Many people are talking about ‘fearlessness’, which is great.
But if we curious philosophers of life are going to keep it real, I think we also need to talk about ‘fearsomeness’: the quality of being able to cause fear in another.
My assertion is that the denial of this quality can be the cause of much dysfunction, at both an individual and at a collective level. The world ain't always an easy place to reside, so I'd say it's nigh time we see about (re)cultivating (and/or (re)calibrating) this quality in ourselves.
If we turn our eye to mythology (pardon the pun), would we not think of the one-eyed cyclops as a creature embodying this quality? I think that applies whether we are referring to Hesiod’s three craftsman brothers, Brontes, Steropes and Arges, or Homer’s grizzly cave-dwelling giant Polyphemus.
To offer a bit of colour for those unfamiliar with the mythology, the former brothers were sons of Gaia and Ouranos, who represent respectively earth and sky, the ultimate mother and father. The brothers were the eldest of 12 children, and banished by their father to live at the centre of the earth, a place known as Tartarus.
Upon the unfolding of the battle between the Titans (also sons of Ouranos) and the Olympian gods, Zeus retrieved the cyclopes from Tartarus and called upon them to fashion for him his mighty thunderbolt, to aid him in the battle. They also made other powerful objects including Poseidon’s trident and the helmet belonging to Hades.
The brothers were some of the earliest recognised blacksmiths. They existed on the fringe of society. In these times, it was strange for a man not to labour, hunt nor lead, and their marginality translated to monstrosity.
Now consider Homer’s depiction, the cyclops Polyphemus. He was a giant himself, a shepherd to giant sheep, and dwelt in a cave in the mountains of Sicily.
Unfortunately for him, he became mixed up in the drama of Odysseus’ wild adventure to return to his home of Ithaca when the travelling party found Polyphemus’ empty cave and rudely exploited his rations. After returning from his flock, the giant discovered the trespassers and proceeded to seal the cave before eating some of Odysseus’s journey mates raw. Eventually, Polphemus was tricked into submission by the lost king, and had his single eye pricked out.
It would be fair to say that both Homer and Hesiod’s cyclopes were misfits, exiles, possessing valuable skill and capacity, and possibly even good character in the right context, but not deemed welcome in the world.
Good character you say? Even for Polyphemus, who ate men alive? I can’t know for sure, but I know I have never met a shepherd who lacked at least a thread of good character. If you’re going to work with sheep, you must at the very least possess patience!
Here we have men who are characterised by their wild nature. Who appear scary. So, what do we do with them?
We exile them.
I think this is the problem with fearsomeness. There is a common tendency to exile it.
The temptation is to make it wrong, and to preach kindness as the only way. But kindness is not the only way. Actually, I’m going to suggest that kindness in the absence of discernment is dangerous. Sometimes people do not understand the language of kindness, whether on a conscious or unconscious level. It can be like trying to speak Latin to someone who only understands Chinese.
Meet me in the nuance here; I am not suggesting fearsomeness for every circumstance nor to approach life with ruthless brutality. I’m suggesting that there is a place for being fearsome–for planting fear inside another or simply to say “here is the line, and no further”–and that we might benefit from recovering that quality inside of ourselves instead of disowning it.
My dear old dad, who died when I was 19, leveraged this quality quite well. He took aside my teenage boyfriend and instructed him to conduct himself respectfully when it came to me… or else (have him to answer to)! Now that is fearsomeness in action. Dare I say it, perhaps if he’d lived longer it would have avoided me some romantic drama in my 20s (yes, I dare, partly tongue-in-cheek and partly deadly serious).
During my gap year before starting university, I worked as a clerk in a law firm. The building had two levels, the first with the reception, library and client rooms, and the second the solicitors’ offices and administration. Every morning when my boss would arrive at the front door, the receptionist would buzz the team upstairs and the whole crew would literally run about to be in their places before the boss would make it to the top of the stairs. I can still hear the slow but firm footsteps pacing their way up to us, and feel my heart beating inside my chest as I readied myself for the adrenaline spike of the impending daily briefing. The Devil Wears Prada much? Fearsomeness in the name of order.
But what happens when we lack fearsomeness?
I read last week in an expat support group that a postpartum mother was brushed-off by medical practitioners when she expressed that something did not feel right about discomfort she experienced following her childbirth surgery. It turns out that she had an infection, which could have been caught much earlier if her voice had been heard.
In the early years of my consulting career in a Big4 context, it was suggested to me that it was normal to receive phone calls from investment banks at 2am, 3am, requesting direct action. My average hourly rate back then was probably less than A$10 pre-tax. Upon reflection, I don’t think I should have been available for that nonsense… at least not for that kinda money!
Last year I was accused of stealing someone else’s ideas and threatened with legal action if I did not change the way I talked about my work. I withered under the pressure of the circumstances of the time and threw away a body of work I laboured soulfully to create (not steal). Side note: thank goodness I’m a reservoir of creativity.
I trust the usefulness of being fearsome (and what happens when we’re not) is sufficiently demonstrated here.
And to make sure I say it expressly in case the implication has not been picked up through the mythology nor from my own examples: Fearsomeness that is anchored in love is life-affirmative.
Fearsomeness that is anchored in fear is destructive.
I believe we all possess the capacity for fearsomeness, and that it is important to meet that part of ourselves in truth. This allows for it to be fed by the right source, and as such, create the desired effect when life summons it forward.
Sometimes this personal (re)discovery may be painful, because for those who did so, there was a very good reason for exiling that part in which fearsomeness lives. Our inner cyclops perhaps! Otherness is difficult when you’re a creature who craves belonging. But exiling the exile is not a path of growth nor peace, as it creates a hostile internal environment. The other option, which I would recommend, is coming into right relationship with the exile and validating its relevance in one’s life. That is much more likely to support both growth and peace, and human connection that is based on mutual respect.
So let us not cast the cyclops aside completely. Let us get curious about him and notice what he reflects inside of us, whether that be something that is disowned, suppressed, denied, or perhaps could do with a change in food source.
I'd love to know what this reflection reveals in you.