In 1942, four unsteady piano players responded to an ad placed by Bernard Gabriel, a concert pianist, publicizing a series of meetings to be held at his Manhattan apartment. Fear-racked musicians were invited "to play, to criticize, and be criticized, all to conquer the old bogey of stage fright." Gabriel had no formal qualifications other than a confidence beyond his 30 years. Gabriel was, it was said, "non-timid" and he deployed rudimentary exposure therapy—insulting musicians and distracting them with loud noises—to inoculate them against performance anxiety. Soon Gabriels "Society of Timid Souls" numbered more than 20, and copycat societies followed.
The world is not populated only by square-jawed heroes and sniveling cowards, as the Society of Timid Souls well understood. The vast majority of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, wishing to be brave and yet easily frightened by what is frightening. Either that or we are capable of facing real danger one day, and the next being scared out of our wits by something comparatively trivial.
For stage performers and those with chronic illnesses, testing points may come virtually every day. For those who confront violence or natural disaster, the test may come once in a lifetime. Whatever the circumstance, when someone who appears small and ordinary is brave, it gives us all hope. Its this transformation, however momentary, from timid to brave soul that sits at the heart of how we measure ourselves as humans.