Dealing with disaster


Chapter 7 in Hannibal and Me is titled “Dealing with disaster”. So, how does the Hannibalic story tell us to deal with it?

First, a reminder about the premise of my book: I use stories of real people to make universal points. Put differently, I use the people in the stories to personify lessons (but you, the reader, ultimately have to adapt the lessons to your own life.).

The first personification of responding to disaster in life is named Quintus Fabius Maximus. (From the picture above, you may have guessed that by the end of the chapter he will have a “twin” in Ernest Shackleton, as I explain below).

As I introduce Fabius on page 144 ff., he

came from one of the oldest and noblest families of Rome, the Fabii, who claimed they could trace their ancestry back to Hercules. But Hercules was not exactly the first image that came to mind when looking at Fabius himself. When he was a boy, one of his nicknames was Verrucosus — “Warty” — because he had a big wart on his lip. Another nickname in his youth was Ocivula, “Lamb,” because he had an unusually mild temper for an aristocratic Roman boy. He did everything slowly. He spoke slowly, walked slowly, learned slowly. He was bad at sports in a society that was all about athletic, virile, and martial games. Young Fabius was in almost every way the exact opposite of young Hannibal. …

And yet the Romans gradually changed their minds about the warty, lamblike Fabius. As the boy grew into a man, that same slowness began to look like steadiness and prudence…

He was already in his forties when [the Romans] first elected him consul. As senator or elder statesman, five times as consul and twice as elected “dictator,” Fabius remained one of the republic’s leaders for the rest of his life.

By the time the young and dashing Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy, Fabius was already in his sixties. … Fabius had never encountered such an enemy. What, Fabius reflected in his slow and methodical way, should he, and Rome, make of Hannibal?

And then, of course, the disasters began. Battle after battle in which Hannibal routed Roman armies that outnumbered him. Rout is the wrong word. Hannibal exterminated Roman armies, he depleted the Roman population of men, of senators, of sons, of fathers. From the Roman point of view, Hannibal represented the extinction of Rome.

How Hannibal did that — how he won those battles — I deal with in the preceding two chapters. But in Chapter 7, I’m looking at these events purely from Fabius’s side, so that we can understand how to deal with disaster.

And Fabius offers us a psychologically layered answer. Page 146:

… The younger Roman leaders found this hard to admit, but Fabius simply accepted that Hannibal was superior on the battlefield. That premise led Fabius to a simple but shocking conclusion: if going to battle against Hannibal meant losing, it was clearly not a good policy to go to battle against him at all. …

In these extreme circumstances, Fabius decided, the strategic definition of success was no longer victory but stalemate. In his slow and methodical way, Fabius thus determined that Hannibal’s stunning triumphs on the battlefield might yet lead to nothing. They might be impostors.

So what were the elements of his response, of “the Fabian response” in the language of my archetypes?

Page 153:

There are two aspects to a Fabian character that make it resilient and that you might remember if ever disaster should strike you. The first is the ability to accept reality for what it is. The second is the ability to stop resisting reality and instead to flow with it until circumstances begin to change.

1) Acceptance

From page 154:

Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance: these are the stages that make up the human “grief cycle” described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a twentieth-century Swiss doctor who spent her time caring for dying people…

Losing your job, losing your house to foreclosure, being diagnosed with cancer, getting divorced — any bereavement, failure, or other disaster triggers the psychological responses of the grief cycle. But people move through the grief cycle in different ways. Some progress swiftly, others get stuck at one stage, and yet others cycle back and forth through them. …

Page 157:

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

I illustrate this wrenching process in this chapter by looking at Eleanor Roosevelt, who suffered through the grief-cycle after discovering the love letters between her husband and their secretary, Lucy Mercer. Roosevelt literally cried and raged it out, while sitting for hours and days and weeks in a park, gazing at the female face of a statue called … Grief.

2) Flowing (or “non-doing”)

As Fabius himself said (to a consul who would soon be killed because his co-commander refused to heed this advice): “Can you then doubt that inactivity is the way to defeat an enemy?”

