic. Nor are those of many whom we bless with this epithet.

Those who jump down onto a train track to rescue someone in the face of an oncoming train, those who enter burning buildings to extract someone trapped by fire and smoke, those that enter the water to retrieve someone who has been the victim of a shark attack – they are our true heroes.

Courage in many ways is an immense act of empathy. We do not want to die and when we see others being threatened with death, if we are indeed selfless, will risk our own demise in trying to prevent theirs. Can there be any greater act of love? Courage is when we so abhor the thought of another’s death that we expose ourselves to death or injury to save them.

It is fitting that those remembering Kirsty Boden call her a heroine.

One can only wonder if there were more in the crowd who were prepared to confront the terrorists then more lives might have been saved. The pathetic catchcry of the British authorities trying to advise the public of how to act in such circumstances of Run – Hide – Tell reflects our risk-averse attitude to modern life. After the van driven by one of the terrorists mounted the footpath in an attempt to kill or injure pedestrians on the bridge, the driver and the two other occupants exited armed with knives and attacked those members of the public nearby. It would not seem beyond the realms of possibility that a determined group of a half dozen or more men might have overcome them.

Please don’t take this as a criticism of the men in the crowd. I can only surmise what I might have done in the same circumstances, and whether I would have been of any use at all.

But one man, Gerard Vowls, who had just alighted from a bus, saw what was going on and tried to distract the terrorists from their murderous affray by throwing pint glasses, beer bottles and bar stools at them. When there was nothing left to throw he picked up a bicycle and threw that as well. As Vowls mounted his attack the terrorists had turned their attention to Australian woman, Sara Zelenak. He was incensed by her screams and tried to divert the terrorists’ attention away from her, but to no avail. She subsequently died from her stab wounds. In any estimation Vowls was a hero too.

But I suspect in a risk-averse society that has become inordinately fearful, we will see fewer heroes stand up to be counted in such circumstances. It is so common these days for people to stand by when others are under threat that psychologists have coined the term bystander phenomenon. Interestingly the number of spectators present to witness another human (man, woman or child) being physically abused in some way impacts the likelihood of intervention – the more bystanders the less likelihood of someone intervening to assist the abused!

Gordon Livingston (quoted above) writes:

We also depend on social cues to decide whether to do anything. If one is in a group witnessing an act of violence and no one is interceding, we are less likely to take action individually.

In the face of these tremendous difficulties, we must be grateful to the heroes like Kirsty Boden who are prepared to put themselves at risk to assist others in jeopardy. It is a huge indictment of our society if we see others in distress the best we can do is Run – Hide – and Tell!


Seneca the Elder said:

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than reality.

I covered this issue in one of the parables I wrote for Augusts Finds Serenity. I have appended it below as a postscript for you.

Takygulpa Rinpoche and Augustus walked slowly along the path by the river’s bank. The river was deep and the current swift. The sound of water running over the rapids further downstream carried through the evening air.

‘I enjoy the river,’ said Augustus. ‘I find it peaceful and enervating.’

‘There are many who are afraid of the river,’ said his master. ‘How do you think it is that some can look at the river and feel fear and others look at it and feel joy?’


Augustus walked on deep in thought, but without answering.


‘Surely the river is the river and would appear to all in the same way?’ he finally ventured.


‘Suppose,’ said his master, ‘that you had been walking all day and finally, tired and thirsty, you arrive at the river’s bank. How does it appear to you then?’


‘It would be very inviting.’


‘On the other hand, say it was cold and wet and walking in the woods you come across a bear. The bear is angry and gives chase. You run as fast as you can but the bear is close behind. Then, you come to the river’s bank where the water is wildest and the torrent swiftest. How does the river appear then?’


‘It is a frightening obstruction.’


‘What has changed?’


‘My state of mind.’


‘Yes. So you see, we can see things differently because of our different states of mind. Fear, in particular, distorts our viewpoint.’


‘It is good then that we don’t often get chased by bears.’


‘Oh, but we do. Many of us are always being chased by bears — imaginary bears — in our minds. Or, just as fearful, anticipating being chased by bears when there are no bears. We are forever dealing with our interpretation of the world, not the world as it is. This is a major cause of suffering.’