THAT’S LIFE: Unblocking cowardice valve

I’VE been reading a book by documentary maker Polly Morland called Society of Timid Souls: or How to be Brave.
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It’s a lively tome well worth a browse, particularly if you’re a gutless wonder.

Despite filming many terrible things in many scary places, Polly felt she was not that courageous.

So the essential question of her book is: Can we learn to be brave?

Or are most of us doomed to be wimps who hide behind their fingers every time a scary moment comes up at the movies.

And I’m not just talking Jaws here.

Think National Velvet.

Jaws sent me over the edge actually, inflicting psychological wounds much deeper than anything physical suffered at the mouth of what was apparently the fakest looking rubber shark in the history of prosthetic sharks.

Seemed real enough to me, but that’s fear for you, of fear itself. I remember I went for a surf after seeing that flick, primarily to try to unblock the cowardice valve. Or block it as the case may be.

And would you believe it, there was a shark alarm. I remember squirting adrenaline. Not as pleasant as some snow boarders would have us believe.

At first I’d thought it was a cruel joke. A cliche. Impossible. And yet, there were the people on the beach waving. And there was I, the only person left in the water, floating on my surfboard like a harp seal above a pilchard school with the water going “lap, lap’’. Always the “lap lap” when things get sharky.

They say it’s the shark you never see that’s gonna eat you, which is ironic given how hard you start looking for sharks in these situations. Like the sight of a dorsal fin might be somehow reassuring. Amazing, too, how many you start seeing as paranoia peaks among the peaks. ‘‘Lap lap.’’

Another thing they say is you shouldn’t panic, as it sends out the signal you’re a wounded fish burger.

God they say a lot of things.

I was walking on water the last 30metres to shore. Hardly dignified, but who cared. I was ALIVE!! The only fear once on dry land was that people might recognise it wasn’t just sea water running down my leg.

I’m sure we all have our Room 101s and I’d love to hear them.

It is into this headspace that Morland’s book engages the mind.

The phrase “timid souls’’ Morland explains is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt who in 1910 lauded “the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.

Such words have gone on to inspire generations of triathletes, and horrified the makers of video games.

Translated into Strine, it means “Get off ya arse and have a go.”

The phrase was picked up by a group of stage-frightened Manhattan musos in 1942 who gathered weekly to conquer their performance yips, thus becoming the original ‘‘Society’’ of timid souls.

Morland moves forward with the concept, interviewing an eclectic range of would-be wimps – soldiers, bull-fighters, mothers in labour etc – to explore the physical and philosophical nature of bravery.

Along the way she poses questions like, is it really being brave in combat to run into a minefield to rescue a wounded mate.

A lot of soldiers say no: it’s what they train for and anticipate. Anti-heroic almost. Something that comes from practice.

A famous Spanish matador told Morland he felt no fear in the ring but dreaded worse fates outside it, ‘‘like sleeping alone’’.

A brave thing to say, I thought, to an obviously fiercely intelligent woman as it was one hell of a sleazy line.

Scientists have traced the fear response to the amygdala in the brain and noted that if you get a lesion there, you can become immune to the signals of fear, and hence feel no fear.

But is that being brave?

Yes it helps if you’re fronting ICAC, but true courage, Morland argues, involves anticipating fear, experiencing fear, and overcoming it.

That only comes if you’re Eddie Obeid.

Morland examines the idea that fear is an enhancer of life, and its absence symptomatic of death?

Certainly that didn’t resonate that day in the surf with the shark, although it got me contemplating the symptoms of death all right. Particularly that of being torn to pieces.

While reading this book I spoke to a woman who survived a horrendous airflight over a volcano in Indonesia in 1982 when her plane lost all engine power and was gliding to certain obliteration.

The woman noted at the time that people reacted differently.

Some put on rain coats, thinking if they were going to ditch in the water, they’d better try to stay dry. Her response was to put on woollen socks.

Courage, it seemed, didn’t really need to be informed by logic. Just an all-pervading need to keep your tootsies warm.

Perhaps that in the end sums up bravery, something that makes no sense – you just hope you can bring it when the time requires.

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