“Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”
— Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
In the buildup to World War II, British military leaders were concerned that the city of London could be hit by an aerial bombing campaign that would kill or wound over a quarter of a million civilians in a single week. The city of London, said Winston Churchill, was “the greatest target in the world, a kind of a tremendous, fat, valuable cow, tied up to attract the beast of prey.” The British government feared that there would be mass panic in the streets that would overwhelm the local police and require the already overextended army to subdue the population.
The bombing began in the fall of 1940 with fifty-seven consecutive nights of attacks. Over a million explosives were dropped on the city by German warplanes over a period of eight months. The damage to buildings, neighborhoods, and infrastructure was as devastating as predicted.
The people did not panic, however.
Some evacuated to the countryside. Others stayed and went about their business as usual. After the initial shock of the first wave of bombings, many Londoners discovered that the thing they had dreaded for so long was not as terrible as they had feared. It was difficult, but survivable.
In the midst of the chaos of war, the people of London found within themselves and their neighbors a resilience and resolve that no enemy could defeat. Those who survived went about their lives seemingly unfazed by continued bombardment from the skies, defying the predictions of the British authorities and the expectations of the German forces that aimed to terrorize them.
One might attribute this reaction to cultural factors. The British pride themselves on their stoicism. The “stiff upper lip” is considered a sign of dignity in the wake of tragedy.
But it turns out that this phenomenon has been observed in many other cities and towns across the world.
Why was it that these populations responded to bombings as they did? Was there something special about these particular groups of people that made them behave in a way that was absolutely contrary to what military strategists anticipated?
A Canadian psychiatrist named J.T. MacCurdy was intrigued by this question. He conducted hundreds of interviews with survivors of the London Blitz and combed through the stories of those who lived through it, looking for clues that might explain why they were emboldened rather than frightened by the bombs.
In their recollections he found a common thread: after facing their worst fears and living to tell the tale, survivors emerged on the other side with a fearlessness they had never known before. The experience itself provided an exhilarating boost of courage that made them feel almost invincible.
We tend to romanticize the people who came before us — our parents and grandparents, the so-called “Greatest Generation” of World War II, our immigrant ancestors who made perilous journeys in hopes of a better life. It’s tempting to see their stories as quaint accounts of an almost mythical past; things that happened to other people in another time that have no relevance for our modern-day lives.
Yet when we examine our own turning point stories, or those of people we know, a similar pattern comes up. An unexpected transformation occurs.
In the beginning, you do not think you have the courage necessary to face what is before you.* Afterwards, you discover that this courage was there along.
Or was it?
Could it be that living through your worst fears gives you the courage to overcome them, and not the other way around?
That’s a question that I intend to explore further in this series. I’m curious about what happens between the “before” and the “after.” I’m fascinated by the transformations that occur in that middle space, where ordinary people just like you and me — and those that came before us — find the courage to do what they did not think they could do.