Book Review – The Society of Timid Souls or How To Be Brave by Polly Morland

British author and documentary filmmaker Polly Morland has done extensive research for this outstanding book of nonfiction, written with a degree of humor in a personal, narrative style that will appeal and inspire many readers. She provides remarkable insight on the concept of bravery in coping with fear, and how we as individuals or in a group choose to react. We are invited to join this talented author on her journey, as she discovers extraordinary and ordinary acts of courage in more than 95 personal interviews along the way. Famous quotations by notable philosophers, explorers, poets, and authors are skillfully interspersed among compelling human interest stories of bravery.

The central theme of the book is courage which individuals or a group call upon not only in times of uncertainty, danger, and injustice, but for personal growth and building self-esteem. The strong will to survive is clearly apparent in the courage we exhibit in responding to unforeseen catastrophes and natural disasters. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was probably a mere coincidence, however, when four pianists came together in January 1942. The first Society was established by classical pianist Bernard Gabriel in New York City to help these four timid souls overcome their stage fright. Stage fright, being in the limelight, is nothing new; it has been in existence since actors wore masks on stage for protection from audience derision or humiliation.

The author explains that fear comes in many forms including fear of failure, fear of taking a risk, fear of ridicule, fear of the unknown, and other phobias which frequently manifest in real anxiety. The words of Dr Harry Croft, renowned psychiatrist, “Remembering the mind is powerful medicine,” are significant when considering fear, whether real or imaginary. The reader learns that fear does not necessitate jeopardy as seen in the courage of a cancer patient, or a mother in childbirth (which some attribute to a natural physiological reaction to pain). It takes courage to overcome any fear; it can be extraordinary or simply ordinary in the familiar process of growing up in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, “The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear.”

If we acknowledge the words of FDR in his first inaugural speech that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” then we must also recognize that courage can be as infectious as fear. This is where free will becomes important, whether you choose to fall victim to fear along with the crowd, run from it, or accept it as inevitable and stand your ground.

The military regularly face danger in fighting wars, but they are trained to develop confidence in their job, courage is expected, and only exemplary bravery is noticed. We read and listen to exciting stories of extraordinary courage by the soldier, the policeman, bullfighter, and firefighter, but over time they are embellished by repetition and the media. As a result, the medals for bravery become more valuable as collector’s items than for the merit in the heroic acts they represent. Certainly, courage displayed by the military is admirable; however, I feel that the reader may find the distinction between training in the military as part of their job and bravery becomes unclear in reading their individual stories. I find courage is seldom relevant to winning a political victory, and unacceptable criminal behavior is no more than unjustifiable risk-taking.

The author includes the amygdala factor, which offers another perspective on fear; however, it also suggests more in depth discussion of neuroscience (which I find somewhat distracting). Returning to courage and fear, the author reminds us that no amount of courage can counteract the universal fear of dying. Even the words from French essayist Michel de Montaigne, “If you do not know how to die . . . Nature will do this job perfectly for you . . . ,” offer small consolation and questionable rationale to overcome this fear.

Readers will be intrigued by the fascinating stories of remarkable courage and the fears that elicit the extraordinary and ordinary acts of bravery. The author’s use of thought-provoking quotations adds interest and readability to each chapter in this stimulating book. She has given us an opportunity for introspection, and we will ponder the concept of moral purpose as a virtue and essential for courage. It is true that without moral purpose, courage can become as ordinary as animal instinct. Perhaps you will agree with Aristotle who saw courage as a character trait, and fear as a vice which each one of us has the potential to overcome, for whatever the reason or source.

Readers of this book will recognize that they too are part of a constantly changing society, where the timid gather in fright and the brave emerge to overwhelm and defeat the fears that may ultimately confront us all.

Crown Publishers – Division of Random House
July 9, 2013
U.S. $26.00
Amazon – $18.03 Hard Cover, Kindle – $13.99

Sharon L Slayton

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