Socrates and Seneca are enjoying each other’s company at the philosopher’s sports bar when Socrates confesses to his mate that he has a problem that is driving him nuts. Little did Socrates think that he was about to get an earful of stoic philosophy from the “hard-man” Roman.
Socrates: Mate. I can’t stand it. Its driving me nuts. I love playing rugga, but these pre-game nerves are not only ruining my fun at the game, but they are making my entire week, especially my weekend, miserable.
Seneca: You can’t be serious. It can’t be that bad.
Socrates: It’s bad enough that I spew before every game. Sometimes I spew at home before I even get in the car to come to the game. I spew in the car park when I arrive at the ground. I spew in the dressing room while I am getting changed. I have one more spew while lining up in the tunnel before running onto the field. To make matters worse one or two of the other blokes have started spewing in sympathy. Who ever heard of copycat vomiting?
When new guys join the team, they stare at me in horror until one of my mates says “Ah don’t worry about old Socrates… he’s just puking. He does that all the time.” I don’t really care that it pisses of my teammates… and I am not really that worried about the embarrassment of it all. The thing that pisses me off is that it makes the build up to the game unbearable. I have come to hate Saturday mornings. Now I love and hate playing rugby at the same time!
Seneca: Geez, mate. I had no idea. That’s rough.
Socrates: And do you know what else is rough? I know… I just know… that being sick with nerves causes me to play way less well than I know I can. On the few rare occasions when I have come to a game totally relaxed, I have played the best footy I have ever played. All that bullshit about nerves being good is just that. Bullshit. Nerves don’t make me play better. Nerves kill it for me. Sap my energy. Rip the heart out of my confidence. It’s a frikkin nightmare.
Seneca: Shit, Socrates. It’s only a game of footy. Why do you think you get so nervous?
I am terrified that I am shit!
Socrates: I’m not sure Seneca. There are lots of reasons, I guess. If I am totally honest, I guess it’s because I really want to be good. It’s performance anxiety, I suppose. I really want to play well. I want to win every scrum. I want to get heaps of turnovers at the break down. I want to rip through the defence. I want to smash the opposition! I want to be the best fucking player on the field. And deep down… I am terrified that I am just shit. I am scared that I can’t do any of these things. Deep down I am terrified that everyone will see that I am a big fraud. A useless toad.
Seneca: Holy crap, mate. That’s nuts.
Socrates: I know.
Seneca: I have this mate, Lucilius, who got himself into some deep shit a few months back and he was just as sick with worry as you have been lately. Something went wrong with a business deal and this other bloke decided to sue him over it. Lucilius was scared shitless. Terrified. The way he saw it was that if the court case didn’t go his way, he would lose everything… his business, his house, his wealth, his family and even his reputation. He wrote me this long letter asking for advice. I thought about his worries long and hard and this is what came to me. Maybe it will mean something to you. Maybe it’s just bullshit, but it made sense to me.
Socrates: I’m desperate, Seneca. Tell me what you came up with.
Seneca: I told Lucilius that I was going to tell him the exact opposite of what he might expect to hear or what he might want to hear. I could have told him that everything was going to be fine… that he was going to present the information to the court clearly and that the court would see that he had done nothing wrong and that it would find in his favour. Nup. That would have been too easy. Instead, I told him to imagine that the outcome of his hearing was going to be the worst result imaginable. I asked him what the very worst possible outcomes could be.
“I could be exiled!”
“Geez, mate. Way to make me feel a whole lot better,” he said. “Thanks a million! But since you are interested in the bad news I could be exiled, I guess, or put in prison… and lose every penny that I have.”
I replied “So, if you ended up broke you would be one skint bloke among thousands of other poor people. If you ended up exiled, you could just remind yourself that others were born in the place where you were sent, and you could pretend you were one of them for a while? If you ended up in chains, aren’t we all in chains pretty much all of the time anyway?”
The point is, brother, that Lucilius was in deep shit and he had plenty of reason to be sad but no reason at all to be hysterical. If I had tried to paint a rosy picture for him about how everything was going to be okay how would that have helped him if things didn’t work out okay. Besides, my soft-soaping him would have implied that the worst possible result was life-threatening and disastrous rather than just plain old shit.
Socrates: Yeah. I see what you mean. But does that really apply in my situation?
Seneca: Oh, I dunno? Maybe? What is the very worst possible outcome of you playing just as crap as you fear you might?
Puking kinda makes sense when you are about to be executed
Socrates: Hmmm. People could laugh at me. I could be dropped from first grade to seventh grade. People could lose their respect for me.
Seneca: Yup. If people laughed at you that would hurt. Sure. It would be horrible… but disastrous? Puking kinda makes sense when you are about to be executed… not so much when you are afraid some arsehole might laugh at you. And ask yourself, do I really want the respect of the kind of person who laughs at others?
What about being dropped to seventh grade? How disastrous would that be?
Socrates: Well, I would way prefer to play in first grade, but the 7ths would not be a death sentence… and it would have some positives. I would score plenty of tries. I would win practically every scrum. I would create lots of turnovers. I would have lots of fun under no pressure! And at half time the 7th grade team have tea and scones instead of water and oranges. It’s not all bad. Come to think of it a high school mate played all of his school-boy footy in seventh grade and only a couple of years later was not only playing first grade for his district club but got a few runs playing for his state team as well.
Seneca: That’s it really, Socrates. It may not help your anxiety and your spewing, but it may. Think about the very worst consequences of your playing really badly then ask yourself if that would be such a disaster. You will most likely discover that sadness or disappointment is more appropriate than hysteria!
“You think you’re a failure, do you? Well, you probably are!”
Oh, and by the way. At least one other philosopher I know thinks that failure… especially a big failure… is something worth celebrating. I was down the pub the other day with Tom Robbins and we were talking about me fucking up and being crap at stuff and he said this to me…
“So, you think that you’re a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What’s wrong with that? In the first place, if you’ve any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it.”
In his world I suspect that enjoying a cup of tea and a scone (with strawberry jam and whipped cream) at half time in a 7th grade game to celebrate missing lots of tackles and dropping lots of passes in the first half would be much more heroic and admirable than being the star of the 1st grade team. Maybe he has a point. Mind you, he would probably think that puking in the dressing room is cool too.
Footnote: As some of the above images point out, Socrates is not alone in experiencing pre-game paralysis. Bill Russell, Leo Messi and Jonny Wilkinson are just a few of the elite athletes who go nuts with anxiety before matches.