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.
A very good read. I’m in a similar position to your friend. Having studied engineering for 5 years I’m now just starting to try and make a name for myself as a musician.
What’s great about de-constructing fear is that it helps not only for long term goals (musicianship) but also short term goals (daily interaction).
The first sentence needs some more copyediting.
I think this is one of your best pieces of work. Your writing seems to get better if you write less frequent and i hope your keep your good work up. I always enjoyed your writing.
Even though i want to take a few month off after graduation.)
There’s nothing wrong with taking time off after graduation
Well said, Ryan.
I’ve always liked this approach to understanding and overcoming fear. It seems that fear is often more a matter of uncertainty than of the actual worst-case-scenario outcome. If one can envision the most dire outcome of an action, accept those consequences and visualize the necessary response then one has no reason to fear.
I’ve seen deconstruction used as a means of regaining control in regards to passions and desires as well.
For example, if you desire a woman to the extent that it controls your state of mind, visualize one particular aspect of her body. Mentally zoom in on that one desirable spot, as far as seeing nothing more than the pores on a tiny portion of skin or a few threads of fabric, and eventually you break down what had been an overwhelming thing into an understandable, controllable image.
If you’ve ever been captivated by a girl’s eyes and then had to get within inches and help her find and remove a speck of sand from her eye you probably understand this effect.
“As a man, that is your job. You’re to break down, piece by piece, the things that have control of you.” Copy. Paste. Saved.
I don’t think the analogy fits and I don’t think what you’re saying works completely. Cognitive psych doesn’t work all (or even a majority?) of the time. Pericles wasn’t explaining away, or breaking down, the thing the steersman feared- he wasn’t explaining ‘hey, it’s just the sun and moon aligning, nothing to fear.’ He was giving him an alternate way of understanding the situation- he gave him an example of the same kind of experience the man had gone through that he could cope with without any fear and got him to think of it that way.
Though it’s all very well to figure out why we are afraid,so we can then attempt to deal with it in some way, ONLY breaking it down doesn’t necessarilly make the fear subside. For me, doing only this makes me hyper aware of the situation and heightens the fear.
Why do you think he’s giving him an alternative way of understanding the situation? Because one is fearful and the other isn’t. In other words, he’s using the man’s contradicting beliefs to collapse the fear he has upon itself.
Cognitive therapy seeks to do a similar think. To find the mistaken assumptions in your mental processes, show you an alternative and slowly work towards interrupting that harmful cycle.
I’m confused, how does being aware of why you’re afraid – if it’s not for good reason – make you more afraid?
Ryan and Erika understand the steersman’s fear to be be different things. Erika feels that he was afraid of the mere prescence of an eclipse while Ryan thinks that the man was afraid of the ensuing darkness. Therefore, Erika could say Pericles wasn’t assuaging the man’s fear by expaining the mechanics of the eclipse and Ryan could maintain that the anecdote is relevent.