In my story of the war between China and Japan there are
references to fear: a subject that gives one cause for thought.
Why should we who know first-hand what fear is leave the
subject so entirely in the hands of the neurologists who, as a
matter of probability, only know it as an entomologist knows a
beetle? So let me, who have experienced fear in several forms,
say what I think about it. But let the limitation of the individual
first be noted. He knows his own experiences but no others.
As with the expert, the others are mere beetles, wriggling
perhaps on their transfixing pins and inarticulate. Regarding
these the expert generalizes from outward signs, while we, the
less learned, can view them with the inner light of sympathy.
Is fear something to be ashamed of? If so, then all those
tens of thousands who died heroically in the World War, had
cause for shame; or nearly all, for there are some few exceptions who seem to lack the sense and probably lack something
else. No. Fear in danger is quite normal; it is an inheritance
from those ages when to flee from danger was a thing of course,
and in those early days it was not conscious fear; it was a
tropism — a mechanical reaction to a stimulus, and so, in bad
cases, it remains. In these the primitive reaction rules, and
in all of us it operates to some extent. For, think, is fear a
matter of the mind or is it something physical? The mind
of course indicates the danger and possibly exaggerates it;
but it is not the knowledge of danger that constitutes fear but
what happens consequently in the body. It is the physical,
and not the mental, factor that causes inhibitions. In sudden
instant danger there is that frond-like growth of creeping chill,
commencing at the tail and extending to the shoulders, and to
the hair roots. Its occurrence seems independent of the
magnitude of danger. It may occur from the sudden snarl
of a dog behind one; from a supposed burglar in the
dark, when your wife has sent you down to investigate a
noise; or when defenceless from the bayonet of your enemy.
Its quality and even its degree is much about the same in all
There may be, whether in sudden danger or danger long
sustained, actual paralysis, an atavism of another kind to that
already mentioned and having its origin, perhaps, in the
hypnotic influence of the prehistoric snake. Most of you, it is
likely, remember a childhood's dream of coming down the
staircase and seeing in the hall a burglar with a knife, and how
he crept towards you and you could not scream or turn and
run; your feet were turned to lead and refused to lift. Perhaps
you did not wake before he caught you and slowly pushed the
knife into you, and you heard the gristle cut; and if you were
a boy you kept this dream a secret, for you feared it showed
you were a coward.
There is another kind of fear that is harder to describe — that
low, sinking feeling in the stomach, which goes with general
but not immediate apprehension. Thus one feels about the
doubtful issue of the sickness of one's child; thus one stricken
with the impotence of a nervous malady, with a career prematurely broken, feels; thus, too, one can imagine, feels the
prisoner waiting for his execution.
In all these cases, and the others mentioned, the distress is
chiefly physical. The mind but takes cognizance of the
senses. And the cause, where lies it? In the mind or in the
body? Of course, in both and curiously intermixed, as in a
toothache, when a house on fire will cure it.
Be master of your soul.' How often does one see this smug
complacent statement. With equal non-sense might one say,
' Be master of your blood; don't get consumption.' The
will can do a lot, of course, and faith really can work miracles;
but the will may be diseased as may be the blood and tissues.
One hears contemptuously of malades imaginaires, when the
right term is a disease of the imagination — a disease as real as
any other, but much more difficult to cure. So the poor
wretches who suffer from inhibitory fears are no more to
blame than if they had consumption; and for relief from the
cruel stigma which formerly attached to them they have the
neurologists to thank.
Yet there are fears that are obscene — those that result in
scheming for security by the sacrifice of others, even where
the security is only temporary. And there are fears whose
chief feature is their foolishness — the immediate avoidance of
a lesser danger at the certain cost of a greater later one — an
example this of tropism.
But, kept to the last, is another fear. It is a glorious fear,
under which the stress of apprehension produces inspiration
from the subconscious mind, which takes control and guides,
and this feeling is one of great exhilaration.
So do not mix up fear with cowardice. Fear may inspire or
inhibit, with a gamut of reactions in between. Above all, the
fear of fear — that complex thing — is a stimulus to bravery.
That word slipped in by accident. We who know fear do not
think of bravery, we think in terms of cowardice or the absence
of it. If we can master cowardice we are well content and
make no higher claim. To us bravery — at all events as applied
to ourselves — is usually not a positive so much as a negative
condition. Yet undoubtedly there is something more. The
gratuitous incurring of a risk to save another is something
positive, not negative. Its source is also inspiration — from
an ideal; and equally it is the subconscious mind that prompts
But on the whole it can be safely said that the great bulk of
the World War's daring deeds — that untold number — were
partly due to fear, either from the fear of fear, the inspiration
of it or the desperation of it, and the fact adds largely to the
heroism of the deeds. Mixed with the fear and forming with
it an amalgam of stimulus, were pride of race, love of country,
the spirit of adventure and many such incentives.
The subject here is fear. Perhaps too much is claimed for
it as a factor in daring deeds. The sole object is to emphasize
the fact that we need not be ashamed of it.
But I have still an example of fear differing in kind from
those hitherto described. It happened later in my life but
its place seems here.
