“He that fights and runs away,
May turn and fight another day;
But he that is in battle slain,
Will never rise to fight again.”
So wrote Tacitus one of the greatest Roman generals and historians of his age.
Was this extraordinarily brave and accomplished general/historian sending a message forward to centuries after his death on the value of running away? How could armies exist if everyone stood and fought to the last combatant? Were those soldiers who ran cowards or pragmatic and doing their best to keep the battle going?
They couldn’t continue to fight if the army were decimated. Leaving the field before oblivion was the wisest choice. It was a message both of self-preservation as well as acting for the good of the cause. It would seem so.
But running away from anything, such as those soldiers in the Tacitus quote, has received nothing but negative comments. Reviled as a coward is one of the most stinging comments that can be made about anyone. Think of the young private in The Red Badge of Courage who flees the battlefield.
The word coward is a sword piercing the heart of the intended, and it is meant to do just that. It is a ruinous word and one which can bring about distressing consequences for its object.
Consider the case of Judas and his cowardly act of signaling to the Romans who the leader of the Christian rebels was by kissing Jesus on the cheek. Was this an act of avarice because of the pieces of silver he would receive, a betrayal, or was he doing his preordained actions?
Most of us see him as a cowardly traitor. Reading works of religious scholars would lead you to consider that it was not an act of betrayal but something else; the request of Jesus.
The Too-Hasty Use of a Word
Hastily using the word “coward” is an exercise in foolishness in my professional opinion. And yet, I see articles describing the psychology of cowardice in which the writer provides a lopsided view.
One article, printed in the 19th century predictably lambasted anyone who did not act in an overly heroic manner in any interaction connected with fear. No one needs to be a psychologist to know that fear is one of our prime motivators.
Fear is intimately involved in forming long-term memories that are particularly tormenting and resistant to removal. Encounter a fearsome situation once, and you are likely to fear it for the rest of your life.
We’ve seen a sterling example of this in the development of the diagnostic category of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Before the establishment of this diagnosis, there was “battle fatigue,” “shell shock,” or other variants indicating a form of emotional distress tied to mental weakness.
I knew of a family where the father came home from World War II after his landing boat had struck the shore in Europe. He was in the water when he experienced an extremely stressful attack of fear that produced a catatonic state.
The man was immediately rushed to a hospital, and shortly after that sent home where he spent the remainder of his life in his home, never leaving it for one moment. His hair was cut by the barber who came to the house.
Anyone who wanted to see him had to go to the house because he would not leave or even open the front door. The fear never left him, and he was an underweight, trembling shell of a man.
The Appropriateness of “Cowardice”
Just as being obsessive might be helpful in some situations or letting things go in the sense of procrastination might facilitate thinking, the question of cowardice is not always as it would appear. Framing or reframing is the key here, and that is what seems to be missing in many cases. What do I mean by framing?
Psychologists know that situations can be viewed in several different perspectives and how we look at it is the “frame” that we use to give it meaning. If we look at an action as being cowardly rather than being an act of self-preservation and a good one at that, we are in error. Remember the words of Tacitus don’t have to apply solely to the battlefield.
Breaking up with someone over the phone or in a letter is not appropriate, but is it cowardice? Could it also have its positive points, too? Might there be unexpected physicality associated with it, and this is the safest move? No, I’m not advocating for the absence of manners or consideration for the other person’s feelings. Pragmatism might be the frame here.
Call It What It Is
Putting yourself down for things you did or didn’t do does what for you? Are you any better for beating yourself up?
What do you need to ask yourself? Yes, this is a personal quest for meaning in your actions, and it does require absolute honesty. True, it’s difficult being honest with emotional matters, and fear is emotional.
Sit quietly and think over what you’ve done and see if it might be framed in another way. No, not one that lets you off the hook, but one where there’s another reason you acted as you did, and it’s not only in a cowardly frame.
What was the environment? Who was there? What was said or not said, and how was it interpreted? Where were you going, or what were you hoping to accomplish?
Question, question, and then think of ways you might want to handle it differently in the future. Or would you do the same thing because it was the best choice? What, in the words of Star Trek, is the prime directive here? Without a doubt, it’s self-preservation, but it shouldn’t be destructive to another.
I’m reminded of the famous bystander effect in a social psychology experiment that took place on a NY subway train where a passenger became ill. The number of people in the car determined whether help was given or not.
How do you suppose those who didn’t help felt once they left the train even though they didn’t know it was an experiment? They probably felt awful or convinced themselves that someone else helped, so they didn’t need to help. Framing, all of it is framing.
One word about psychology experiments needs to be placed here. Everything you’ve read about the famous subway experiment or the horrid Kitty Genovese murder in Queens isn’t the complete truth. All of it has been tweaked to suit the needs of the storyteller. Again, framing it as they needed.