Courage Comes with Practice

Theresa MacPhail - Berkeley, California
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, July 28, 2008
Theresa MacPhail

After an accident killed her brother, Theresa MacPhail found many of her usual childhood activities restricted — her mother wouldn’t allow them in hopes of protecting Theresa. Now an adult, MacPhail believes courage comes from facing one’s fears.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe that embracing fear produces courage.

After my brother died in an accident, my mother was inconsolable. I was only four years old at the time, but still I understood the seismic shift in my mom’s attitude toward safety. Suddenly everything around us was potentially dangerous. Overnight, the world had gone from a playground to a hazardous zone.

I grew up with a lot of restrictions and rules that were meant to protect me. I couldn’t walk home from school by myself, even though everyone I knew already did. I couldn’t attend pajama parties or go to summer camp, because what if something happened to me?

As I got older, the list of things to fear got longer. My entire life was divided into “things you should avoid” and “things you needed to do in order to have a good, long life.” I know my mom was only trying to protect me. She worried about me, because after my brother died I was her only child, and what if something happened to me? What if?

I became a natural worrier. I worry about things like getting cancer, losing my wallet, car accidents, earthquakes, having a brain aneurysm, losing my job, and my plane crashing—disasters big and small, real and imagined.

The funny part is you’d never know it by looking at my life because I’m constantly forcing myself to do the things that frighten or worry me. In fact, I’ve developed a rule for myself: if it scares me, then I have to do it at least once. I’ve done lots of things that my mom would have worried about: I’ve ridden a motorcycle; I’ve traveled—a lot. In fact, I’ve lived in China. I’ve performed stand-up comedy, and I’m planning my second wedding. I still travel to China often, chasing bird flu as a medical anthropologist.

There’s something else I don’t usually talk about, but it’s a cornerstone in my belief: when I was fourteen, my mother died suddenly in a car accident. That loss on top of my brother’s unnatural death could have paralyzed me, but at my mom’s funeral I remember making a choice. I could either live out the rest of my life trying to be safe or I could be brave enough to live out a fulfilling, exciting, and yes, sometimes dangerous life.

I worry that I may have betrayed my mother by writing about her in this light, but she has been a driving force in my life and, in the end, I think she would have been proud of me. Courage isn’t a natural attribute of human beings. I believe that we have to practice being courageous; using courage is like developing a muscle. The more often I do things that scare me or that make me uncomfortable, the more I realize that I can do a lot more than I originally thought I could do.

Even though I inherited my mother’s cautious nature, I’ve also come to believe that fear can be a good thing, if we face it. Believing that has made my world a less scary place.

Theresa MacPhail is a medical anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. A writer and former reporter, she authored The Eye of the Virus, a fictional account of a bird flu pandemic, and she is currently at work on a nonfiction book on the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Ms. MacPhail lives in Berkeley with her new husband and two cats.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.