Building upon his fifty-year career as a clinician and professor of sociology, Dr. Melvin Fein demonstrates why courage is the key to leading a successful life. He presents a five-step, reality-tested program that enables ordinary people to live up to their potential.
Fein begins by explaining how to find “safe places” that provide a refuge from worries and threats. Then, with refreshing candor and common sense, he supplies tactics for tolerating fears and evaluating the best means of dealing with them. Next he demonstrates strategies that produce winning results.
In our increasingly complex, middle-class society, there are few guarantees. Fein convincingly argues that self-reliance is the most dependable approach. Freedom from fear is liberating. But it must be earned. This book shows that this is not only possible, but within the grasp of the average person.
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Unlocking Your Inner Courage
Five Winning Strategies to Achieve the Life You Want and the World We Need
By Melvyn L. Fein
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 Melvyn L. Fein
All rights reserved.
LAND OF THE FREE, HOME OF THE BRAVE
A SEMI-REFORMED COWARD
I have always thought of myself as a coward. No matter how often people commended me on my bravery, I was excruciatingly aware of my many deep-seated fears. Although my bold exterior sometimes fooled outsiders, I knew the truth. That frightened little boy, the one who sat in the corner of the bedroom on East Eighth Street too scared to go outside, was still there. That lack of courage he now tried to conceal was part of who he was — and would never go away.
Hadn't my younger sister learned to swim before I did? Hadn't she also ridden a bicycle first? I was simply too afraid of drowning or skinning a knee to take a chance. Wasn't I also scared of walking down to the end of the block because there was a bully there who might jump out to attack me? Even though he had polio and limped around on a heavy metal brace, I dreaded his assaults. It didn't matter that I could run faster. What if he caught me unawares?
I was even afraid at school. Despite getting good grades and routine praise, there was always the possibility of not knowing the answer to a question. The mere thought of standing up in class and fumbling for a response was mortifying. Then, as I grew older and my peers began dating, I worried about rejection. Because I was small, what girl would find me attractive? I was not an athlete nor especially handsome, so perhaps girls would laugh behind my back.
Then too there was the question of becoming an adult. What skills did I possess that could be turned to earning a living? Yes, I got good grades, but who would hire me merely because I got A's in history? Anything I knew was totally impractical. I could not fix a car; I didn't even know how to drive one. If the plumbing broke in my apartment, I would be at a loss over what to do. Nor could I wield a hammer and saw as well as my father and grandfather could. They were men who knew how to be men, whereas I was destined to be an eternal child. Condemned to an inferiority that I could not escape, the best I might eventually manage was a pale imitation of manhood.
Nor would this change. I was not physically strong. I lacked gravitas. And worst of all, I did not understand how the world worked. Why others behaved as they did remained an exasperating mystery. Just figuring out how sex worked left me red-faced and dumbstruck among friends who got the joke. How then could I function as the businessman that my father wanted me to be? No one, certainly no self-respecting adult man, would take orders from me. No executive would ever be foolish enough to place me in a responsible position. I clearly did not have the right stuff. Something was missing. Something others had in abundance, which I lacked. While I was not sure what this was, I was convinced that I was biologically incapable of acquiring it.
In short, I was a congenital coward. I was afraid of a world that others met head-on. Instead of taking risks, I sought ways to avoid them. Although I could pretend that I was adequate by keeping my mouth shut, if anyone peered into my soul they would find a Nervous Nellie. While I did not literally tremble as noticeably as Don Knotts, inside I experienced something similar. Nor would my trepidation go away. It was deeply entrenched in who I was and hence there was nothing I could do about it.
In fact, experiences that might have convinced another person he had at least a modicum of courage made no impression on me. For example, while in college, I hitchhiked alone around Europe for an entire summer. I did this, however, because the friend who was to accompany me had backed out at the last minute. Then, once on the road, upon reaching a strange town, I did not know where to go. Most of the time I stumbled around until I found a youth hostel or visitors' bureau. Only a single time, in Denmark, did I find myself stranded in the middle of farm country and forced to sleep in a field. I survived, but palpably with less aplomb than more intrepid souls. Sadly, each and every time I encountered the unexpected, my heart leaped to my mouth.
Not even my military experience changed my mind. During the heart of the Vietnam War, I was forced to drop out of a graduate program in philosophy and join the National Guard. Though I was mortified by discovering that I detested a subject I thought I would love, I was even more mortified by the prospect of becoming a soldier. My father always warned me that the army would tear me down. Instead of making a man of me, I would be revealed as the child I was. It was therefore with extreme anxiety that I took the PT tests one was required to pass during Basic Training. A failure would mean being recycled and subjected to rigorous punishments. This, I was certain, would be my lot.
When the fateful day came, despite my apprehension, I tried my best. Although I was sure I would fail, the results turned out better than I expected. Out of the fifty men in my squad, virtually every one of which was bigger than me, I came out third best. You could have knocked me over with a feather. How could a weakling like me have done so well? I knew that almost every one of my colleagues was stronger, so what made the difference? It turned out that I was fast and flexible and therefore could speed through exercises like squat thrusts. Nevertheless I was unimpressed. Although I passed, this no longer seemed a significant accomplishment. While I might be quick, quickness was not as important as strength.