I was travelling in Japan — a typhoid convalescent — and my
train was skirting the inland sea with mountains close to on
the other side. It had been raining heavily for days and the
mountain streams were torrents. The train stopped at a
wayside station, and we were told there was a wash-out that
would take several days to mend. We could either return to
Shimonoseki or put up in the village at the Company's expense.
And then a Japanese passenger accosted me. He was an
inspecting engineer of the railway; he intended to walk along
the line to the next station, distant some five miles or so, and
invited me to join him. I did so gladly.
It was growing dusk, but the rain had ceased except for a
fine drizzle. Soon we saw the naphtha flares of the working
party at the wash-out, and I wondered how we should cross.
We did so by a rope bridge — a very wobbly affair, but nothing
to complain about by one who had been a sailor in his youth;
yet I felt relieved, in view of my poor condition, at this possible
difficulty being past. The single line was embanked and we
walked in file from sleeper to sleeper, and in silence. Then
after a mile or two I heard the rumbling of broken water, and
in due course there lay in front of us a lofty wooden trestle
bridge some 800 feet long, spanning a raging torrent in a
sunken course. Between the rails there ran a line of plank
only ten inches wide — in Japan everything is small; otherwise the bridge was but a skeleton. I thought my friend
would stop and discuss the crossing, but no, he marched on to
that plank without a word. A moment's hesitation on my part
and I shed my mackintosh, and with that in one hand and my
umbrella, opened, in the other, I also stepped that plank as if
it were a tight-rope. I did it quite unhappily, for the bridge
quivered strongly; but I think my feeling of resentment at
being let in for this unkind experience tended to shut out
actual fear. At all events, I crossed without material difficulty.
My companion, who had gained somewhat on me, waited
at the end. ` I didn't like that at all; I hope you have no
more luxuries of the kind for me.' He looked at me with no
expression, then turned and walked along the line without a
word; and I knew that there was something more.
The dusk was gone. It was now dark and the sky heavily
overcast as we trudged along the line, and all the time my ears
were cocked for the rumble of another torrent. Then came
that rumble and a bridge head; and now at last he spoke.
I very sorry. This not my district. I forgot this damn
bifurcated river. I must cross. You better try too.'
It was now very dark. Some distance on the plank caught
such light as there was and showed a ghostly streak, but
underfoot it was invisible and I had to kneel to feel the width,
the same meagre ten inches. The loom of the trees on the
other bank was faintly visible; otherwise blank darkness, and
the river roared, and I knew that the bridge quivered and
violently in the centre.
I thought of crawling on hands and knees, and tried it
tentatively; but it was quite impossible, the knees would
never stand it. To straddle and jerk across was equally impossible, with sleepers in the way. It was walk or nothing.
And then I spoke: ` Try to cross ! Try be damned. I am
not a blasted mountain goat like you. It's not that I'm
afraid ' — I lied — ' it is that my legs would not do what I
` Again I very sorry; but think; country flooded everywhere; no houses; no can go back; bridge there too; rain
all night and cold; make you sick. You Englishman; more
The predicament was rotten. On the one hand, to be wet
and cold the whole night long, possessed moreover by a sense
of ignominy; and on the other a very poisonous risk. I feared
paralysis, for once before when there was no risk of life my
legs gave out from vertigo because I was not fit. It seemed a
toss up which was the lesser evil, which was the lesser fear;
the fear of trying to cross, plus the apparent foolishness of
doing so; or the fear of self-respect. It reduced itself to
that. I was still in painful doubt, when there jumped to
my mind a story of a piece of string and how it gave
confidence to a follower in some Alpine risk. With it came
` Hold the end of my umbrella in your armpit and I will
follow you '; and so we trod that plank. My effort was to
think of other things — or rather of persons, not things — of my
people and my best girl and what they might be doing. And
every time my foot came down on that unseen plank. I
became automatous with a realization at the back of my mind
that it made for safety, and that the chance was good. Then,
when we were about in the middle of the bridge, my leader
stumbled and stopped, giving my arm a nasty jerk, though he
still retained the umbrella end. — ' Take care, a loose plank; I
hit the butt-end. I nearly fell.' Then a pause, and I could
hear him panting from the shock. This standing still was
much worse than walking, and I thought of the stability of a
bicycle. And then he said: ` I no like this at all, and now I
remember construction train may come at any time; we better
hurry up.' So we started off again. But now the feeling of
being an automaton had gone; I became conscious of my feet
or rather conscious of a kind of unconsciousness about them,
and then it happened. I stepped off the plank and fell; and
as I fell I clutched the plank, my arms and chin were on it
and one foot had found a lodging on a cross timber of the
bridge. Now comes the curious feature of this adventure.
One might well think that the shock of the fall would have
unnerved me. It did not. Before the fall I had been in a
blue funk; but as I hung on that plank and realized how I had
been saved from the torrent underneath, the fact exhilarated
me. I clambered up assisted by my friend — he still had the
umbrella — and I walked the other half of the bridge without
a squirm. But I dreamt of that bridge for many nights.