Courage, Plato said, is knowing what ought to scare you, and what ought not to.
What Plato said reminds me of the time I was driving home from the JFK airport in a rainstorm so ferocious that one passed a succession of ghostly cars, disabled on the shoulder — heaps in the mist.
“Lord,” I prayed, “please don’t let me be so scared that I can’t see the road!”
Years later, I was spending an afternoon in Manhattan on the day all the lights went out. When the blackout started, it was still day. The buses went off duty, no cabs were in sight and I have a walking handicap. With difficulty, I dragged myself up the long blocks west to the Port Authority bus terminal, hoping to catch a bus to Pennsylvania, where I then lived. When I finally got to the doors, the Port Authority had locked them.
What to do? A nearby restaurant had a restroom (by then a concern) but it was unavailable for stranded city people.
I’m a streetwise New Yorker, so I know what trouble looks like. A handicapped person attracts predators. To discourage them, you keep moving. I could no longer do that. This was serious trouble. I perched on the rim of a potted tree and tried to pray.
In the circumstances, it was hard to quiet the mind, but with persistence I got that done. The guidance I received said this:
Stay right where you are!
“Stay right where I am, Lord? I’m nowhere.”
In fact, worse than nowhere. Within earshot stood a crew of men whose vulgar jokes about my City in its peril would ordinarily impel me to move away from them.
Puzzled, scared and precariously perched on the cement rim, I stayed put. For a good while, nothing happened. Eventually, a van drove up and parked nearby. The driver got out and began to round up the vulgar men, waving them toward the back of his van.
“Are you going to New Jersey?” I asked the driver.
“Yes, but only as far as West Orange.”
Family friends lived, or used to live, in West Orange. If they didn’t live there any more, at least I could call Jerry, my husband, from wherever the driver set me down. Whatever happened, there would be no chance at safety till I got across the river.
“Would you take me there?”
“You’ve got guts,” he said, as I climbed in. “After all, this is a van full of men. You don’t know me.”
I looked at him. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for the others, but he looked all right to me. I’ve hitchhiked from the North Sea to the Aegean.
“You’ll be okay,” the driver said to me reassuringly. “I’m a Rotarian.”
At the West Orange bus terminal, the rest room was just closing. I told the guy with the broom that I would very much appreciate a chance to use that facility. The people I knew in West Orange were still at the number I had and – astonishingly — the pay phone worked. The old friends and I visited until Jerry picked me up.
Courage is knowing what – and what not – to fear.