Nor did going through the confidence course modify my self-image. This torment was supposed to prepare recruits for the rigors of combat. It entailed crawling under barbed wire in the dark as live ammunition was fired overhead. Many of these rounds were tracers so that it was possible to see them flying by. At first, my squad lined up alongside the course, awaiting nightfall. From here we could see the berm where the bullets landed. The upshot was that many of my peers began to wet their trousers in anticipation of what was to come. I did not. Then, while edging my way under the wire, an explosion went off no more than a foot from me. Suddenly my arm was wet. Was this blood? I could not tell because it was too dark. What then should I do? There was, in fact, no choice. With no one able to come to the rescue, I simply had to keep moving forward. Afterward, I discovered that the field was studded with pots rigged to simulate battlefield explosions. I had been doused because it had rained the previous night and the pots were still filled with water. In any event, I was struck by my fear. Although I got through in one piece, my underlying terrors had once more risen to the surface.
After I left active service, I got a job as a counselor with the New York City Methadone Maintenance Program. Unable to discover any other job for which I was qualified, I was (in my mind) at least morally superior to the addicts with whom I would deal. Many of them, of course, had long criminal records. In fact, a large number carried knives and guns, and/or secreted razor blades in their shoes. I, for the most part, did not want to know. My goal was to stay as far away from the violence as I could. Then one day I was asked to accompany our clients on an outing. They were to play a softball game against another clinic.
All went well for the first few innings, but then a fight broke out between one of our regulars and one of theirs. The two men squared off, brandishing knives pointed directly toward each other. Now the question was, what was I supposed to do? There was no other counselor from my side around; hence it was up to me. I therefore approached the combatants. I did this by coming up from the side and slightly behind. Next, from several feet away, I asked our client, "What are you doing? Surely you do not want to hurt or be hurt." At this, he turned marginally in my direction. Meanwhile, a counselor for the other clinic followed the same procedure with his client. The more I talked, the more my guy turned toward me, while the other guy turned toward his counselor. Soon their knives were pointed not at each other but at us intermediaries. Eventually the combatants were standing with their backs to each other. It was as if my colleague and I were bullfighters who had distracted the fighters from their initial target. Now, no longer face-to-face, they did not have to prove their manhood by engaging in combat. At this point, it was possible to talk them into giving up their weapons.
No one was injured in this encounter. Not one of our clients; not one of us counselors. Meanwhile, I had been in the middle of a knife fight and did not run away. Didn't this imply that I wasn't an unmitigated coward? Well, not from my perspective. After all, what else was I supposed to do? Running away would have been more frightening. It would have exposed my pusillanimity to a playing field full of observers. Had I backed down, I would never again have been able to show my face at work. And so I stayed and did my duty despite my inadequacies.
Many times, in many different settings, I exposed myself to danger. As a caseworker for the New York City Department of Welfare, I walked alone into Harlem tenements armed only with a notebook. As a counselor in a group home for emotionally disturbed boys, I wrestled adolescents to the ground in order to keep the peace. As a counselor in a psychiatric facility, I worked alone in closed rooms with clients who had been convicted of murder. None of this caused me to take flight. But neither did these instances convince me of my courage. So far as I was concerned, I was merely able to put up a good front.
Yet there was this other facet of my character. Over the years, whether at school or at public events, I often stood up to defend unpopular opinions. At such moments I questioned authority figures aloud and articulately championed alternative positions. Whether I was advocating a bureaucratic or political policy, I usually did so with dignity and persuasiveness. Moreover, after these encounters it was not uncommon for my peers to clap me on the back and commend my courage. In saying things they wanted to express, but did not have the stones to dare, I had demonstrated unusual audacity. Still, while I took their words in stride, I continued to believe them misguided. I had merely done what I could not help doing. To have remained silent would have confirmed my spinelessness, ergo I had no choice but to speak up. Besides, this was far less frightening than when, as a child, I had defied my father. Those I now questioned were not going to beat me; thus it took no special talent to assert my views.
I must nonetheless admit that the more often this sort of incident occurred, the more I wondered whether I was quite as gutless as I imagined. What finally got me to suspect that I might be wrong about this lack of bravery was my experience in counseling clients and students. The changeover was gradual. Years earlier, I had spent six years as a client in psychotherapy. This was done in defiance of my father's wishes because I had reached a painful impasse. Totally confused about where I was headed, I consulted my college mentor about the best way to proceed. He advised me that when he had been younger, entering therapy had helped him. And so I took a chance. As a result, I got to delve into my past and explore the sources of my fears. These were many and stemmed from what I would later realize was physical and emotional abuse. Previous to this, I knew that I had experienced a stressful childhood, but I had attributed it to my shortcomings rather than to the way I was raised. It took time for me to realize that many of the punishments I endured had more to do with my parent's limitations than with my own.
