In the story of Damocles, Cicero said ‘there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms’. But who among us doesn’t have some fear looming?
Tonight I did something that I had been putting off for no other reason than the fear of bad news. The irony was that I took action on the very thing that I had been avoiding, directly because of some bad news received.
For most of us, the lingering fear is something that we have become accustomed to; the dread in the pit of our stomach when the telephone rings with that particular number, the worry when we open our inboxes or our boss slams their door on the way into their office. These are fears we can cope with, we can rationalise and reason, go to battle with as any mythological hero. This is my great beast to slay.
In the quiet of the night it is often the unknown, intangible fears that loom over us with greater menace. The fear of what might be, of what is (or what we think it to be). The fear of all the things that we cannot control or account for or see coming.
in the professional world these fears are heightened because, for most of us, it is our job to see and predict and steer a course around such problems. Like an unending game of 3D chess where the stakes are raised for us and for our clients, patients, colleagues, organisation.
As a lawyer it was my job to seek the diamonds in the rough of the stories I was given and to chart a course to victory through shark infested waters. I saw failure and threat at every turn, not because I was weak or consumed with fear but because it was my job to see and to predict and to avoid.
So for those of us who sit daily under the sword of Damocles, knowing that with too strong a gust of wind that hair will break and the sword will fall, what does that do to us, to our lives, to the way we live them, to the way we relate and create outside of our careers?
For me this has always felt like (to mix my mythological metaphors) Atlas, holding the whole sky on his shoulders. It was my job to ensure all the pieces moved and were held together, holding it all in place whilst everyone else danced upon it.
We spend our careers, and then our lives, trying desperately to make reason out of chaos, order out of entropy. We try to unstir the jam from the pudding and to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We aim for the most unachievable of feats and wonder why we fall short; worse still the effort leaves us too exhausted to conquer the mammoth tasks of holding our private lives together, and so they tear asunder, unpicked by the inability to expend the effort necessary to hold the stitches tight.
Until then, preoccupied by the whys and wherefores and triplicate paperwork of our daily grind, we didn’t even notice that the hair had snapped and the sword had fallen.
What then? Do we smash in to a thousands pieces? Rise from the flames like the phoenix, reborn but ultimately unchanged? Or do we evolve into something greater still, moving beyond fragility and resilience to become - more, better, faster, stronger.
The choice ultimately is yours, whether you choose to rise after the fall, or whether you ever even need that sword to fall in order to make change or, like Dionysis in the story, the mere presence of the sword is enough to have you run screaming for a better alternative.
I don’t believe that the choice is between looming fear and happiness, as Cicero says. Instead it’s noticing the swords above our heads before they have had the chance to fall. Becoming aware of what the real threats are versus the ones we have made for ourselves.
Until it is possible to live free from fear we must instead face those fears, squarely and with purpose, and decide whether they are the swords we can choose to live under, or the ones to flee.