Conquering fear. Practical tips for us today from the ancient Greek lit on how to overcome our fears and take effective action

Prince Harry, William and Kate have launched a ground breaking campaign to get us all to talk more honestly about our personal problems, and they have also modelled just such behaviour for us.

I’d like to join in that conversation, and talk a little to you about conquering our fears.

“There is nothing to fear, but fear itself,” said F.D. Roosevelt.

I’d like to turn to that trusty old epic, the Iliad, for clues on how we can handle frightening situations.

At the start of Book Ten, we find Agamemnon, King and Commander of the Greek army, unable to sleep. His mind is racing, churning from the stressful situation he is in.

But Agamemnon then goes on to model for us how we can, step by step, come to terms with our fears as well as work out and implement a successful plan.

Agamemnon knows the enemy Trojans are camped close by and could attack any moment, wiping out his exhausted troops.

That may not be our exact problem. But I bet a lot of readers can identify with Agamemnon’s sleeplessness, his feeling of being overwhelmed, trapped, facing impossible odds, seeing no way out.

If you can recall a stressful situation, such as an appointment with an angry boss or bank manager, how did you react? Did you try to bury your emotions? Escape into a fantasy world (TV)?

Or face your fears and work out a plan?

Worn out though he is, Agamemnon gets up in the middle of the night, and looks the danger straight in the eye. He does not deny he has a problem, and his willingness to face his fear is first thing he teaches us to do, too.

“When he turned his eyes to the Trojan’s camp,
he was staggered by the number of fires burning
in front of the fortress of Ilios,
by the shrillness of the flutes and pipes,
and the tumult of people.”

Agamemnon imagines the worst case scenario, namely, that the Trojans could in a surprise night attack overwhelm him and his soldiers. In short, he could die that very night.

Maybe you have also been in this kind of life threatening situation? Or maybe you have felt an existential anguish when you turn your eyes to the pile of work on your desk, the bills you have to pay, contemplate the ravages of divorce, unemployment or too much employment, sickness and death?

In that case, copy Agamemnon, look the threat straight in the eye and consider the worst case scenario. Agamemnon shows us that’s okay to vent emotions like fear, despair, horror, even going so far as to pull our hair at the roots, though that may not improve our appearance.

Allowing ourselves to feel fear is uncomfortable but it will release adrenaline, a powerful source of energy, that enables the otherwise exhausted (you, I and) Agamemnon to figure out a plan and put it into action. If there is no consciously felt fear, there is no adrenaline, no energy, and no life saving action.

Having vented his emotions, his mind starts working. His mind is working, Agamemnon resists the immediate impulse and temptation to do the first think that comes into to mind (like flee on a ship) and decides, instead, to work out a detailed plan. He goes in search of the oldest and most experienced warrior in the camp, Nestor, to think up a “foolproof plan that just might ward off disaster”.

Foolproof, and likely even Trumpproof.

A smart move. The better the preparation, the greater our plan’s chance of success. Faced with a complicated problem, we also should take a deep breath and consult our inner Nestor or another wise and experienced person or source of advice to identify risks, potential problems and consider the many angles needed to overcome them and formulate an effective plan.

Determined to think out a good plan together with his trusted friend, Agamemnon throws on the glossy hide of a big tawny skin, takes up a spear and leaves his quarters. Before copying him and putting on a lion skin, dear readers, think twice, especially if you have to take the tube to work. But you can always put on a mental lion skin, or use any other item symbolizing courage.

Tiger Woods, for example, said he puts on a red shirt when he faces a particularly difficult round of golf, the red symbolizing for him fire, boldness and courage.

Outside, Agamemnon meets his younger brother, Menelaus, who is also unable to sleep for the very same reason and who is prowling around in a leopard’s skin.

Agamemnon and Menelaus talk honestly about the life threatening danger they are both in, allowing them to better process the frightening experience, and support eachother emotionally.

Strengthened and calmed by this communication, they move from easily from being passive sufferers of fate to active agents.

The lesson here, again, is the importance of talking to someone who can empathize and whom you trust about your situation. As Prince Harry said, talk is like medicine. If you have no one to talk to, talk to yourself. Talking, the act of verbalizing allows us to become conscious and aware of our situation and options and increases our mental flexibility.

