Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent book, David and Goliath, describes a very interesting observation about how the British citizenry dealt with fear during the German Blitzkrieg bombing of London during World War Two. I really like Gladwell's books as they challenge conventional wisdom about why and how things happen. They're all on my recommended books list (They're also on THEFEARMONSTER'S banned books list).
In the years leading up to the war, the British government knew that the German Air Force would bomb London and that there was nothing they could do to stop it. The British military command predicted that a sustained bombing would kill an estimated 600,000 people, wound another 1.2 million and create mass panic.
Plans to build a massive network of underground bomb shelters were abandoned because it was feared that people would never come out of them. And several psychiatric hospitals were set up outside the city limits to treat what was expected to be a flood of psychological casualties.
In 1940 the attack began. For eight months, beginning with 57 consecutive nights of devastating bombardment, German bombers dropped tens of thousands of bombs and more than a million incendiary devices, fire bombs. Forty thousand people were killed, another forty-six thousand were injured, and a million buildings were damaged or destroyed.
But then an interesting thing happened. Every prediction about how Londoners would react was wrong. The panic never came! The psychiatric hospitals were switched to military use because no one showed up. Many women and children were evacuated to the countryside but people who needed to stay in the city mostly stayed. As the German assaults increased, authorities began to observe, to their astonishment, not just courage during the bombing but something closer to indifference.
People went on about their business, kids played in the streets and went to school and life went on pretty much as usual. It became astonishingly clear that the bombing didn't have the effect everyone thought it would. So why was that?
At the end of the war a study was done to solve the puzzle. It was found that the morale of the community depends on the reaction of the survivors. The so-called "near misses", people who feel the blast, are horrified by the destruction and carnage, may be wounded but survive, and are left with a powerful reaction associated with the bombing. They may continue to experience what's called post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Then there are the "remote misses" who make up a far greater percentage of the population. People who hear the sirens, see the bombers overhead and hear the explosions. But the bomb hits some distance away. They survived the second or third time that happens, they experience a feeling of excitement tinged with a feeling of invulnerability. Their reaction is exactly the opposite of that of the "near misses" who are traumatized. A remote miss creates a feeling of invincibility.
In recollections of Londoners who lived through The Blitz, countless people described feeling happy and triumphant, exhilarated and invulnerable. One Londoner, who had been bombed out of his house two times, refused to be evacuated to the countryside. He said, "What and miss all this? Not for all the gold in China!"
The study concluded that we are not only liable to fear but also afraid of being afraid. Conquering that fear produces exhilaration and a self-confidence that is "the very father and mother of courage." Soldiers going into combat of course fear dying or being maimed but right behind that is the fear of not showing courage and letting their buddies down.
Courage is not the absence of fear but doing something courageous in the face of fear. It's what we earn when we get through the tough times and realize they aren't so tough at all.
Next Time: FACING DOWN THEFEARMONSTER