History and literature are full of examples of actions that cannot be undone, steps that cannot be retracted. Julius Caesar commanded his legions to cross the Rubicon, countless seaborne invaders have burned their boats, Shakespeare had Henry V exhort his troops “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead”. Common to these is the idea that, while the action might be a desperate gamble, turning away would equate to failure – come back with your shield or on it, death or glory.
Such actions are invariably described with the benefit of hindsight and portray the events as heroic and aspirational. But can they really be considered to set a good example – are there situations in which risking everything on the roll of a die is the rational course of action?
Obviously the answer depends on the consequences of turning away, of choosing not to act. In Caesar’s case his term as Proconsul had expired and he had been recalled to Rome in the face of Pompey’s accusations of insubordination and treason. If he had not invaded Italy from Gaul thus instigating a civil war he would have found himself much reduced, his political aspirations in ruins. For such an ambitious man that would have been intolerable; he preferred to risk defeat and death but was aware that he could count on significant military, public and political support. Bearing that in mind, it was a calculated risk.
I would describe myself as risk-averse – I tend towards courses of action that have less uncertainty, smaller chances of incurring harm. I find uncertainty – any kind of gambling for example – to be stressful. The worst kinds of situation I can imagine involve having to decide between courses of action that each carry risk: being between the devil and the deep blue sea. It is a combination of fear of the unknown and fear of the prospect of suffering injury.
Problems arise when faced with such dilemmas – I can easily be frozen into inaction by my fears, even if doing nothing carries its own risks. In consequence I will attempt to keep my options open, to leave myself a route back to where I started. To pass the point of no return is, to me, like jumping off a cliff (I have a fear of heights which makes this allusion particularly apt). I am over-aware of the consequences of failure and this biases my judgement to favor the path with the least bad risk rather than the one with the highest potential benefit.
It all boils down to fear and anxiety, those often irrational feelings, that steer me away from particular situations or courses of action. I guess I am at least predictable in that I will act to minimize my anxiety. Avoiding becoming trapped – cornered – with risk on every side is crucial to this. There will be no passing the point of no return for me, thank you.