Agamemnon and the other leaders start to get concrete about their plan. They decide to inspect the guards to make sure they have not fallen asleep, and also to get more information about their enemy by sending out a spy to the Trojan camp.

Checking the guards underscores the importance of paying attention to little details (details like remembering to bring our laptop recharger on a journey or getting an email address right). We might have a great plan, but we have to pay attention also to the tiny details that will allow our plan to be realized.

Sending out a spy to the enemy camp underscores the need for us to find out as much information as we can about the challenge facing us.

Agamemnon choses only his best and most experienced fighter, Diomedes, for the task after weighing all the choices. He shows empathy for Diomedes’ fear and allows him to pick a companion to go with him. Diomedes choses Odysseus.

The lesson here is that we have to be realistic about our limits and abilities, and cut ourselves some slack, when we are about to undertake a stressful task, meet a furious boss, spouse, etc, have to deal with an especially difficult task, and make sure we ask for, and get, the extra support we need whether it is something as simple as an extra cup of tea or something more complicated, like a better computer or work space.

Brave as Diomedes is, he is honest enough to admit to himself and to the other Greeks that he does not want to go to the Trojan camp alone and honest enough to ask for someone else to go with him and for help. He choses the person feels most comfortable and confident with, Odysseus.

The Greeks go over the upcoming mission until they feel confident they know what the risks they are going to encounter are and they are going to be in a position to handle them.

Before leaving the camp, Diomedes asks the goddess Athena for help, showing the importance of focusing on positive thoughts of success, and shutting out negative thoughts.

In this positive frame of mind, Diomedes and Odysseus sneak out across the strip of black land covered in corpses towards the enemy camp…

Meanwhile, the leader of the Trojans, Hector, has sent out a spy, too. But Hector, elated perhaps at his success in battle, lets down his guard. Hastily, without considering the consequences, he allows someone without pluck or nerve to carry out the mission, promising Dolon the legendary horses of Achilles and his chariot if he succeeds.

Hector illustrates the danger of acting too quickly in a stressful situation.

Lacking all capacity for introspection and circumspection, Dolon rushes out into the night only to be seen by Diomedes and Odysseus.

Dolon also illustrates the danger of impulsive action, of rushing at a problem without thinking things through.

Their fear in check, their minds working clearly, Odysseus and Diomedes lay a careful trap for Dolon and catch him.

Facing the threat of death, Dolon turns into a quivering sheet of terror. Thinking only of how he can save himself, Dolon betrays everything he knows aboutthe Trojan camp. Diomedes then kills Dolon with a swift blow, rehearsing the timeless truth that calculating cowardice never pays. That part of our inner pysches that will survive are Odysseus and Diomedes and not Dolon.

Armed with Dolon’s information, Diomedes and Odysseus are able to sneak into the Trojan camp, capture the best Trojan horses and chariots and return to the Greek camp.

Finally, Odysseus makes a sacrifice to Athena, underlining the importance of recognising the frailty of all human beings and their reliance on higher spiritual powers for help.

We’re going to finish with a short multiple choice quiz to see how much you have absorbed about Agamemnon and fear.

Question 1

If you were facing a camp full of heavily armed and angry Trojan warriors, who could attack you any moment while you are sleeping, would you

a) turn over in bed and go back to sleep
b) plug in your walkman and listen, resigned, to Wagner’s Valkyrie
c) get out of bed and look at the enemy camp and feel terror

Question 2

If you find yourself in a life threatening, terrifying situation, would you

a) do nothing, freeze, paralysed
b) do the first thing that comes to mind
c) resolve to work out a plan after acknowleding your emotions
Question 3

What might the benefits of talking honestly about your situation to a sympathetic person e?

a) none
b) some, but is worth the embarrassment of having to admit I am not totally self sufficient?
c) lots, show me that person

Question 4

Once you have worked out a plan to tackle a problem, should you just dash at it or

a) take time to think out the details
b) take time to consider the scenarios and chose the best tools
c) make sure you have the support you need

Question 5

If you were to meet an immediate setback and catch an enemy spy Dolon sneaking across to your camp at night, would you

a) run away in terror, imagining thousands of Trojans are following him
b) laugh at him for daring to think he can capture Achilles’ horses
c) sympathize with him

If you have answered all those questions correctly, you are now an honorary Greek warrior.

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