Courage is a Three Letter Word
Part autobiography, part self-help book, part celebrity profile, part meditation on success and emotional health, Walter Anderson's Courage is a Three Letter Word has been an inspiration to countless people since it was first published in 1986. It begins with a famous interview question directed to John Ehrlichman, a former Nixon aide and disgraced player in the Watergate scandal. With uncommon but characteristic candor, Anderson asks Ehrlichman why he hasn't killed himself. Ehrlichman takes a deep breath and tells the story of what he went through in the face of national scorn and how he found the will to rebuild his life.
Ehrlichman's is only one of many personal narratives weaved through this book. Anderson interviews highly successful people such as John Glenn, Barbara Walters, Jerry Lewis, Carroll O'Connor and asks them the kind of direct questions that stir them to discuss the anxieties and insecurities that have plagued them and how they found the courage to overcome those anxieties and insecurities.
One of the best things about the book is the surprising way it interweaves different narratives. Anderson's chapter on John Glenn, for example, discusses how the Senator was able to overcome different kinds of obstacles ranging from an accident that thwarted his first attempt at running for public office to a mishap during one of his historic space flights. Glenn candidly talks about these events, and Anderson uses the episodes to illustrate a point he returns to throughout the book: the difference between anxiety (concern about an unpredictable future) and fear (an emotion provoked by immediate danger). What is interesting and telling is how the focus of the chapter abruptly shifts to Glenn's wife Annie, whom Glenn singles out as the most courageous person he knows of. A lifelong stutterer, Annie learns how to conquer her fear and her affliction, becoming a talented public speaker.
The point Anderson makes in his chapters is that anxiety and insecurity exist in all of us, prominent persons and ordinary citizens alike. But so does the courage to overcome that which holds us back. Perhaps the most touching tale of all is Anderson's own, which he relates through different intimate anecdotes over the course of the book. With remarkable frankness, Anderson tells how he went from being a high-school dropout to editor of Parade magazine. His story is how an ordinary man struggled to face his feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing and prevailed.