Lessons from Medusa, the Royal Navy, and barnacles
“Who lives in fear will never be a free man.” — Horace, 19 BC
There seems to be a pervasive sense of dread going around right now.
In fact, if you’d like to break it down mathematically, it might look like this:
Unknown + Lack of Control = Uncertainty
But dread seems to go deeper than fear. It’s an almost existential fear that is chronic in nature, rather than the acuteness of fear.
I’ve noticed something about dread: it’s contagious.
When someone shares their fears with you, it’s easy to comfort them, dismiss the fears, or rationalize them in some way.
But with dread, it’s rooted deeper in the psyche — and with good reason.
Author David Kessler is one of the foremost experts on grief, and he explains in this Harvard Business Review article that we're feeling a very specific type of grief:
“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death…Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people.”
Medusa was the ultimate symbol of dread in ancient Greek mythology: she could strike humans with such a powerful sense of fear and dread that they'd turn to stone.
Rooted in the real world, in On the Nature of Things, Lucretius wrote about the pestilence that struck Athens in 430 BC: “the mind was distracted with anguish and dread.”
When you're surrounded by this kind of reality and spend enough time fretting and talking about worst-case scenarios, odds are it will rub off on other people too.
If we’re not careful, we might petrify, just as Medusa’s unsuspecting victims did.
It's all about perspective. As an example, look at what Brad Hunstable tweeted:
Upset about your current situation? Dreading the monotony of a Groundhog Day-like existence? Consider the heroes on the front line and what they're enduring. And the optimism, hope, and faith that we have because of them.
“The man in constant fear is every day condemned.” — Publilius Syrus, c. 50 BC
Just as our habits have been involuntarily altered by the current circumstances, we have the opportunity to wrest control of our thinking and make a determination: do we want to be victims, or do we want to be dreadnoughts?
Join your peers who are on the journey to leadership:
A Brief Lesson in Naval History and Art History
In 1906, the British Royal Navy launched the HMS Dreadnought, a new kind of warship design that was revolutionary; so much so that all such battleships that were similarly outfitted were designated as dreadnoughts. It was a significant milestone in the evolution of naval warfare.
The Royal Navy was the pride of England, and its decisive victories go back centuries. One of the most famous naval battles was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, a critical battle to defend England against France and Spain, as Napoleon’s power grew.
Lord Admiral Nelson knew he had to win at all costs, and attacked the French and Spanish navies in two columns rather than in the traditional parallel line. The British were successful, but Admiral Nelson died of injuries sustained in battle.
The painting at the top, The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W. Turner, depicts one of the last second-rate ships of the line (a ship with 90-98 guns) from the Battle of Trafalgar being towed up the river on its way to being scrapped in 1838.
This too marked a turning point: the Industrial Revolution meant that there would be newer, sleeker ships to support the Royal Navy’s needs. The setting sun and rising moon depicted by Turner indicate as much.
We’re living through one of those historic moments now; it's difficult to see what the other side is going to look like, but we sense that things may never be the same.
I was recently reading an old speech by John Gardner on personal renewal. It’s an exceptional piece — you should read it.
In it, he mentioned how barnacles are faced with an existential decision early on: deciding where they want to spend their lives. Once they plant themselves, that's it.
Fortunately, we have more flexibility to adapt to our environments and to make decisions based on determinations we make.
Here are some decisions you can make to reduce the fear or dread in your life right now:
With all of this uncertainty, there are things that are outside of your control; let go of what you don't control.
The future will arrive in whatever form it's going to take; stay firmly rooted in the present.
You're strong but not everyone will deal with their own anxieties and fears in the same way; express compassion or empathy as you deal with them.
Be less like the barnacle and more like the Royal Navy in your flexibility. And take your cue from some historic British ships: the Resolute, the Defiance, the Dreadnought.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the Internet.