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Courage as a ‘controlling idea’

Last week we were away staying in a friend’s cottage in mid Wales. On one of our walks we had to cross a fast flowing river by way of some strategically placed stepping stones. Marc and I and one of the dogs went over without thinking about it, but our other dog , Phoebe (normally very placid), balked on the river bank,  clearly frightened by the thought of slipping on the wet stones and falling into the river. We were reluctant to carry her (also frightened by the thought of slipping and falling into the river!) so we tried some bracing encouragement while she trembled on the bank with her little claws spread in resistance.  Eventually we decided to walk on a bit to see if she would come. Sure enough, surreptitiously glancing over our shoulders, we saw her summon the courage to make the first crucial jump. After that she was fine, she hopped across the rest of the stones easily and rejoined us, clearly somewhat embarrassed by our fulsome congratulations.

Here’s a question. Which dog displayed the most courage?

I have always been interested in the concept of courage and its various manifestations. There has been a lot in the news this week about the people of Malta being awarded the George Cross in April 1942 for their ‘heroism and devotion’ in resisting four months of intense Nazi air-raids. The stories of incredible courage and personal sacrifice reminded me of the research I did (and am indeed still doing) for my series of novels set in wartime London.

Quite early on I realised that courage was going to form the basic theme (or ‘controlling idea’ as they call it in the film world) of my novels. Having a ‘controlling idea’ really helps in the writing process, keeping an author on track, giving the novels a point of focus. And the concept of courage was a great theme to explore.

I was fascinated by the accounts I came across of people going out on a limb, putting themselves at risk, physically or emotionally, for a variety of reasons, patriotism, duty, love, or to save or protect someone else, as when a terrified young woman crawled through the collapsed cellar of a bombed house to rescue a child trapped under unstable rubble next door.  Certainly of all the examples of bravery and heroism I came across, the ones I found most moving are the ones where ordinary people (or dogs) first had to overcome a very real fear in order to take the necessary action.

Courage takes all forms and guises and can be found in so many situations. It takes one form of courage to charge a machine gun post or parachute into Nazi occupied France, quite another to go to the doctor when you find a lump. Even writing a poem or a novel takes courage – it’s just one more way of laying yourself on the line.

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10 thoughts on “Courage as a ‘controlling idea’

  1. Hi,I have been off my legs for a couple of weeks with a bad back since reading your piece on courage,but being forced into inactivity I have found myself thinking a great deal about your thoughts on courage.
    Thinking about Phoebes reaction and your other dog,who did not hesitate to cross the stones with you and Marc,i see the comparison between children,some will be “have a go kids” others “stop and think children” is it a matter of courage or intelligence.?for me in the end it doesn’t matter,because whatever she was feeling she obviously loves you so much she had to take that first step,and isn’t that the real answer deep down courage in any form is because of love in one form or another,even when we are not aware that is why we take that first step.
    Bless You

    • Yes, love is a powerful motivator and sometimes definitely drives people to unimaginable acts of courage. Many of the wartime stories of heroism I’ve come across are related to love in one form or another. And not just for other humans, lots of people went back into bombed buildings to try to find pets too. And there are plenty of accounts of pets scrabbling at rubble to find their owners. (Not sure that Phoebe would scrabble too hard though, certainly not if there was a temptingly chaseable rabbit nearby!)

  2. Personally, I think Phoebe showed more actual courage in overcoming her fear and making the leap to join you all. (Jumping seemed to come easier to the other dog who was maybe more fearless than courageous.)

    I like the concept of a controlling idea, although I don’t think I know what mine always are until I am a good way into writing a story. And even then my view of what it is can sometimes differ from that of those who’ve read the story.

    • Yes, that’s an interesting point about the difference between fearlessness and courage. Some people are simply more fearless than others about certain things, but does that make them more courageous?

  3. Greetings from your newest Blog reader 🙂

    I enjoyed reading your post and your personal story about your sweet dogs. You posed the question as to which dog was the bravest. I will venture to guess that each were equally brave.

    Your first dog clearly was not intimidated by the stream – which was likely out of pure instinct based on his ability to trust your guidance without hesitation, so onward he went. Whereas Phoebe only needed to trust herself first (you stated she’s “normally very placid”) — uncertain if she was capable (if a dog can “feel” uncertain), but her loyalty to you won out in the end, thereby enabling her to indeed find her natural courage (aka: trust), and hopping easily across.

    I agree that courage shows itself in many ways, and as your very wise dogs so aptly taught you (and us) is that all one really needs to learn to be brave is simply to trust our instincts….”Jump, and the net will reveal itself” (quote by John Burroughs).

    Thank you for sharing this delightful lesson, Helen.

    • Thank you so much for this, Dianne, and welcome to the blog! Yes, I love that quote, I tweeted a similar one from Andre Gide today: ‘One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore …’ It’s an appropriate one for my dog story too!

  4. Hi Helen,

    How goes it?

    Reading your piece I was struck by the closeness of what you are dealing with and the work of Common Purpose, which runs the best personal and leadership programmes in the eyes of many, including Prof Charles Handy. I can pesonally vouch for it.

    Have you read Common Purpose founder and Chief Executive Julia Middleton’s book on the subject of Leading Beyond Authority. In the book “Beyond Authority: Leadership in a Changing World” she interviews leaders who have either been successful beyond their authority within their organisation – which she describes as the first outer circle – or who have succeeded beyond their organisation – the second outer circle.

    This may be of interest because she looks at people, many of whom are Common Purpose graduates who have achieved some incredible acts of leadership and courage, some of which have hit worldwide headlines.

    You can see more on http://www.commonpurpose.org.uk

    So glad Phoebe got there in the end!


  5. Beautifully written post on an important topic. The picture of your dog hesitating on the river bank will stay in the mind. In the end, when you began to walk away, she was perhaps more afraid to be left behind than to brave the slippery stones. Or is that too negative a way of putting it? In any case, I see her there, frightened, and finally taking the first jump. You say there are many kinds of courage: I realized in the course of writing my mystery novel, A Place to Die, that my controlling idea, though I did not know it when I started to write, was the courage to face up to the onset of old age. In this of course, one has little choice but to move forward on to the first stone — but it makes a big difference with how much courage or, conversersely, how much pusilanimity, one does it. Anyway, thanks for this piece, Helen.

    • Thank you so much for this, Dorothy. I love the way you have used the ‘moving forward onto the first stone’ image! Yes, sometimes the choice is between the lesser of two evils, or, as you suggest, with what energy that step is taken. It’s interesting too what you say about discovering the ‘theme’ while writing the novel. I have heard other writers say that too, it’s as though the process of writing helps us identify our own real interests.

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