In any event, after I started working as a clinician, it became clear that many of my clients were afraid to investigate their histories. They often balked at the possibility of making painful discoveries. This did not surprise me. While in therapy, I was asked to picture myself standing up to my father's blows, and I recoiled at the prospect. He was so much bigger, stronger, and aggressive that, had I rebelled, I would have invited a severe thrashing. As a consequence, I pulled back and did not allow myself to entertain visions of insubordination. Now I realized that my clients were enduring fears not unlike my own. It became obvious that I was not the only person who doubted his courage. I also began to realize that people who were not in therapy had analogous apprehensions. They might more effectively disguise these than I had, but they were there. As a semi-recovered coward, I could see through their defenses. Plainly, they too believed that they did not have the ability to deal with their fears. They too distrusted their courage.
I had another realization as well. It did not matter how often fearful people were assured that they had courage. Like me, they discounted such testimonials. These were regarded as well-meaning but mistaken. Cowards generally assume that they are cowardly to the bone. Consequently, they will not change their minds in response to mere words. They do not trust these; nor do they trust themselves. However much they may hope to face down their fears, they imagine that when the time comes, they will find ways to hide. Only instances of genuine courage might make a difference. Yet these are few and far between. What is more, putative cowards are convinced these incidents are flukes. So entrenched are their anxieties that they resist logic and counterevidence. They defiantly resist assurances that manifestly underestimate the tenacity of fears they know only too well.
The truth is that virtually all of us have fears. Anxieties are part of the human condition. Some people, it is true, are more fearful than others. Likewise some are more risk averse. Nonetheless, most of us are capable to being braver than we realize. We may never fully overcome our uncertainties; nonetheless we can be bold enough to deal with life's challenges. We can even handle our childhood fears if we so choose. As long as we learn how to protect ourselves from our terrors, we can develop the appropriate emotional resilience. Happily, almost all of us, despite our doubts, are stronger than we imagine. Almost none of us are prey to the congenital weaknesses that we dread.
But why should anyone as fearful as I was believe this? Why should they take the word of someone who has not undergone comparable insecurities? This is a good question — one for which I do not have a perfect answer. While I have emerged from the depths of my cowardice, I have come to realize that fear is an unavoidable emotion. Life is dangerous and thus if we do not possess internal signals to warn of potential threats, we will succumb to them. Nevertheless, even people who are not temperamentally brave can learn to cope with these fears. There are methods that may enable them to manage their uncertainties. People do not have to jump on hand grenades in order to prove they are not cowards. All that is necessary is to muddle through during their everyday affairs. This too can be a form of heroism.
In the chapters that follow, I will explain how this can be achieved. I will use my own experience and those of my clients to illuminate the path. This book will therefore be very personal. My goal is to provide persuasive evidence that courage is possible. Why? One reason is to reassure myself. Another is that we, as a nation, have reached a critical juncture. Despite the unprecedented success of the American experiment, too many of us seek comfort rather than confront difficult challenges. We prefer to benefit from the accomplishments of our ancestors instead of risking successes of our own. This is sad and unnecessary. We too are capable of great deeds if we will grasp our capabilities. They are there, but they need to be tapped.
In the rest of this chapter I hope to remind my readers of the proud heritage that we Americans share. We often forget the daring that it took to carve a modern nation out of the wilderness. We likewise overlook the valor displayed in our becoming the most powerful nation on earth. This legacy should not be squandered. Isaac Newton wrote that if he had accomplished more than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. We too stand on the shoulders of giants. Thus we ought to endeavor to be worthy of them. Surely the children of giants should be capable of momentous feats.
Excerpted from Unlocking Your Inner Courage by Melvyn L. Fein. Copyright © 2016 Melvyn L. Fein. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Land of the Free, Home of the Brave 9
A Semi-Reformed Coward 9
Pioneers and Patriots 17
The Wretched Refuse 25
2 From Safety Net to Feather Bed 33
The Perils of Success 33
Nothing Offensive 39
Nothing Painful 47
No Failures 51
Moral Courage 54
3 Integrated Fear Management 59
Social Courage 73
Integrated Fear Management 79
4 Ensuring Safety 85
A World of Hurt 85
Back on the Horse 92
Safe Places 96
Bad Places 108
5 Incremental Tolerance 113
Near and Remote Misses 113
A Common Process 122
Getting Started 128
6 Evaluating Our Fears 139
Types of Danger 145
The Degree of Danger 159
Available Resources 161
7 Sorting Potential Responses 165
Doing Nothing 165
Fighting Back 172
Walking Away 180
8 Winning 191
Gaining Confidence 191
Half a Loaf 194
Knowledge and Skills 202
9 Saving Ourselves 219
The Collectivist Trap 219
The Middle-Class Frontier 225
The Occupational Frontier 235
The Family Frontier 240
10 Personal Liberation 247
Making Choices 247
The Virtues of Freedom 253
Two Intrepid Pioneers and Me 260
Custer versus Sherman 267
Why Not Cowardice? 273