Page 158:

One translation of Minucius’s [a Roman rival to Fabius] taunt about Fabius’s do-nothing tactics into Chinese is wu wei, which means “nondoing” or “doing by not doing.” Wu wei happens to be a central concept of “the way,” the Tao, in Chinese philosophy. This Taoist notion of wu wei, nondoing, is often mistaken for passivity, which it is not. Instead, nondoing is really a very active way of letting inevitable things happen without wasting energy resisting them, instead bringing one’s own position into harmony with this flow of nature. The principle of wu wei might say, for instance, that is is better to use a rushing stream to spin a wheel and transfer its energy than to block the stream and try to make it stop flowing. Or it might say that a skipper is better off tacking through the wind than trying to go against it, which would be futile. Indeed the best skippers often look, as Fabius did, as though they were “doing nothing”….

I then illustrate this point by looking at Ernest Shackleton, who (page 161),

decided to cross the entire Antarctic continent on foot. It was as daring in 1914 as it had been in 218 BCE for Hannibal to Cross the Alps…

But, as you all know, Shackleton failed at his quest, when his ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the ice.

Page 162:

Shackleton’s first reaction was to order his crew to do what heroes normally do: fight. The men climbed onto the ice and hacked away at it with picks, trying to open a sea-lane. But it was useless…

They now spent the Antarctic winter on their ship, which was frozen into its ice pack. No light, eternal darkness. All the stages of Kübler-Ross’s Grief Cycle.

Then the ice crushed the Endurance, and the men watched as their ship sank. Page 164:

Suddenly, the men were all alone, floating on ice somewhere near the South Pole.

Shackleton announced new plans of daring and heroic resistance: they would march, while dragging their own life boats, across the ice toward an islet, covering roughly the distance from San Francisco to Loas Angeles. Page 164-165:

After three hours of hard toil, they had moved one mile. It began to snow. The next day they tried again, but the snow was like glue. … The next morning they tried again. Shackleton went ahead and scanned the ice. He saw pressure ridges where colliding ice floes had formed mountains that looked as forbidding as the Alps.

Shackleton turned around and walked back to the group. He took deep breaths of the icy air and prepared to announce his decision, which he knew was probably the weightiest of his entire life. At first, he had thought that attacking the enemy was the best thing to do, both for morale and for their chances of survival. But he now thought that he might have been in denial. During the night, he had accepted reality, and seeing the endless ice mountains around them had confirmed it. Instead of attacking and wasting caloric energy to make at most a mile  a day toward who knew where, they would instead … do nothing.

And to understand why this saved him, why this turned his disaster into one of the greatest triumphs in human history, you have to know something about the ice. For that, you’ll have to read the book.

The ice … the Tao.

Fabius, Roosevelt, Shackleton … you. 

To be continued.

29 thoughts on “Dealing with disaster

  1. I saw the A&E version of shackleton a half dozen times and I own it! Great movie, great man! I think I shall watch it tonight, it’s been awhile 🙂 That guy is my hero! 🙂

  2. one of his nicknames was Verrucosus — “Warty”

    I always thought nicknames should be short. “Verrucosus” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

    But maybe, when faced disaster, we could use the old Borg admonition “Resistance is futile.” If resistance is futile, stop resisting. I see that as a form of fatalism. But psychologically useful.

    • You’ve always thought nicknames should be short because you’re a native Germanic speaker. We in the Germanic languages, including English, default to our monosyllabic “Saxon” words for the simple things in life. But in the Romance languages, longer words, even for nicknames, roll off the tongue quite naturally, I’m told.

  3. I’ve been stuck at my mom’s house in a small Austrian town for seven months now, doing nothing (except its warm, and I haven’t eaten any dogs yet). Ice or no ice, this disaster had better turn into one of the greatest triumphs in human history, too, or I’ll be really pissed.

    • In your case, you may have to eat the dogs first before you hit bottom and start ascending toward the greatest triumph in human history.

      Aside from that, an icy village in Austria sounds gemutlich this time of year. Although you’re probably not in the Alpine parts, which I’m picturing right now.

  4. Ahhhh … Sir Ernest. I recently read a book about what he teaches us about leadership and I cried all over again at the climb over the mountains of South Georgia and the moment the men on Elephant Island spot the Yelcho on the horizon and see Shackleton’s figure climb out into the lifeboat.

    Like you, the authors give a psychological reading to Shackleton’s actions, though diff from Kubler-Ross’s. They suggest Shackleton had the men try to break up the ice around the Endurance as a hedge against the possibility one of the men might in future feel they hadn’t done everything they could to free the ship. They also suggest he had the men march across the ice dragging the lifeboats because he had to keep them occupied and give them a sense they were doing something to help themselves, even though he knew in advance it was futile.

