Panic and its Opposite

Anthroposophical Movement 17.10 (October 1940): no pagination

I find it much more difficult to write on matters connected with Anthroposophy than I used to several years ago, and I think I have discovered one reason for this. On the one hand, as it becomes more and more a part of ourselves, it grows more alive, and this should enable us to write or speak of it more fruitfully than we could do when it was merely a system of novel and interesting thoughts and imaginations. But on the other hand, it becomes by the same token more and more entangled with our personal idiosyncrasies and the accidents of our personal history. For our memory, our feeling and will are inevitably more personal to ourselves than our thoughts, and so a particular grouping or connection or imagination which is useful and important for us may turn out to be of little significance to others. This makes one diffident as to the propriety of communicating it. Yet, if there is anything universal in them, it is just these thoughts and imaginations which have become part of ourselves, and on which we rely for support in the practical difficulties of life, that we ought most of all to try and express. I do not know into which category to place the following train of ideas and imagery, which has been with me for some years, but I am endeavouring to write it down in case it should belong the the second. If so, it will be of interest to those who are physically and etherically so constituted as to be without what is called “natural” courage. I should say their number is increasing rather than diminishing with the progress of civilisation and the development of human consciousness.

Acute terror, like the extremity of compassion or of sorrow, seems to involve a loosening of the astral from the physical and etheric organism. It is as if there were a partial extrusion of the astral body and, if we are not wholly overwhelmed by the emotion, we may become aware of this awake within the astral itself is wholly within the etheric and physical body. I think this fact is reflected in the Aristotelian theory of tragedy, which holds that pity and terror experienced imaginatively in the contemplation of drama effect a “catharsis” or purging of the human being. The soul is partially freed from the body, freed alike from its drowning or deadening effect and from the protection which the body affords at ordinary times. It thus becomes more than usually accessible to direct psychic and spiritual influences, both good and bad. It is apt for inspiration, but also prone to possession.

Panic, as its derivation from the nature-god “Pan” suggests, was originally conceived of as a species of possession. Pan was the god of shepherds , and he was thought to have entered into and taken possession of the flocks and herds, when they stampeded. The Gospel narrative of the Gadarene swine gives us a clear picture of the behaviour of a crowd of human beings under the influence of panic, which, when the ego has lost control and the astral is possessed, may not be so very different.

There is, however, another Gospel narrative which we may set over against this narrative of the panic possession of the Gadarene swine. I am referring to the incident of Christ’s walking on the water… “And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. So when they had rowed about five-and-twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship and they were afraid. But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid. They willingly received Him into the ship; and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.”

I take the first part of this narrative also (without necessarily impugning its accuracy as the account of an historical event) to be a picture or imagination of an experience in the nature of panic. The soldiers in the last war who invented the expression “to get the wind up” knew something of that “great wind that blew.”

But in this case the story does not end with a picture of panic and its effects. Instead, Christ Himself appears in the middle of the threatening phenomenon which is causing the terror; He says (for this is the literal translation): “I am: be not afraid”: the frightened men willingly receive Him into their ship; and immediately, according to St. John, the ship was at the land whither they went,” and according to St. Mark, “the wind ceased.”

It is important, not only for ourselves but for any group of people among whom we may happen to be in an emergency, that we should not succumb to panic fears, but should, if possible, find inspiration to endow us with special strength out of that very “rushing mighty wind,” which is terrifying when it comes or seems to come at us from without, but may be quite otherwise if we can recognise it as part of ourselves.

Rudolf Steiner taught us how, since the coming of Christ to Earth, we ourselves have in some degree co-operated with Him in fashioning our Karma. Thus whatever comes to us, we ourselves have under His guidance will that it should come. It is ourselves, but still more is it Christ, whom we should in all humility strive to recognise in the terror that seems to approach us from without and against our volition. We should try to take Him willingly into our ship, and to hear Him in our inner voice, saying, “I am.”

If we meditate constantly, and with some such background of thought as this, on the picture of Christ walking on the water and of His being received by the disciples into their ship, as the calm “I am” is uttered forth, we shall I believe begin to build up in ourselves the opposite of panic; we shall begin the transmutation of panic (I coin the word for the purposes of this sentence only) in “Christic.” We shall then not merely have a train of thought to remember and a picture to call up, but we shall have tried to form an etheric habit, which will stand us in good stead even in moments when there is no time for memory and meditation or even for memory of meditation. Perhaps we shall recollect how we breathed when we were formerly meditating in leisure and security, and begin instinctively to breathe in the same way, and that will be enough. Perhaps the formed habit may express itself in some other way. Perhaps we shall fail altogether to reach the etheric and find that no habit can be formed in this incarnation. Even so I believe the effort will prove to have been worth making, and a right one to make.

Always assuming of course that the whole structure does not after all belong to the first category, so as to be of no particular importance to anyone but Owen Barfield.

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.