“Everything is safe as long as you don’t forget it is dangerous.” That was a saying I learned as a young man in Britain’s Royal Navy. In the military I was often in dangerous situations when handling guns and ammunition and as a frogman when I was diving.
But I learned to be brave in the face of danger even younger, when I was 14 years old and attending an unusual school. My school and home for two and a half years was a large cargo sailing ship built in Hamburg, Germany, in 1907. She belonged to the Flying P shipping line and was 377 feet long with four masts; the highest was 170 feet. The Peking had sailed herself into history and retirement in the 1930s.
In 1933 she was converted into a boarding school and was renamed Arethusa. Anchored in the River Medway, in Upnor, Nr. Rochester, Kent, England, she housed 240 boys, 13-16 years old. The primary purpose was to train them for a life at sea. A basic academic curriculum was taught as well as knots, splicing, sailing, Morse Code, signals and all sorts of nautical information. We all slept in hammocks which were “lashed up and stowed” every morning and “slung” every night.
In our spare time we climbed the bowsprit with bare feet chasing the seagulls. Climbing up the foremast’s “rattlings” to the first platform and just hanging out was fun. Crossing the yardarms where brave seamen in the past furled huge canvas sails was our playground. No one ever said to us you can’t do that because you might fall. Going up and down the foremast was normal—well, at least to the first platform and perhaps the second!
One day, I just decided to climb to the top of the mast, a little short of 170 feet high. This was my personal challenge, and I grew more and more scared the higher I climbed. “Don’t look down,” I told myself, “don’t look down.” On successfully reaching the third platform I took a short break to look above me at the last section to climb. It was a Jacob’s ladder that seemed to go upward forever! This section of the ladder was very stiff and close to the mast. Each rung was about 14 inches wide. Each step up was about 12 inches. Gradually, one cautious step at a time, I finally reached the top and touched the “button.”
Then I looked down at the teak deck below which looked like a large french fry. Wire hawsers, ropes and yardarms crisscrossed the path down. The safety net below me looked like a postage stamp, and I knew I would be killed if I fell. Slowly, I lowered myself down, making sure my bare feet and hands had a secure footing before safely moving down to the upper deck.
This experience taught me a lifelong lesson. Being scared and being brave are two very different things. Fear can stop you from doing a lot—if you let it. On the other hand, being brave is overcoming your fear and challenging yourself to fight against it. It’s making yourself do something that you don’t like or don’t want to do. It is fighting against those scary thoughts that creep into your mind and say “What if?” It is the imagination of the mind running amuck that holds us back.
Sometimes a little help is needed to learn bravery. In the Royal Navy “boot camp” we 16-year-olds were trained by World War II veterans. They stood no nonsense! Everyone was required to jump off a 10-meter diving board. All of our group did it except one. Everyone was shivering in the cold shouting at him to jump. The officer said, “If I come up there and jump off with you, will you do it?” Of course the answer was a pathetic “Yes!” Up the officer climbed and removed his shirt and pants. Holding the hand of the boy he said, “Are you ready?” “Yes sir.” They stepped to the edge of the platform and a strong arm suddenly pulled the boy forward and let go. Yelling all the way down he splashed safely into the pool. After putting on his clothes the officer climbed down. “Now get back up there and do it by yourself!” he commanded. The lad did.
No one can make you brave, but with the right leadership and encouragement you can learn to be brave. Brave men and women (as well as cowardly men and women) are not born that way; they become that way through their acts.
President F.D. Roosevelt made a famous statement in his inaugural address in 1932 when the nation was in the midst of a great depression: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The same encouragement was said by the Lord to Joshua, the leader of Israel when entering the Promised Land. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of a good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
We all have some fear. What are you scared of? What are you going to do about it? No one can be brave for you no matter what the problem is. Obeying God and doing what is right and good will help you become brave.