Fear. It’s one of the great unifying human experiences. Whether it’s jumping off a diving board for the first time, learning how to ride a bike, or asking someone out on a date, we all have a roughly similar shared experience of facing things we feared growing up.
But there’s another kind of fear too—a little more subtle, less the feeling of your stomach dropping out, and more the intellectual belief that something could go wrong/ It’s the feeling you get when you find out there’s a Balrog in Morgoth, or that the Dementors are breaking prisoners out of Azkaban. You might not get up and run right then, but make no mistake: there’s a storm coming.
Today, I want to talk about a special time in history when it seemed like the world was about ready to end when it seemed as if life as we know it was about to end under the strain of politics, disease, and personal conflict. I’m speaking, of course, of 450BC.
The Athenians were in a tough spot: they had just gone through a great experiment, that of forming an empire from the previous collection of cities, and were trying to figure out how to construct a government that would last. They faced all sorts of problems worth fearing: most of the political figures were in it for themselves or their factions, and there were many. But as if the power struggles, bribes, and oligarchies weren’t enough, Athens had bigger problems: the Spartans were declaring war, and the Athenians had to decide what they were going to do about it.
With so many things to fear, the Athenians started acting emotionally: some wanted to fight the Spartans head-on, some wanted to sue for peace, others wanted to counterattack. And as conflict mounted, with different powerful members of the assembly yelling over each other, it seemed the entire peace of Athens hung in the balance… When an unusual figure got up to speak: Pericles.
Pericles was different. He didn’t try to talk over other people, or give long epic speeches. And even though he came from a wealthy family, he allied himself with the traders and craftspeople, the working class of Athens. When he spoke, people listened—because he had a knack for finding unusual ways to solve problems that represented the best interests of Athens.
Facing disease (the plague of Athens would take his life two years later), facing his political rivals, facing invaders knocking on the doorstep, here is the wisdom Pericles gave to the Athens: “I fear not the strategies of our enemies, but our own mistakes.” In a brilliant moment of insight, Pericles calmed himself and rose above the natural emotion of the day: fear. He understood that so much of the situation was beyond their control. He couldn’t see inside the minds of his political rivals, couldn’t see inside the minds of the invaders, couldn’t reason with a disease that spread as it wanted.
He realized, instead, that the greatest threat to the Athenians would not from other factors, but the consequences of their own actions. Understand: we too live in a day where we face great uncertainty and threats from many different sources. They are the kinds of things that we fear with good reason. But it is far too easy to let the strategies of our enemies turn us into the very monsters we hate: angry, fearful, and unempathetic to fellow heroes. For these are the kinds of mistakes we make when we focus too much on the thing we’re afraid of.
So as you face uncertain times, the dragons of this day and age, remember: fear not the strategies of your enemies, but your own mistakes.
May the road rise up to meet you!