The Cycle   |  July 29, 2013

What does it really mean to be brave?

Polly Morland, author of the new book “The Society of the Timid souls: Or, How to be Brave,” joins The Cycle hosts to discuss the dynamics of bravery and courage.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> our next guest is very understanding of what it means to be brave . often we attribute courage to putting ourselves in situations where the outcome is unknown. those moments that might scare us, embarrass us, or make us feel like failures. it could be a civil rights activist facing down the coup clux clan or surviving a massacre, but it can be a small noble gesture that trace our every day lives. a high school boy asking a girl to the dance or a firefighter answering the bell. for me, it could even be my first day here on "the cycle." she also learned a few tips of bravery, picking them up from stage-fright actors. she joins us now, an award-winning documentary and the author of "the society of the timid souls." thank you for joins us.

>> great to be here.

>> i really enjoyed your book. you take us on this journey to better understand what it means to be brave . you talked to many people who, in our minds, we would consider brave . but they would tell you often times in the book that's not brave . that's just doing their job. that is reaching their potential. so can you describe to us what the difference is in reaching your potential and just doing your job and what it actually means to be brave ?

>> well, i mean, i would say that courage is -- speaks volumes of the ability of one small man or woman to change the world around them, to change it for the better in many cases. and those changes can be very big or very small. now, there are meake that choice in term of their job. they choose, they make a brave professional decision. but that process of choice and kind of dynamic engagement with the world around you can trickle right down and can be there in your first day in a new job, speaking up to your boss about something, a first day at a new school if you're a kid, facing down a terrifying diagnosis as a person going to a doctor. i think there are elements of that process of choice that one goes through all different sorts of bravery. there's a lovely line said by a french writer who said life shrinks or contracts in proportion to one's courage . i think that's very true.

>> that was an interesting list. for some of those things, that would be easy for one person and difficult for the next person, requiring courage or bravery for one person and not for another person. even i think about bradley manning and edward snowden. some people think they are brave heroes. some think they are cowardly traitors. is there a way that bravery is in the eye of the beholder ?

>> i mean, i would say it is absolutely in the eye of the beholder . you know, there's a debate about whether you can be brave and bad. that is as old as philosophy itself. that goes back to ancient greece . philosophers never quite stumbled on an answer. is courage morally neutral? well, what i would say is that bravery very much resides in the eye of the behold per. it exists in the telling there is that wil l very strong role played by the stories we tell about what we believe is brave is very much reflective of the values of our society and so those points of debate are very -- are exactly the lines along the way in which our society i guess works out what we think is good and wa we think is not.

>> of course, the flip side of bravery is fear. you write in your book that apprehension has become the norm and our ability to request distinguish what is and is not scary is skewed. where is that coming from? is that emanating from politician who's use that fear or are they just observing the state as it is and using that to their benefit?

>> i would say that we are without a doubt living in an age of anxiety. it's the case here, my home in the uk, i've strongly suspected it's the case over there with you, as well. i don't think there's any doubt that these strange years since 9/11 have thrown up an awful lot to be frightened of, whether it's economic or environmental meltdown, whether it's terrorism, whether it's geopolitical instability. and the point i would make is that those big mack control fears that come with frightening times often trigger, you know, a thousand tiny terrified little ripples. small crises of courage at all sorts of levels of people's lives. so that i would say that apprehension both large and small becomes something of a habit. so i suppose what i wanted to look at in this book was how one might break that habit and whether there were other braver habits that might be cultivated.

>> now, why does the western conception of bravery focus so much on physical courage , do you think?

>> well, i mean, it's interesting that. i take your point that it does in lots of senses in that we have a kind of muscular buff idea of our heros. however, if one were to think of who the greatest icons of courage are in our age, mandela, martin luther king , aung san suu kyi , the dalai lama, these big figures of courage are very often figures that have not only shown physical courage but also shown moral courage . and i suppose i would say that while we exalt this rarity, i think there's an intuitive feeling that moral courage is rarer than physical courage but also i don't think they're entirely zing. i think they're much more swelled up with one another than one imagines. and it's hard to think of a moral courage that wouldn't withstand some kind of physical test of its commitment.

>> polly so.

>> i would say that it's, that, we exalt moral courage and physical courage rolled up together i suppose.

>> hmm. how do we learn bravery? you said that was one of the points of the book was to show how you could sort of learn better habits in that regard.

>> well, i wish i had a neat and short answer to that. i don't think you can learn it overnight. i wish. i wish. but i think that there are -- if one looks at some of the more, the humbler component parts of courage , lots of those can be practiced, an ability to make decisions, an ability to adapt. some kind of faith in your -- the power of your own ability 0 make a choice. and also, i would say that among many of the people we raise up as being brave , whether they're firefighters, whether they're soldiers, whether they're freedom fighters , whether they're nurses working on a terminal cancer ward somewhere, i think they are all -- they have -- they're all practicing some techniques that they've learned for dealing with their fears. and i think if we can acknowledge the kind of universality of fear, then we are one step on the way to learning to be brave .

>> it really is a great read, poly more land. thank you so much for joining