Courage Comes With Practice When Theresa MacPhail was 4 years old, her brother was killed in an accident. Devastated, MacPhail's mother became obsessed with protecting her only surviving child. As an adult, MacPhail came to believe that courage is a muscle that must be developed by facing fears.

Courage Comes With Practice

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Unidentified Man #1: I believe in mystery.

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe in feelings.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe in being who I am.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the power of failure.

Unidentified Man #4: And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Unidentified Man #5: This I believe.


Fear can be irrational or it can be justified. But it's hard to overcome and often hard to talk about. Our This I Believe essay today comes from Theresa McPhail. She's a medical anthropologist at U.C. Berkeley, and she does field work in China specializing in bird flu. Her work requires a certain amount of courage, a quality sustained by her belief.

Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON: Theresa McPhail said that most people would never know she was a nervous person. They might even think of her as intrepid. She rarely tells people about some of the things she wrote of in her essay, and was a little afraid to speak of them, which is why she did it. Here is Theresa McPhail with her essay for This I Believe.

Ms. THERESA McPHAIL (Medical Anthropologist): I believe that embracing fear produces courage. After my brother died in an accident, my mother was inconsolable. I was only 4 years old at the time, but I still understood the seismic shift in my mom's attitude toward safety. Suddenly, everything around us was potentially dangerous. Overnight, the world had gone from a playground to a hazardous zone.

I grew up with a lot of restrictions and rules that were meant to protect me. I couldn't walk home from school by myself, even though everyone I knew already did. I couldn't attend pajama parties or go to summer camp, because what if something happened to me? As I got older, the list of things to fear got longer. My entire life was divided into things you should avoid and things you needed to do in order to have a good, long life. I know my mom was only trying to protect me. She worried about me because after my brother died, I was her only child, and what if something happened to me? What if?

I became a natural worrier. I worry about things like getting cancer, losing my wallet, car accidents, earthquakes, having a brain aneurysm, losing my job and my plane crashing, disasters big and small, real and imagined. The funny part is you'd never know it by looking at my life, because I'm constantly forcing myself to do the things that frighten or worry me.

In fact, I've developed a rule for myself. If it scares me, then I have to do it at least once. I've done lots of things that my mom would have worried about. I've ridden a motorcycle. I've traveled a lot. In fact, I've lived in China. I've performed stand-up comedy, and I'm planning my second wedding. I still travel to China often, chasing bird flu as a medical anthropologist.

There's something else I don't usually talk about, but it's a cornerstone in my belief. When I was 14, my mother died suddenly in a car accident. That loss, on top of my brother's unnatural death, could have paralyzed me, but at my mom's funeral, I remember making a choice. I could either live out the rest of my life trying to be safe or I could be brave enough to live out a fulfilling, exciting and, yes, sometimes dangerous life.

I worry that I may have betrayed my mother by writing about her in this light, but she has been a driving force in my life and in the end, I think she would have been proud of me. Courage isn't a natural attribute of human beings. I believe that we have to practice being courageous. Using courage is like developing a muscle. The more often I do things that scare me or that make me uncomfortable, the more I realize that I can do a lot more than I originally thought I could do.

Even though I inherited my mother's cautious nature, I've also come to believe that fear can be a good thing, if we face it. Believing that has made my world a less scary place.

ALLISON: Theresa McPhail with her essay for This I Believe. McPhail said her family's story sometimes feels like a movie with a plot you can't believe. In fact, her father also died an accidental death. But she keeps telling herself lightning won't strike four times in a row and refuses to live in fear.

We hope you'll consider telling us the story of your belief. Find out more and see all the essays on our series at

For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

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