“Courage is not something you have, it’s something you earn.”
Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the bombing of London in World War Two. The Germans called it the “blitzkrieg” or just the Blitz: “In the years leading up to the Second World War, the British government was worried. If, in the event of war, the German Air Force launched a major air offensive against London, the British military command believed that there was nothing they could do to stop it. Basil Liddell Hart, one of the foremost military theorists of the day, estimated that in the first week of any German attack, London could see a quarter of a million civilian deaths and injuries. Winston Churchill described London as “the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous, fat, valuable cow, tied up to attract the beast of prey.” He predicted that the city would be so helpless in the face of attack that between three and four million Londoners would flee to the countryside.
In 1937, on the eve of the war, the British military command issued a report with the direst prediction of all: a sustained German bombing attack would leave six hundred thousand dead and 1.2 million wounded and create mass panic in the streets. People would refuse to go to work. Industrial production would grind to a halt. The army would be useless against the Germans because it would be preoccupied with keeping order among the millions of panicked civilians. The country’s planners briefly considered building a massive network of underground bomb shelters across London, but they abandoned the plan out of a fear that if they did, the people who took refuge there would never come out. They set up several psychiatric hospitals just outside the city limits to handle what they expected would be a flood of psychological casualties. “There is every chance,” the report stated, “that this could cost us the war.”
David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell
The government was sure that the residents of London would be shell-shocked. Everyone knew that it would be only a matter of time before Britain was boarded. Everyone was wrong. For a lot of reasons that Gladwell illustrates, people in London in World War Two gave ‘the finger’ to the Nazis and shrugged it off.
The experts are often wrong. That psychiatrist who diagnosed you might not have had a clue what was really going on. Those meds may work for some people but that does not mean they work for you. Research is changing so fast that none of us can keep up, and I do this all day. Sometimes the people we trust to know the answer are googling it while you are waiting in their office (This is, in point of fact… a fact).
The experts believed that the people would be afraid. It turned out that when people survive a bombing they begin to feel invincible, and in the end the Germans only managed to make a strong country into a very pissed-off enemy. That was one of the lessons of the story, I suppose. They were not afraid, they were afraid of being afraid. In counselling we call that catastrophizing. What was the worst that could happen if the Germans came? What if we lose? Making a mountain out of a mole hill. Come on, you know what I mean. The people who should know were convinced that the Blitz would be the beginning of the end. It turned out to be the end of the beginning. Everyone underestimated the RAF, and never have so few given so much for so many, or so the story goes. Churchill stood alone against the world, a ragged bulldog who just wouldn’t lie down. The worst didn’t happen. Not even close. And that is why history is cool.
Sometimes, often, I care way too much about crap that shouldn’t matter. I get sucked in to the drama and forget to reach for my Wisdom Rock. It’s hard to be Zen when the kids are screaming. But hear me here: It’s not about last time, it’s about sometime. Sometime you will get better than this. Sometime things will be different. ‘Sometime’ is not a cognitive distortion. Sometimes this stuff works. Sometimes. We call that hope, and without it you’re pretty much screwed.
There are moments when catastrophizing does WAY more harm than good. It can take me places where I have a hard time coping. I know there is that statistic somewhere that can prove me right, the one about how most of what we are afraid of never really happens. You know the one. But let’s be honest, it’s not about who is right and who is hurt. It has to be about me.
Try that on for size. It’s even hard to write. It has to be about me. I am no good to anyone if I am not strong. People count on me. I do this for a living and it gets inside me, infects me, for better and worse. What good am I to my wife, my kids, my partners, if I am emotionally wrecked? This is a hard lesson for a Canadian to learn. It feels selfish to my prairie ear.
Many of us are afraid of the unknown. The “what-if’s” have happened more than once. What the Germans didn’t understand, and what we all tend to forget, is that you cannot break a spirit that gets stronger every time you bomb. The Brits were prepared to gas the Germans on their own beaches, if pushed. You do not piss off the British Empire. They are stronger than they let on.
Sometimes you just have to endure and learn. It’s not about last time, it’s about sometime. You cannot be beaten if you learn every time you are hit. You will win in the end. I have to believe that because I’ve seen it happen literally hundreds of time. I’ve felt what it feels like to be “ok” and I want more of that. A bunch more.
You can do it. You are, like the fairytale, stronger than you know. Courage is not something you have. Courage is something you learn. Malcolm is, in the end, right as rain. You’ll have it when you need it if you practice what you have learned. That isn’t rocket science but this stuff is hard and it is important. It needs to stop being “hurt enough I have to” and start becoming about “learning enough I want to”. Getting better is about learning – I will die on that hill, if necessary. You can’t get better if you aren’t getting smarter about your own particular piece of crazy. We’ve argued about this before. I get paid to research and I listen to audiobooks like a drug addict, what can you do?
I know, it’s a sweet gig.
Cue the cheesy ending – “You’re bigger than you know”.