Do You Think You’re Brave? What Does Bravery Even Mean?

Is it running into the road to swoop a child out of the path of an oncoming truck? Is it picking up the phone and ringing someone when you have a paralysing fear of telephones? Or both?
Publish date:
May 2, 2013
courage, the society of timid souls, bravery, polly morland

I don’t think about bravery much – apart from when I see a particularly impressive example on the TV or in a newspaper – it’s not a concept that I’ve spent much time contemplating. Then I was sent Polly Morland’s book, The Society of Timid Souls, or, How To Be Brave, and it really got me thinking.

In her book, Polly Morland tells the story of The Society of Timid Souls – a group of musicians and other performers – who would gather in a New York apartment in the ‘40s to help each other overcome their crippling stage fright. The leader of the group, Bernard Gabriel, used an early form of exposure therapy to force members to confront their worst fear – public ridicule – and perform despite it. It worked.

Morland suggests that we’re living in an age of great anxiety, stress and, yes, fear and she thinks it’s time to revive the Society of Timid Souls so people can start teaching themselves and each other how to be brave. She describes herself as a ‘timid soul’, despite the fact she has spent her career making documentaries in some of the most dangerous places on earth, and invites the readers to join her on a journey to discover the true meaning of courage today.

The book introduces us to many different kinds of bravery – people who have fought in wars and fought cancer, a woman who performed her own Caesarean section to save her baby’s life, surfers of colossal waves and many other courageous characters, and the thing that tends to unite them is their reluctance to describe their actions as ‘brave’.

She also picks apart the philosophical nuances of bravery – is it something that you have to demonstrate through free will, dynamic choice rather than instinct? Is choosing to live when you face unimaginable pain a brave act, as with the sufferer of Motor Neurone Disease she meets in Chapter 3, The Enemy Within, or is bravery facing and accepting death fearlessly, as with those she met in St Christopher’s Hospice?

It’s a fascinating subject and this book has made me ponder the small and large acts we all perform during the course of our lives that could be defined as ‘brave’. I don’t think I’m especially brave, but then I don’t know how I would react if I found myself in a situation where real bravery was required of me. I can think of a couple of minor examples, but nothing major.

There’s no shame in admitting that small, seemingly trivial things scare us and overcoming those fears demonstrates bravery too. I hate speaking on the phone, so every time I’m offered the opportunity to conduct a celebrity interview via phone, or I have to call someone to arrange a meeting, I really need to muster as much courage as I can to perform this simple act that others find so easy. When I’ve done it, I feel proud – that’s a kind of bravery, I suppose.

Then again, every time the shower curtain pole falls down (which it’s doing with alarming regularity at the moment), I jump a mile and scuttle into a corner to hide.

Public speaking requires a certain amount of bravery (for me), as did DJing the first few times. Putting your opinions out there on the internet and being prepared to take the (usually anonymous) abuse is brave, I think, and these days I'm not as brave (or reckless? naive?) as I used to be in this area.

Dealing with death, loss, illness, and bad things happening to people you care about all require, if not bravery, exactly, then certainly stoicism and strength. Confronting situations that are daunting, or recognising unpleasant character traits in yourself and trying to do something about them - those are brave too. Trying to change the world, taking a risk, putting yourself in harm's way to help others - all extremely brave.

Why is it so easy to recognise examples of bravery in others, but not ourselves? (I guess this is a similar point to that which Dove makes in its current campaign where it urges women to identify bits of themselves that they think are beautiful as easily as they recognise beauty in their friends – what do you make of that ad by the way?)

We live in a scary world, but probably no more or less dangerous or terrifying than at any other point in history. Finding a balance between pragmatism and courage is a personal thing that every individual must figure out for themselves. But after reading this book I understand that there are many different ways to be brave and we can encourage each other to overcome our fears. I like being in the Society of Timid Souls - there's courage in numbers.

So tell me, have you ever done anything that you think is brave – big or small, it doesn’t matter, I’d love to hear about it. Or what’s the bravest thing you’ve ever seen?