    • I saw that leadership study reviewed somewhere recently. Amazing: Shackleton, after one century, seems suddenly to have become fashionable. Who would have thought?

      (I wrote my Shackleton stuff in this book in 2008, remember. So, a while ago.)

      The problem we all have, of course, is survivorship bias. Would we be interpreting Shackleton’s style if they had died? (For starters, we wouldn’t even have their diaries, so we wouldn’t be able to. But even if so….)

      Still, it’s one of the most extreme stories about the human condition, truly timeless.

  5. I’d like to think that Shackleton and his men composed their parody of Kipling’s “If” (Is it in your book?) while they watched the ship sink. Wouldn’t that be great? Not just flow, but flow with humor and poetry!

    • There was quite a bit of rambunctious humor on that ship and on that ice floe. Humor (savoring the absurd) is maybe the only thing that keeps us sane some times.

      I don’t recall them being aware of Kipling’s If, which was a bit over a decade old at that time.

      But yes, it’s in my book. The opening quotation is that line about the two impostors.

      (One of my original title suggestions was “The Two Impostors”)

    • Hold on. I know that Kipling’s poem is in your book. That’s why I was asking about Shackleton’s version (more info here:'s-unique-version-of-'the-nations-favourite-poem'-displayed-for-the-first-time-by-the-national-maritime-museum).


      If you can stand the Quest and all her antics
      When all around you turn somersaults upon her deck;
      And go aloft when no one has told you
      And not fall down and break your blooming neck;
      If you can work like Wild and also like Wuzzles
      Spend a convivial night with some old bean,
      And then come down and meet the Boss at breakfast
      And never breathe a word of where you’ve been.
      If you can fill the port and starboard bunkers
      With fourteen tons of coal; and call it fun;
      Yours is the ship and everything that’s in it
      And you’re a marvel; not a man my son.

      By the way, sorry to be so blooming impudent, but his versifying is imperfect. 🙂

    • What a gem! Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

      This is something I knew all along, by the way: Once I begin divulging my book, its research will retroactively be crowdsourced.

  6. Andreas, maybe you should brace yourself for quite a few Shackleton nuts in your interviews. Shackleton studies have been popular for 10-15 years; the Kenneth Branagh movie must be 10 years old.

    “Would we be talking about Shackleton’s style if they’d died?” Probably not, but that’s history. What gets left in or left out depends on combination of action and chance.

    • I am indeed bracing myself for a few nuts — not just the Shackleton nuts but also the Picasso nuts and the Lewis & Clark nuts, and the Roosevelt nuts, and the Truman nuts, and the Hannibal nuts and the ….

      Tis the bane of generalists: we are fodder for the specialists.

  7. Let me change that last part of my comment. It’s not really what I wanted to say.

    “Would we be talking about Shackleton’s style if they died?” We’re talking about Shackleton’s style for one reason: because, in the face of incredible difficulties, they lived.


    The Antarctic Circle will pay US$100 to the first person who can provide a copy of the original source along with the date and name of the newspaper it appeared in of the following advertisement:

    “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

  9. Your this line – so what are the elements of “the Fabian response” in the language of my archetypes – got me closest to understand the meaning of “archetypes” – ever!

    • That’s great, Jamuna. thanks.

      You realize, of course (but let me state it explicitly again) that the “archetypes” idea comes from Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and that I am merely expanding on and interpreting that here.

    • 🙂 Yes I realize. I am a student of psychology and have grappled with this concept ever since – never coming close to it the way I wanted to. I also remember having a conversation on archetypes with you – again in another comment thread last year – where I mentioned that I am trying to understand it. Through this post – I inched closer 🙂

    • Good for you, Jamuna. Boy, what an epic thread that was.

      Are you still doing those “workshops on gender violence, sex and sexuality with street children in India” you mentioned?

    • I am currently on a break as I have resumed studying – but I am also working in a residential school as it offers me the time and money I need right now – the children here are very different obviously, coming from rich families – however, I find there is a lot to do here too – first is helping the teaching staff – they being caregivers – to provide the psycho-social support that children need and my observation is that there are as many important reasons to conduct workshops on gender violence, sex and sexuality here as there were with children on the streets….

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