‘You’re brave’, the dog walkers call out, seeing me swimming in the river on winter mornings.  I smile and wave.  It is difficult having a conversation with somebody on the bank from the middle of a cold river, but if I could catch my breath, I would say, ‘this is not brave; it’s cold, invigorating even, but not brave.  Besides, I want to do it.  It makes me feel good and able to face another day’s writing. It’s a means to an end, but brave; no, I don’t think so.  

Bravery is a moral quality.  Psychotherapist Dr Coline Covington, who spoke at a meeting of Sheffield’s Hallam Institute of Psychotherapy last weekend, said it was more about standing out from the crowd and doing something you may fear but you know is right.  

The day before Armistice Day was an appropriate time to be thinking about bravery.  The guns fell silent on the western front a hundred years ago.  Many of us have been remembering relatives who lost their lives in 20th century wars and saying how brave they were.  Millions of men volunteered to fight for their country, not just because it was a great adventure, but because it was their duty.  My father flew Hurricanes for the RAF.  A man, who, like the Prince of Wales, raised self deprecation to an art form, he nevertheless told me that when he and his friends were training to be pilots, they were informed that only 1 in 9 would survive.  None of them pulled out. 

Dr Covington talked about bravery as being true to oneself.  But how do we know what being true to oneself means?   Most of us get our moral compass from our parents.  Through instruction and example they show us how to be, or perhaps more appropriately how not to be.   ‘No’ is the most important word we ever hear.  So being true to ourselves means being true to the values inculcated in us by our parents early in life, which we subsequently identified with as our own.  A parent with strong moral principles will instil those into us. These then become the standards we endeavour to live up to, but inevitably fall short.  When my father had crashed his aircraft in Scotland and was fighting for his life, his father sent this telegram, ‘Chin up as always, Bummer!’   

My father and millions of other men, who signed up to fight in first and second world wars, were undoubtedly brave.  They did what they felt was their duty, they helped to defend their families and country in a time of adversity and were true to the principles they had internalised from proud and patriotic parents. 

This was the moral code I inherited from my father, who was a hero despite crashing on a training flight in Orkney and never engaging in conflict.  The same ethos was reinforced by being sent to a ‘good public school’, where like other similarly idealistic school friends, I joined the Combined Cadet Force, Britain’s last hope.  I learnt a little of what it was like to be a soldier: the endless drill, the polishing of brass buckles and badges, how to get a shine on your toe caps you could see your face in. I also learnt how to strip down the engine of a three ton truck, maintain my ex WW1 .303 calibre Lee Enfield rifle using a pull through and a piece of 4 by 2.  I fired a rocket launcher and sped across Salisbury plain in a Churchill tank.  I went on route marches, which as platoon commander I subverted to nature rambles through the Derbyshire countryside.  I led mock commando nocturnal assaults on ‘enemy positions’ in remote woodlands.  But all of that was just playing at soldiers.  It wasn’t the real thing. 

I needed that frisson of danger.  So I took up rock climbing in North Wales, was terrified, even fell off on a VS climb with the forbidding name of Ivy Sepulchre, but forced myself to climb it again.  I applied for and was awarded an RAF flying scholarship.  In my first cross country solo flight, I got lost in low cloud over Dartmoor and only found my way back by flying 200 feet above the main road to Exeter.  On another occasion, I practiced stalling the aircraft but put it into a spin – the fields rotating in front of me as I dived towards them, but I remembered just in time how to apply full opposite rudder and restore level flight.  Knowing what to do saved me from panic and disaster.  Was all of this brave or was it just doing what was expected of me, proving myself to be worthy of my father’s bravery?  Even when their marriage was coming apart, my mother conceded, ‘your father was a brave man’.  

No doubt all this boy’s own adventure stuff required a kind of courage, a drive to test myself and risk disaster, but it is not the moral courage that Covington was describing.  The soldiers, who obeyed orders and walked through No Mans Land while being raked by machine guns, were incredibly brave but must have felt they had no choice.  It was their duty.  Besides all their mates were doing the same thing; they could not be seen to be cowards.  But the conscientious objectors were also brave; they also stood up for what they believed was right and faced almost certain death by firing squad. The difference lay in the values they embodied: ‘thou shalt defend thy country’ or ‘thou should not kill’.  I remember hearing an interview in which Tony Benn, who resigned his hereditary peerage to campaign for social justice, said how his father instructed him to ‘dare to be a Jonah, dare to stand alone’. Identification with the principles, instilled in us by our parents or teachers, gives us the moral compass that determines our character.

So should we stick to what we believe to be right even when it means betraying one’s friends, society or country?  This challenges our notion of selfhood.  For most people, their notion of ‘who they are’ is constructed with reference to friends, family, community and society at large. So, when faced with a moral dilemma, their duty or need to belong may be stronger than their own convictions.  Covington told the story of a young woman, who was part of a partisan group fleeing the enemy in the forests.  Her baby, just a few weeks old, started crying.  She didn’t hesitate, she took it to the stream and held its head under the water until it was dead.  Was her action brave or an act of cowardice or did she have no choice?  In extremis, people do what they feel they have to do.  

Courage can be an act of moral self defence.  The anorexic defends their independence at the risk of physical survival – she or he is on hunger strike.  Similarly, the freedom fighter risks their life for a cause.  To abandon what we know is right because we are frightened of disapproval, loss or physical danger, or because it is best for our family, may leave us feeling we have let ourselves down. If we do the right thing, we might lose social support for a while or we may even risk our livelihood, but if we don’t do it, the shame and the guilt may haunt us for the rest of our lives.  The problem with being brought up with strong moral principles is that the challenges to live up to them can seem more conflicted and extreme and the burden of shame or guilt after the inevitable moral failure deeper.  It’s not so much what we did that continues to afflict us, it’s what we didn’t do. Soldiers, who survived when their comrades were killed, or holocaust survivors often express a deep sense of guilt.  

Our sense of morality is determined by the ethos of society and it changes with time. I wonder, therefore, whether the concept of bravery still has the same resonance.  One hundred years after ‘the war to end all wars’, do young people still embody the kind of death or glory courage of their great-grandparent’s generation.  Or is contemporary bravery more about being prepared to campaign for social justice, protection of the environment, demilitarisation or liberal principles?  Is it about expressing opinions that may not gain the approval of their Facebook friends?  As ever, their moral compass, as set at least initially by their parents, may encompass ideas of work, financial integrity and self actuation, all of which serve the individual rather than society.  Young people are too aware of the futility of foreign wars to volunteer as they did a hundred years ago.   No less brave when it matters, but more realistic.  

But those of us brought up in the shadow of war may still require some a gesture of valiance.  No – swimming in cold rivers is not bravery, but the ritual morning survival may feel a bit like it …. until the next time.