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  • Writer's pictureBrian Lissak

Churchill's Self-Trial by Court Martial - An Antidote to Anxiety

(photo by Yousuf Karsh, 1941,

Winston Churchill was leader and Prime Minister of England during World War 2, alone in the world in the resistance against Nazi tyranny (America only actively joined the European theater of war in 1942). He was like a man trying to plug the holes in his sinking boat with his fingers, except instead of fingers they were the lives of British soldiers. The odds were impossibly against him, he had resistance and opposition within his own government, he had economic problems, food shortages, military equipment shortages, and myriad other issues. Daily, indeed hourly, he had to make life or death decisions with no clear right choice, costing others lives and potentially the freedom of his island nation and by extension the world. Talk about anxiety!

Today, the average person feels immense anxiety and we have none of those challenges, just the usual bills to pay, petty collegial strife, relationships, family, etc. etc. etc. Not to minimize our problems (okay, a little bit to minimize our problems), but Churchill clearly had more on his plate. How did he deal with this without having a nervous breakdown? He tried himself by Court Martial every night. He said if he found himself innocent, he could sleep, and if he didn’t, then he got back to work to fix whatever the issue was. (A Court Martial is a military court, harsher and quicker and with its own legal logic distinct from civilian courts).

Clearly, Churchill didn’t actually convene a military court each evening to prosecute himself. But what is he saying here? What did he actually do? He’s saying that there is only so much he can do, and beyond that he has to let go. And of the things that he can do, he is rigorously examining his actions of the day to see where he made mistakes and how to improve. Those two pieces - recognizing your limits, and then establishing a self-correcting mechanism within those limits - is what allowed him to courageously lead England and the pockets of resistance in Europe through the most dramatic moment in history.

Why do I write this? Because it has implications for us today. We can use his method for our own lives, however large or small our plates are. This is an antidote to anxiety because it gives us clear bounds within which to work, and to measure whether we made good use of our day, and if not, how to correct that.

There’s an underlying point here, which is that anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. It, like all emotions, is telling us something. It’s up to us whether we listen to it or not. If you have responsibilities and you’re failing in them, it would be a problem if you didn’t feel anxious.

The sensation of anxiety is essentially that the entire world is extremely slippery and it’s impossible to get a foothold anywhere; all efforts are futile because I just slide back down to where I started; I have no agency.

The antidote, then, is to start carving out footholds in this slippery world. It takes effort. Massive effort. Herculean effort. But effort’s not a bad thing. Quite the contrary, meaningful effort is the most important gift you can give yourself and the world. Great to know. Let’s all aspire to be Hercules in our own ways.

What does this look like? I like to make a short list of the things I need to do, of the things I should be held accountable for if I fail in them. Then I hold my nightly Court Martial, and I can effectively measure whether today was a success or not. If not, then I see where and why not, and I work on fixing that, which turns that failure into a potential success (this is what growth is).

You may be surprised to hear a therapist speaking in military terms, instead of the “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” and “it’s okay’s” that are generally associated with the profession. While sympathy is nice, and has its place, it isn’t enough. Ultimately, what Churchill is saying is “I have responsibilities. I recognize them, and I own them.” That is the antidote to anxiety: own your responsibilities, and figure out how to accomplish what you need to accomplish. If you do that every day, every year, you will create what is called a meaningful life. It isn’t handed to us, we have to create it.

Here’s how I do that. I have a pretty standard list (below) which obviously has details specific to each day. For example, taking care of myself physically today might mean lifting, while tomorrow that would mean doing yoga or playing basketball. Each question needs to be contextualized to the specifics of the day.

At the end of each day, I look at this list (I have it pinned to the cork board next to my desk), and think seriously for a moment over each question. I recognize what I did well, and where I can make improvements, encompassing everything from “this could be slightly better by doing X, Y, and Z” to “that was a major f*ck up and needs to be completely reworked.” This latter part turns mistakes into growth.

In this context, learning can actually be defined as “making a series of mistakes and intentionally analyzing them.” That is how you claim agency. “I messed up, and here’s how I can, and will, do better.” Anxiety says: “I messed up, I’m no good, life is too hard and unfair and all is naught because the universe is against me”. We have a choice over which voice gets to speak. Churchill’s self trial by Court Martial is choosing the former.

My list:

Was I a good father today?

Was I a good husband today?

Did I show up 100% for my clients today?

Did I take care of the myriad business details I needed to today?

Did I take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually today?

Am I prepared for tomorrow?

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