There is one behaviour that bridges the gap between fear and determination, and that’s courage. We can either sit there, fearfully worrying what will happen next; or we can determine to do the best we can under the circumstances.
Courage is perhaps a behaviour rather than an emotion. Emotions come and go, and are not necessarily linked to action. However, courage is almost always talked about in relation to an action. ‘I’m glad she had the courage to start.’ ‘That’s an act of courage.’ ‘That was a courageous decision.’
WHAT’S THE USE OF COURAGE?
Maybe the usefulness of courage can be described by referring to how we think under pressure.
Broadly speaking, humans are good at two types of thinking, which I will call divergent and convergent. Fear tends to make us think divergently, whereas decisiveness tends to make us focus convergently.
Courage, in essence, can transform a person who is distracted by fear, into a person who is focused by a decision.
Divergent, or associative, thinking, is the kind of thinking we do very naturally. Most of us learn at a very early age to let one thing remind us of another. We sit in one thought, and the next thought occurs to us quickly and easily. A good example is daydreaming, in which we let our minds fly through easy stories, without really vetting or censoring what we are thinking.
The trouble is, when we are fearful, this kind of associative thinking can run away with itself, in directions we don’t want. A fearful person can lie in bed in the morning, worrying about the day ahead, imagining all sorts of pressures, until they build up a big story of a hostile world around them. Similarly, a person who is plagued with insecurity about relationships, can easily let their thoughts spiral out of control into imagines stories of rejection and hurt. This is particularly common if the brain has been biased by past trauma.
In contrast, convergent, or focused, thinking, is a kind of thinking we have to learn. Most of us begin this learning in childhood, where, often in school, we learn to shut out the rest of the world so that we can complete a homework task, or learn a lesson. A good adult example is meditation, in which we try to control our minds: we try to move away from our usual mental distractions, and find focus on a chosen object.
This is why a focused task can help people to be less fearful. Even something as simple as polishing a pair of shoes, or knitting, can provide enough focus to calm the mind from its usual distractability. If, on waking, we can find an object of focus, such as opening the curtains, or preparing breakfast, then we can begin to master the distracting fears that can otherwise build up. In the same way, a socially insecure person can find a surprising amount of calm in the company of others, if they can just focus on a joint activity. This is why focused, organised sports activities can be so good for mental health.
The art of courage is to be able to master the fearful divergence of our daydreaming mind, and to achieve enough focus to get something done despite the pressure. It can be seen in the carer who stays focused on what is best, despite severe provocation by those they care for. It can be found in the person suffering an illness, who manages to focus on crafting a healthy day, despite the pain, difficulty or worry.
My mind is disturbed by so many things… distracting noises, fearful thoughts, people interrupting me, events not going as planned. At these times, my mind sometimes runs away with itself, distracted onto stories of how things could go wrong.
At these times, do I need to give in to the fearful thoughts? Do I need to let my mind run away with itself? What can I do to find calm? Can I, perhaps, find a simple object of focus, just for now, just to get through?
I need my divergent mind in order to live. It makes happy daydreams as well as sad ones. It gives me imagination and ideas. But, at times of pressure, it can also lead me down dark paths which take me away from happiness and health.
Can I find, just for today, a simple object of focus? It could be something I believe in, a good cause. It could be a simple act of tidying up, which makes my world a little easier to deal with. If I feel isolated, it could be having the courage to attend a group with a shared interest. It could be a health focus, a learning focus, or a caring focus. I can always find something to make me more healthy, or more wise, or more giving.
Even if I am afraid, I can start somewhere, with one small act of courage.