The Red Badge of Courage is a novel by Stephen Crane (1871–1900). Taking place during the American Civil War, the story is about a young private of the Union Army, Henry Fleming, who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound, a “red badge of courage,” to counteract his cowardice. When his regiment once again faces the enemy, Henry acts as standard-bearer.
Seneca, the stoic Roman philosopher, said all humans are slaves to fear. However, given the right circumstances people can set themselves free of their bondage and act courageously.
How can this be done?
Imagine taking two pills in the morning that can help you overcome fear, live courageously, and have an extraordinary day.
The blue pill gives you awareness to face your fears and internal threats to prevent you from panicking before your emotions ambush you. Once you see the source of your fear, you then take the red pill to give you the courage you need to confront and hurdle over any obstacles or challenges blocking your path.
Scientists have found regions in the brain associated with fear and courage, so those scenarios in this article aren’t as farfetched as they might sound. The amygdala is associated with the body’s threat response. When this area is activated in the face of a real or perceived threat, it sounds an internal alarm and your body goes into fight or flight mode.
The second area of the brain is called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) that controls and suppresses bodily fear responses, and sends nerve projections into the amygdala that shut it down. This area effectively generates courage that allows you to set a mental “handbrake” to stop the fear generated by the amygdala.
The function of the sgACC was discovered by research led by Dr. Yadin Dudai
(from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science) who assembled groups of volunteers and some snakes. As people from each group were shown the snakes, and asked to have the snakes moved closer or farther away, an MRI scanned the volunteers’ brains to monitor their reactions.
The results showed that those who asked for them to be moved closer had increased fear activity in the sgACC. Therefore, their courage was measured in snake advance units.
Now that researchers have pinpointed the source of courage in the brain, it opens the way to interventions to help people overcome their fears, and more importantly to generate more courage to live an extraordinary life.
One of the biggest problems people face is they aren’t often aware of their behaviour and emotional responses that act on autopilot long before they can make decisions about what to do about them.
Research shows that decisions are made six to seven seconds before people become consciously aware of them. So imagine if you could be prepared for what scientists call an “amygdala hijack”?
Back to the two pills.
You’re about to go into a meeting with your project director, and you fear the meeting won’t go well. When you take the blue pill you feel fear coursing through your body, and your stomach goes into knots.
You have an image of you as a little girl being scolded by your father for taking too long to get dressed. You recoil when he yells at you to hurry and you feel like you’ve done something very wrong. With this awareness you remember times when you’ve been late with projects and to meetings, and you feel small, fearful and unworthy.
Then when you take the red pill you feel courage building in your body. You see that same little girl facing her father, and telling him she’s sorry she’s late and that she’ll be ready the next time. You feel empowered for confronting the issue with him, and that you had a positive outcome.
Now you enter the meeting with your project director with confidence. When they ask why the project is delayed, you confidently explain why and give them a revised schedule. Because your powerful body language and courage instils confidence in your abilities, you walk out of the meeting feeling pleased with the outcome.
A second scenario is you go home after work. While sitting alone after dinner you begin to feel anxious, so you take the blue pill. You see your aging parents who separated after a long marriage, and hear their conversations about how hard their life has been. Your mother talks about sacrificing her career for her family, and the dissatisfaction she felt as she got older.
When you take the red pill you now see your mother retraining to go back into the workforce, and making empowering decisions to make a difference in people’s lives. You also see yourself wanting to become a career coach, so you approach HR to do some retraining, and map out a plan to change your career towards doing something meaningful. You make more time for your family, and schedule things you enjoy doing together. You feel peaceful because you’re living a satisfying and meaningful life, and are making choices towards your highest values.
The Red Badge of Courage is all about Henry’s transformation from a fearful, lost, doubting youth, to a courageous, confident, duty-bound soldier. Similar to Henry, we can also transform the quality of our lives starting with awareness to enable authentic choices to live courageously towards a new more empowering future.
Two Keys to Overcoming Fear and Generating More Courage:
- The Blue Pill of Awareness: Become aware of your past barriers, beliefs, taken for granted assumptions, and limiting stories that ruin your life.
- The Red Pill of Courage: Write a new story for your life to generate the courage you need to overcome barriers imposed on you by your past.