Collapsing Fear

Once as Pericles shoved off 150 ships in the Peloponnesian War, the sun was eclipsed and his men were thrown into fear. To prevent their paralyzation, he walked up to a lead steersman, removed his cloak and held it up around the man’s face. He asked if he felt particularly afraid of this and of course the response was no. So what does he matter, he said, when the cause of the darkness differs?

You read this and you smile. The Greeks were so clever. Or, like Von Clausewitz, you dismiss it as self-serving translation – a way to use history to say something obvious. But that very much belies the incredible implications of the idea. Beneath the quaint leadership-in-action anecdote is the fundamental notion that girds not just Stoic philosophy but cognitive psychology. It’s the idea that if you can break apart something, it loses its power over you. In cog psych, only when you’re aware of a bias or conditioned response can you circumvent it.

Fear is debilitating, distracting, tiring and often irrational. Pericles, understood this completely, and he was able to use the power of analogy to defeat it.

I was talking to a friend who wanted to try making it as a musician after graduating from college. He was afraid, he said. Having been there and wrecked with that same consuming anxiety, we looked at it. Have you ever, ever heard of someone starving to death in California? Or dying of exposure? Or some college graduate remarking 60 years later that their entire life was ruined by the year they took off, intending to get serious after? When he moved out of his college apartment and headed home to drop some of his stuff off, how long was he planning to hang out and relax before he got serious about a job? A month? Two, or three? So what’s 10 more? People get sick or distracted or go on benders for that long.

The point is that with blurred vision and a black light, the straw man looks imposing and overwhelming. At a closer glance and a few questions it collapses and falls upon itself. As a man – as someone different – that is your job. You’re to break down, piece by piece, the things that have control of you.

Ultimately, the difference between recklessness and controlling your disposition comes down to whether the person has systematically dismantled the cognitive processes or just ignored them. In my opinion, there’s not admirable about a fearlessness or calm that comes from being oblivious or negligent. It’s simply a more productive mental illness than anxiety and overthinking. The repercussions surface inevitably. It’s dangerous and stupid.

The real Freedom from Perturbation comes from collapsing fear upon itself. From examining its causes and looking at them individually rather than collectively. What the Greek understood was that we often choose the ominous explanation over the simple one, to our detriment. The task, as Pericles showed, is not to ignore fear but to explain it away. Take what you’re afraid of – when fear strikes you – and break it apart.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.