Andy Fraser steps into the gray area between cowardice and courage—and finds that doing nothing isn’t always the soft option.
Two things happened recently that caused me to question my courage.
First, I was walking down the street when a man coming the other way dropped the C-bomb. Or, to employ the technical term we journalists use to avoid having to spell out the mother of all curses, he called me a c***.
The second incident took place a few weeks later on a crowded London underground platform. It was rush hour on a Friday evening and every time a train arrived, a handful of people were able to squeeze inside.
I was getting ready to take my chances with train number three when a woman who was clearly behind me in the platform pecking order stepped forward and slipped into the last remaining sliver of space inside the carriage. Her cheeky move left me standing open-mouthed and with nowhere to go as everyone waited for the doors to close.
What would you have done in these two situations?
My guess is that while most of you would probably have thought twice about confronting a sinister stranger who swears at innocent passers-by, the majority would have been ready to kick up a stink on the subway. So what about me? Well, I did exactly the same thing in both cases—nothing at all.
So does that make me a coward? I’ve given this some consideration, and I don’t think it does.
The man who swore at me was about 10 years older and kind of skinny, so the chances are that if I had decided to avenge his insult in the traditional way, I could have done some damage. At the same time, he did look a bit like one of those unhinged cockney characters from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, so it might have been a risky move.
Either way, any kind of confrontation would most likely have been bad news for at least one of us—so perhaps by walking on without a backward glance I did us both a favour?
The curious case of the woman on the underground is more tricky. I came very close to handing out the kind of self-righteous rebuke that ensues whenever the British sense of fair play is offended by such grievous breaches of social etiquette. One of those tense, toxic exchanges that contaminates everyone in earshot and leaves both protagonists still stewing about it hours later. But I decided to let it go.
In both situations, I can honestly say that although the uncomfortable sensation of doing nothing left my ego squirming, the feeling didn’t last for long—and I didn’t waste time thinking of things I should have said to my two adversaries to cut them down to size.
I’m sure quite a few of you are thinking, “This guy needs to man up.” But how impressive is it really to use a sharp tongue or clenched fists to deal with situations like these? Is it really courageous to insist on avenging every slight—real or imaginary—that we encounter in our daily lives? And what effect does it have on the random strangers, colleagues, friends or family members who are on the receiving end? Plus, of course, all the unfortunate people who have to deal with them next.
Scientists are able to measure these things now, and they are telling us that emotions are contagious. We have ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains which, to put it very simply, pick up how another person is feeling. So if we see someone in pain, it activates the circuits in our own brain that cause us to feel pain. The same goes for other emotions too, of course, like anger.
We’re so reactive these days that I’d say biting back is the easy option. Most of the time it’s harder, and therefore more impressive, not to respond to provocation or other kinds of emotional triggers.
Whether that’s true or not, surely it makes sense to save up our courage for things that really matter… like standing up to genuine injustice or making a positive impact on the world around us.
We don’t tend to associate courage with another c-word—compassion—but maybe we should. I often pass up opportunities to help others because it’s easier to stay in my comfort zone. This is clearly neither courageous nor compassionate—and all the evidence suggests it’s not very clever either.
Scientists have found that being kind has a ripple effect, spreading out to influence people three degrees of separation away from the original act of kindness. Doing something altruistic activates the pleasure centres in our brain, just as if we were having sex or eating a piece of chocolate. And leading a life of purpose and concern for others has been found to have benefits for our health, and perhaps even our longevity.
So I’m glad I didn’t go to war with the woman on the underground, even though I don’t always keep a stiff upper lip in situations like that. And as for the guy who called me the c-word, I genuinely hope he’s doing ok. I don’t know why he said what he said, but one thing’s for sure—he definitely wasn’t calling me a coward.
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