The Unruliness of Our Minds

Construction of Xerxes Bridge of boats by Phoenician sailors.

I used to work in the Information Systems Department of a large insurance company in the US. One morning, I arrived at work to find a colleague vigorously punching his computer terminal. He struck the metal casing several solid blows. Once he had settled down a bit, I walked over to ask him what was wrong. I forget, now, the details of his answer. But, it was along the lines that he had submitted to run overnight a program that took a long time to complete. It had ended abnormally (abended). Or, perhaps the operators in the computer room had canceled his job before it finished. I can’t remember which. He was under a lot of pressure and was, understandably, frustrated.

The man was knowledgeable, quite an accomplished computer programmer, skilled in logic, and several computer languages. He also worked hard on being a religious man, much of his effort focused on being soft-spoken and peaceful. Nevertheless, in these circumstances, he found himself taking out his anger on a physical object that had nothing to do with the real source of his disappointment, the job’s not completing. I think this is not uncommon, that is, punishing the wrong thing.

Sometimes, when I am angry, I will close a door with more force than is required to shut it, or clap my hands together loudly, or strike my breast several times with my fist. At these times, my voice often reveals a range that I wish I could duplicate when trying to sing. In none of these cases am I addressing the genuine cause of my frustration. I am acting in the same manner as my co-worker at the insurance company.

Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, relates a fascinating story about Xerxes during the second, failed invasion of Greece. The first invasion failed under his father, Darius. Xerxes needed to cross from Asia to Europe to get to Greece. To do so, he had to cross the Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles. Today, the strait separates European Turkey from Asian Turkey.

The plan was to build a pontoon bridge across the strait at its narrowest point. Because of the size of Xerxes’ army and the need to keep it supplied as it traveled, the decision was to build two bridges to be crossed simultaneously. One for use by the military, the second for use by the supply train. Once across, the two divisions would march side by side, ensuring the army stayed well-supplied on its journey to Greece. Modern armies have found themselves in situations where the army’s advance outstripped its supply source. Often, this has led to the invading army’s pillaging the countryside, taking food, and other necessities from the indigenous population.

Well, as luck would have it, Xerxes’ two bridges were successfully built, but subsequently destroyed by a storm. So, what’s a frustrated king to do? According to Herodotus, this is what he did.

Xerxes was very angry when he learned of the disaster, and gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes and have a pair of fetters thrown into it. I have heard before now that he also sent people to brand it with hot irons. He certainly instructed the men with the whips to utter, as they wielded them, the barbarous and presumptuous words: ‘You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you. But Xerxes the King will cross you, with or without your permission. No man sacrifices to you, and you deserve the neglect by your acid and muddy waters.’ In addition to punishing the Hellespont Xerxes gave orders that the men responsible for building the bridges should have their heads cut off.

Herodotus. The Histories (Penguin Classics). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Well! Xerxes acted, though on a much grander scale, along the same line as my co-worker punching his terminal, or me slamming a door. The French essayist, Montaigne, wrote a piece on this topic, titled “How the soul discharges its emotions against false objects when lacking real ones.” However, as always, his wisdom exceeds that of most ordinary men. He understands the source of the underlying problem.

But we shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds.

Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 21). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

The unruliness of our minds!

Being cloistered with others for an extended period provides ample opportunity to work on the unruliness of our minds, to explore different and better ways of responding to frustration.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.

One thought

  1. I used to hit the computer keyboard if things went wrong, but i haven’t done that for a long time now. As you say it’s a common response to lash out in some way to express frustration and can feel quite satisfying for about a minute though obviously it isn’t actually productive or useful.

    Juliet
    http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

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