Ingredients for building courage

The Selma to Montgomery marchers arrive in Montgomery. At center are Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, with Ralph Abernathy's three children. (Wikipedia / Abernathy Family Photos)

The Selma to Montgomery marchers arrive in Montgomery. At center are Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, with Ralph Abernathy’s three children. (Wikipedia / Abernathy Family Photos)

Viewers of the splendid film “Selma” might wonder, “Would I have had the courage in that situation to join protests that might leave me severely injured or worse?”

I learned something useful about courage from a lion tamer I met while doing a speaking tour in the Netherlands, a perspective quite different from what I read in Gandhi’s writings. Gandhi urged his people to become fearless, but I had doubts about my own ability to be able to give up my fear. The lion tamer invited a new way of thinking about it.

I met this unassuming Dutch man because he was my host in Utrecht. He was already retired from the circus, but when he discovered how interested I was in his career, he offered to show me scrapbooks from his work with tigers and lions.
One of the pages included a photo of him with his head between the jaws of an enormous lion. My breath stopped. I said, “What a brave man you are!”

“No, George,” he said with a smile. “My lion tamer colleagues are courageous, but I’m peculiar. For some reason, ever since I was a boy I’ve been in love with cats. When I work with a lion, I don’t see something scary; I just see a big pussycat.”

“To be brave,” he went on, “it’s necessary to be scared. When you’re frightened and do something anyway – that’s courage.”

The Dutch lion tamer’s perspective helped me, because I couldn’t imagine any personal/spiritual discipline that could make me fearless. What’s real for me is to acknowledge my fears and still choose to put myself in harm’s way. I’ve learned I can develop that quality the lion tamer defines as courage, and like all things we want to strengthen, I recognize that some days will be better than others.

Building courage behind the scenes

Context matters in building courage, and it’s significant that 1965’s Selma campaign built on the previous year’s Mississippi Summer. As a member of the training staff for the hundreds of mostly Northern college students who came to Oxford, Ohio, to prepare for their plunge into Mississippi, I watched the students become young lions ready to face Ku Klux Klan terror.

The students’ stated mission was to teach in Freedom Schools and organize African Americans to try to register to vote despite heavy repression. Their unstated mission was to draw the attention of the North to hardcore segregation and force the federal government against its will to support the right to vote. Northern students taking large risks would be attention-getters, and might even offer some measure of protection to the embattled field workers with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, who had been in Mississippi since 1961. Even to take the bus to the training, most students would have endured strong opposition from family and friends fearful for their safety.

We organized the training into one-week “batches” — about 400 the first week and a similar number the second week — on the campus of Miami University in Ohio. The training relied heavily on role-playing, reflection and intense discussions with SNCC workers, some almost as young as the students.

With the first week’s graduates already on their way to Mississippi we welcomed students for the second training. We’d barely gotten started before we were all called into the auditorium to face somber-looking project leaders on the stage. They told us that James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were missing. The first was a SNCC worker; the other two were students who had been sitting in those very same auditorium seats the previous week. We feared the worst. The bodies were found later.

Even though that was 50 years ago, I vividly remember sitting in the auditorium thinking that by nightfall most of the students would have left for home. No one could be ready for a tragedy that struck so soon.

I was wrong about the students. They responded to our revised training format: multiple venues for emotional work, including one-on-ones, small groups singing under campus trees, larger groups listening to stories from the SNCC workers and others. The hours went by and community grew; almost no one seemed to leave. We gradually returned to workshop mode while gently making space for the expression of fear, grief, doubts about nonviolent discipline and anger.

By the end of the week most of the students went on to Mississippi. The excellent PBS documentary on Freedom Summer shows what happened there. (You can read about the campaign on the Global Nonviolent Action Database.) SNCC’s and the students’ courage — plus that of black Mississippians — put voting rights on the front burner and created the context for the 1965 breakthrough catalyzed by the Selma campaign.

Tools for overcoming fear

Many of us will never face a terror situation like that of pre-1970s Mississippi, but most of us do experience fear and might like to learn how to handle it. One tool is knowing that courage is contagious: If I act more boldly, there’s a good chance I’ll inspire others to handle their own fear and step up.

As profoundly social creatures, humans learn the art of courage in community. That may be one reason why the Southern civil rights movement set records for courage: much of the movement was based in churches, where community already flourished. For today’s movements — for climate justice, against incarceration, for school reform — it will pay to build community while we build our campaigns.

An often unacknowledged feature of the civil rights movement’s preference to wage campaigns over time rather than one-off protests is that a campaign gives time for people to inspire each other to greater boldness. I distinguish between courage and bravado. When people do bravado they deny their own fear, pretend there is little or no risk, and count on impulse and adrenalin to see them through. I’ve seen plenty of that in one-off protests, but in campaigns we’re more likely to see actual empowerment — “ordinary people” who don’t identify as activists getting in touch with their authentic conviction and courage.

Training workshops accelerate the building of courage, especially if trainers help participants become aware of the difference between the “comfort zone” and the “learning zone.” Training for Change facilitators admit they are doing less than their best when they allow people to stay in their comfort zones. Learning happens when participants, although objectively safe, are uncomfortable.

“Expansion” is not a bad metaphor for courage. When we expand our bodies by breathing deeply, and expand our empathy by talking with people different from ourselves, we empower ourselves and support the courage we need to face actual danger.

Fear is like a story that we make up. It has a beginning (now), a middle (the bold act), and an end (disaster). F.E.A.R. stands for: Fantasized Expectations Appearing Real. Knowing this invites an alternative: Use your imagination to make up a different story!

There’s an additional method that works for me. I’ve put myself in physical danger multiple times (knives drawn, even a gun) and I have knowingly risked my life in social action. Although I have a good imagination and can fantasize dreadful consequences as well as anyone, the truth is that each time I’ve had no way of knowing what would be the real-life end of the story. I’ve learned to decide based on probability instead of fantasy, then focus on being present with my team.

Re-framing to channel the energy

The good news is that we’re not at the mercy either of our fantasies or even of the adrenal gland that pumps hormones as if there’s something really scary out there. I once asked a concert pianist for his feelings about a high stakes concert, and he said his usual condition before any concert was the rapid heartbeat called stage fright. “In conservatory they taught us how to handle that,” he told me. “Find the button that turns fear into excitement.”

The physiology of fear and excitement is the same. “When I reframe by turning that heartbeat into excitement, I play a better concert,” he explained. “If for some reason the adrenalin isn’t pumping some night, I’m less alive and it’s a flatter performance.”
In social action we have a huge advantage over the solitary recitalist on a stage — we can have support from those who are quicker to push their excitement buttons and give us that look of reassurance. Look to the affinity group, take the risk, and experience the courage.

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