The Society Of Timid Souls Or, How To Be Brave by Polly Morland
(Profile Books $35)
The original Society of Timid Souls consisted of about 20 New York musicians convened by a young man called Bernard Gabriel. All suffered from acute stage fright, and all were cured by Gabriel's "strange and devious methods".
One played or sang, the others blew whistles, shouted, leaped about and threw heavy phone directories at the floor.
From this obscure 1942 news story, British documentary-maker Morland takes inspiration for her book - an attempt to define what it truly means to be brave. She quotes English philosopher Philippa Foot, who revives the Aristotelian idea that courage is a virtue, and like all virtues can only exist because of its correlating vice, fear.
Fear is instinctive, bound into our brains. Morland explains that all complex vertebrates, including humans, have twin almond-shaped sections in the temporal lobes called amygdala.
People with lesions in this part of the brain do not experience fear at all, nor empathise with it in others. This is, thankfully, a rare condition. Fear, to some degree, is necessary to our survival.
The Society of Timid Souls is conversational, tangential and chatty. Addressing the reader directly, Morland invites us to come with her - a self-confessed timid soul - as she travels around Britain, Europe and the United States meeting people who by anyone's standards are courageous. There are soldiers who served in Afghanistan, firefighters, bomb disposal experts, ocean surfers, matadors and the terminally ill.
She goes in search of a "brave, bad man" to share "the dark side of courage". There is an account of a Mexican peasant who successfully gave herself a caesarean section, rather than lose her own life and that of the baby. As Morland describes it, she demonstrated "solitary, existential courage".
Sometimes it's not possible for Morland to meet the brave person, because he/she died while carrying out a heroic act. Their families require a different kind of courage to get them through, as in the case of firefighter Fleur Lombard who lost her life going into a flaming supermarket to rescue shoppers.
Morland meets her grieving parents, who talk about facing reporters on the day after their daughter's death.
The father recalls how he thought to himself, "I've got a demonstrably very brave daughter and now I'm going to bloody well do this so she can see I can be brave too ... without looking like a weeping prat or an unemotional zombie."
Morland explores the courage needed to fight danger from within and from without; the courage of those who fight corruption and those who face physical danger.
Of the courage needed to maintain equilibrium in an age of increasing anxiety, Morland asks, "What exactly is happening if any real practical or even moral necessity to be brave is stripped away and one is left with purely the feeling of terror to be overcome?"
Wide-ranging, plainly written and entertaining, The Society Of Timid Souls puts lead in your pencil.