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We too often mistake stupidity for courage.

The Virtue of Fear


Fear is a good thing, and certainly an underrated virtue. Bravery is too often confused in the minds of those who would live bravely. Most of the time they are just living stupidly.

Bravery is throwing yourself on a grenade to save those around you. Bravery is diving into frozen water to pull out survivors of a downed airliner, or passing the rescue rope to someone who needs it more, knowing your turn may not come around again. Skating on thin ice is not bravery.

Taking risks in the pursuit of setting records or winning wagers or competitions is not bravery. Nor is participating in team or recreational sports or other pursuits beyond your level of training or ability, or under conditions that are hazardous. Golfing in a thunderstorm is not bravery, it is just stupid.

Often, for a woman, bravery is the simple act of being assertive in the face of rejection, ridicule, or social pressure. How brave would Princess Diana have been to firmly and resolutely call the shots when out with her consorts, to say we are not going to speed, we are not going to take risks just to outrun photographers and prove your superiority. I will not go with you.

She was a princess and a prize. If the princess and the prize cannot tell the millionaire playboy she isn't getting in the car, who can? Being a woman is indeed tough.

How brave would it have been for Carolyn Bessette Kennedy to say it's growing dark and you're an inexperienced pilot flying over water. I cannot get into this plane with you. I'll take a limo. If you insist on flying, so be it, but you will fly without me. That would have been pretty brave, to risk the wrath of a young, powerful, wealthy husband to save your own life, and the life of your sister.

But wives are seldom brave in defiance of their husbands. Too often we fear them. Even boyfriends of little value are feared. Listening to Dr. Laura on the radio for even a few segments reveals confession after confession of women who cannot stand up to their husbands' or boyfriends' acts of stupidity or foolhardiness. They fear rejection if they insist on being treated decently, or if they insist that a philandering partner cease or depart. They fear rejection if they ask to be legally married to their live-in lover. They fear loneliness or abandonment so much, they even let their own children be abused or molested rather than stand up to and risk losing the abuser.

The Kennedy plane crash has weighed heavily on my mind as I imagined what could have possibly been the dynamic of two women trusting their lives to one man with a bum foot and no instrument training. Mrs. Kennedy's sister had a plane ticket on a regular airliner, but opted instead to be supportive of her reportedly fearful sister and get on the plane, as if another person on board would decrease the odds of anything going amiss.

But the answer is too obvious when I recall how often I casually trust other people with my life. How many times have I gotten into a car with a date or a friend who is insisting he or she is "all right" to drive. I haven't kept a list of how many drinks they've had, or whether they've used any drugs or taken any medication. I can only guess if they're tired or sleepy. How do I really know if anyone's all right to drive?

Other times I've had as much evidence as Mrs. Kennedy that the trip is ill-advised: questionable weather, questionable operator, questionable equipment. One Christmas Eve I got into a car with a driver who I knew had already been partying most of the afternoon. We attended another gathering and left in a car he was unfamiliar with. We were going to yet another party, this time over roads he was unfamiliar with. It started to rain. I knew the route. Probably I should have driven, but girls ride, boys drive. Don't ask me why.

Our exit off the parkway was a straight uphill ramp with an entry speed of 35 mph. By error, he took a similarly named exit right before ours. It came up sooner than he expected and he had to make a very quick decision to take it or miss it. The wrong ramp was a cloverleaf, with an entry speed of 20 mph. We were probably going 55 mph into it. The speed may not have made much difference on the straight uphill ramp in dry weather, but the unexpected sharp circling curve, a moment of hydroplaning, and the unfamiliar feel of the brakes on a strange car, all combined for a disaster.

I died that Christmas Eve, about 9:30 p.m., a passenger in a car with a driver who was "all right" to drive.

Well, actually I didn't, but only because it's one of those there but for the grace of God things. We hit the railing head on. I wasn't wearing a seat belt. My head hit the windshield and broke the glass. I was knocked unconscious. I came to in the ambulance, dazed and unaware it was Christmas. I told the EMT it was July. The emergency room bill was nearly $5,000. Although it happened three years ago, I still suffer with neck and back pain and nerve damage in one arm.

All of this is still a far better result than being mangled, cremated and buried at sea, yet it illustrates how easy it is not to be brave, or to mistake someone else's misplaced confidence in themselves or their abilities as bravery. Bravery doesn't always translate into skill or even wisdom.

Sometimes you need to say no, and risk losing the boyfriend, enraging the husband, infuriating the kids, or insulting your friends. Practicing caution is seldom appreciated unless the disaster you avoided actually happens and you can point to it, but even then, the "brave" will pooh-pooh it. Okay, so you saved yourself that time, but lightning never strikes twice in the same place! Let's boogie! Let's fly! Let's drive! I am all right to drive! Let's try to get over the tracks before the train!

Being a party pooper when everyone else is hell-bent on going to hell is the most underrated type of bravery.

Mariane Matera is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not those of Style Weekly.

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