“Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.” T.S. Eliot (The Dry Salvages)
I’m lucky enough to be with a friend who has a writer’s retreat in North Devon. My friend Deborah Dooley is a freelance journalist who’s written for The Times (of London), the Daily Mail and a regular contributor to other newspapers and magazines has created a haven of peace, quiet and simplicity for her guests. She welcomes writers, painters, walkers and others wanting space to think whilst being looked after, cooked and cleaned for and generally taken care of. She’s even ready to offer supportive critique and editorial help if need be.
Over lunch I was having a conversation with 2 of her guests, both writing novels. We were outside in the sunshine enjoying a light lunch of delicious home made soup and various locally produced cold meats and cheeses. Our conversation started to dwell on the decisions that get made when under pressure.
When it was my turn, I told of a burglary that happened to me a year ago. It was around 3am. For some reason I was wakeful. Suddenly I heard a sound of cascading glass from my front room. I sprang up and ran towards the sound. As I got to the doorway I saw a pair of silhouetted hands reaching in through the broken window and grabbing hold of my desktop Mac. I ran towards the window and stretched out to reach it as it was disappearing. At the same time in the loudest voice I could produce (and it is a trained voice!), I shouted, “GO AWAY!”
Three dark figures I saw outlined in the street lamps stood rock still. We all seemed utterly suspended in space and time. The pause went on for ever. Then the one who’d grabbed the Mac dropped it and all three ran.
Needless to say, I ran outside, picked up my Mac (and none the worst for it’s adventure!) and phoned the police.
What made me run towards rather than away from those 3 men? What was the split second impulse to move towards the danger? Indeed, what makes someone intervene to stop a fight? What makes someone run after muggers stealing an old woman’s purse? In my case, I felt a surge of indignation so strong that I didn’t care what’d happen next. I was just determined that no one, but no one was going to steal my precious computer.
In the Peninsular War, according to the fighting men, there were two types of officer, the ‘Go Ons’ and the ‘Come Ons’. The ‘Go On’ officers were those who shouted, “Go on!” to their troops from behind the line. The ‘Come Ons’ were officers who called out, “Come on!” whilst leading their men into battle. I don’t need to tell you which officers had the respect of their men!
What makes one person take positive action and another run away? What makes one person brave and another turn tail? What is it that gives courage to face the fears?
When young, I was sent to boarding school. I was exceedingly homesick and unhappy. I had made a few casual friends though still felt lonely much of the time. One day I was in with a group of other girls who were playing horses (yes, little girls and their love of ponies!). Accidentally one girl fell over me and let out a scream. Suddenly the door opened. Miss Robinson, the hatchet faced headmistress stood in the doorway.
“Who made that noise?”
“Who made that noise?”
“Me, Miss Robinson,” said the girl.
“Three black marks for you!” Miss Robinson turned on her heel and left.
We were all shaken and upset. Each girl turned to the others and tried to exonerate Barbara, the girl who’d screamed. They all agreed it was unfair. In fact, one faction decided that I had a share of the blame since it was my leg she fell over.
At that moment I made a decision to speak to Miss Robinson to explain what had happened. Walking up the two flights of a large, dark, ornate Victorian staircase that seemed to go on forever, I absolutely knew I was a brave person. Whatever happened when I did see Miss Robinson, taking each step upwards, I learnt self respect.
That knowledge has stayed. When I’ve been in tight corners since, that memory has been a resource and a comfort. I know that come what may, I’ll face the worst and deal with it.
One of the things little discussed in business articles on the nature of gravitas is courage. It’s the wellspring of confidence. It’s when you step up and take action based on your values, what’s important to you. What undermines your confidence is previous memories of inaction in the face of fear or (more likely) the fear of fear that prevents you from taking action.
In a previous life, I was a hypnotherapist. Occasionally I worked with people who suffered panic attacks. Apart from one precipitating incident, the fear clients were haunted by was of being frightened, of losing control. Franklin D Roosevelt was right, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It’s fear of fear that’s the canker that eats away at a person’s substance.
Much of my work is in helping my client face difficult decisions, present to challenging audiences (and for some, every audience is challenging!), learn how to overcome shyness, walk into a roomful of strangers and inspire them with influential leadership. To do this, there are small incremental steps to success. On the face of it, a child walking up a staircase doesn’t seem particularly significant. However it’s that small success that has lead to giant leaps since.