On Timid Souls
‘You are beautiful because you let yourself feel, and that is a brave thing indeed.’
- Shinji Moon, The Anatomy of Being
© 2014-2015 Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved
In January 1942, a notice appeared in the New York Times, inviting timid musicians to a Manhattan apartment on West Seventy-Third Street, bare except for two Steinway grand pianos, to ‘play, criticize, and be criticized.’ This ‘Society of Timid Souls’ as its creator, renowned concert pianist Bernard Gabriel, called it, would meet every first and third Sunday of the month with the sole purpose of helping its stage-shy members become brave. An odd little endeavor, given what else was going on at the time.
Less than four weeks earlier, Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor, catapulting the United States into a war it seemed the whole world was fighting. The media was ablaze with talk of bravery, but its understanding of the word revolved around the battlefield, not center stage. Bravery was, in its purest sense, ‘daring, defiant, boasting,’ overcoming dangers far greater than false notes.
Interesting, too, was Gabriel’s choice of the expression ‘timid souls,’ a reference to a 1910 speech by then president Theodore Roosevelt, in which he portrayed bravery as:
‘[…] The man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’
Bravery is ‘the ability to confront pain, danger or attempts of intimidation without any feeling of fear. It is strength in character that allows a person to always be seemingly bigger than the crisis, whether he is indeed more powerful or is lesser than what he is tackled with.’ In contrast, the Latin root of the word timid is ‘to fear.’
Roosevelt’s bravery was palpable and verbal. In fact, it was physical and loud. It took up space, earned medals, and bore no resemblance whatsoever to the four quiet pianists who hesitantly walked into the Society’s first meeting that January afternoon.
The man in the arena, covered in dust and sweat and blood, ‘who strives valiantly,’ is brave. The pianist on stage is not. He is afraid.
So is the autistic child in the playground, the anorexic facing the bag of cookies, the father leaving his daughter at the airport. The world is not always at war, and not all battles are loud. The greatest, in fact, are quiet ones. And in those, most of us are not brave. We are not brave because we have lived long enough to know pain, and it has made us timid.
‘I’m not brave anymore, darling. I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.’
- Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
But fear is not cowardice, and timidity is not weak. ‘The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.’ It is just, a quiet kind of strength.
There is an English word, older than bravery, which I far prefer: courage. It comes from the twelfth-century Old French word ‘corage:’ heart.
‘Courage is the ability to undertake an overwhelming difficulty or pain despite the eminent and unavoidable presence of fear. More than a quality, it is a state of mind driven by a cause that makes the struggle all worth it.’
Bravery is a characteristic; it is to fight like you have nothing to lose.
Courage is a decision; it is to fight knowing exactly what you have to lose.
It is to play a false note, and breathe.
To be touched by the sleeve, and breathe.
To eat a cookie, no more or less, and breathe.
To let go after one last hug… and breathe.
In a beautiful excerpt of Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ Catherine begins to cry in bed one rainy night. World War I is raging around her, she treats wounded soldiers every day, but she tells Henry it is the rain she is afraid of. The rain is ‘very hard on loving,’ she says. It reminds her of death. Henry just holds her.
‘[…] you’ll always love me, won’t you?’
‘And the rain won’t make any difference?’
Outside, nothing has changed. World War I is still raging, and it is still raining, but she stops to cry, and all becomes quiet.
Bravery is bold. It inspires headlines and novels, statues and songs. The Society of Timid Souls never made the headlines. In fact, it did not put on a single show. Its members played for no one but themselves, and when the war ended they disappeared, as did their names. They did not learn to be brave. They learned to breathe.
I could end with many bold words on courage, such as it not being the absence of fear, but the triumph over it, resistance to it, or mastery of it. But those were all spoken by brave men, and I would rather quote a kindred, timid soul:
‘Because it was a Super Good Day I decided to walk into the park with Mrs. Alexander even though it scared me.’
- Christopher John Francis Boone, fifteen-year-old child with autism, narrator and protagonist of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’