Jorge sipped from the glass of ice tea then shot me an inquiring glance, then asked, “Are you afraid of going to the dentist?”
I quickly answered, “No”. Then I explained that part of the reason I don’t fear him is because I was acquainted with my dentist before he became a dentist. When I first met him, he was a high school age part-time coworker at the radio station. Later, after he completed his schooling, he took over the practice that belonged to my then-current dentist. Plus, I’ve had lots of experience with major repairs to my teeth.
Jorge shook his head and explained that he was scheduled to receive two root canal operations. He contemplated being “put under” for the ordeal. He also thought about just cancelling the procedure.
Despite my assurances that dentistry is a highly advanced medical practice and that most dentists use the latest technology and techniques, Jorge remained unconvinced. My friend went so far as to accuse himself of cowardice.
I advised Jorge to just go ahead and have the root canals done. Otherwise he’ll just mull over the problem and only postpone the work until it becomes even worse. He’ll then have to deal with chronic pain and maybe need two extractions.
My friend looked at me and promised to let the dentist have his way.
I’m guessing that the fear and dislike of dentistry has revealed the latent cowardice in most of us. I admit that if it were possible, I’d put off visits to my dentist even though I view him as a likeable, compassionate man who does excellent work. Who knows, maybe dentophobia is a normal part of everyone’s personality.
Of course, some form of cowardice shows up in various situations in many people’s minds. Cowardice is a taboo form of behavior in most cultures. There are many stories about bravery, courage, and heroism in contrast to the tales about pusillanimous, craven, cowardly behavior. We know for sure that we don’t want to be accused of being cowards.
Much has been written in self-help literature about how to attain courage and bravery, yet little or nothing is said about the psychology of cowardice.
I remember reading something about soldiers being executed for failing to return to the trenches and front-lines during the first World War. Many years later, British government officials issued postmortem pardons to the men’s families acknowledging that the soldiers suffered from “shell shock”, or what is known today as “post traumatic stress disorder”. The pardons affirmed that the soldiers who suffered from shell shock did not deserve to be executed.
I wonder about how little is actually known about cowardice, yet it is practically universally condemned by society. Is cowardice another word for being shy or timid in the face of extreme risk and danger? In my opinion, I think not, because we all feel reluctance to face dangerous situations.
There are countless stories told by soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen who were awarded their nations’ highest medals for valor and bravery. Many of these individuals confessed that they felt twinges of fear and cowardice when they were confronted with the probability of death. Those same people said they “felt the fear and forged ahead anyway”.
So, there is a fine line between bravery and cowardice. A snap decision can cause us to either be honored or pitied. It all depends upon whether we feel the fear and do it anyway or if we surrender to our fears and doubts. Do we take the high road, or do we follow the path of least resistance?
We don’t need to be in the middle of a war zone to be faced with this dilemma. We can think of many situations where we can act in spite of our fear or submit to those fears. We know that surrendering to our fears might haunt us until the end of our lives. We will need to invent excuses for our inaction.
Human beings are powerful creatures. We can use our personal power to energize our fondest desires and we can use that same power to fuel our greatest fears. At some level, we know that we’re very capable of using our amazing power in the service of fear. This is most true at the deepest levels of our personalities.
If we think of bravery as the positive use of personal power and cowardice as the negative use of personal power, we can better understand the labels we place on historical figures.
Think of people like Martin Luther King, Junior or Harvey Milk. They had positive visions and desires to help their fellow humans. They continued their positive, affirming “missions” even with the knowledge that they could be murdered on account of their actions. Most of us think of King and Milk as heroes.
Now envision people like Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot. They had fantasies of destroying people in order to build themselves up. They daily blamed “others” for their own failures and disappointments. They went the extra-mile to punish and destroy the lives of those “others”. In effect, Hitler and Pol Pot not only surrendered to fear and hatred, they used negativity to increase their personal power. This is why we label people like Hitler and Pol Pot as cowards.
We are aware of some individuals today who tear people down and generate fear of others in order to empower their selfish desire to lord power over us. We are distracted by the trappings of wealth and status as we are encouraged to indulge our fears and prejudices. We can choose to surrender to those fears, or we can choose to reject those fears and take the high road, instead.
In our hearts, we instinctively know that some of our beliefs are wrong and that to act on those beliefs will cause us great regret. Yet, sometimes we experience an existential fear that makes us unable to do or say the “right” thing.
The choices between surrendering to fears and feeling the fear and doing the right thing, anyway happen to varying degrees at different times in our lives. Encounters with cowardice may be found in the life and death situations of firefighters, coming out of the closet for LGBT people, or going to the dentist for root canals. We can surrender to fear or overcome fear to enhance our lives.
At some level, we have always known this.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes social reformer Edwin Hubbell Chapin. “At the bottom of not a little of the bravery that appears in the world, there lurks a miserable cowardice. Men will face powder and steel because they have not the courage to face public opinion.”