The Long Road of Fear

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” – Seneca

This is a thought that I saw today, and it really struck me.  I know many from all walks of life that live in fear: the religious and the irreligious, the employed and the unemployed, the safe and the persecuted, the controllers and the controlled, the sociable and the lonely, the successful and the destitute, the loved and the bereft. All have their fears.

What do we fear?

Some of the things that come to mind are loss, success, a new beginning, the end of something. We fear the things that are coming, and we fear the things that may never come. Essentially, we fear loss of control. But the reality of life is that there is very little that we can control. If we focus on the unknown, the uncontrollable, we will always feel adrift, lost, and powerless.

Our lives can be utterly ruled by fear if we allow it to be so.

How should we respond to fear?

There are three disciplines in stoicism: the discipline of perception, the discipline of action, and the discipline of will. I will expand on these disciplines in future posts, but for now, I’ll keep it brief.

Discipline of Perception: maintain absolute objectivity of thought; avoiding inappropriate value judgments.

Discipline of Action: governs our approach to the things within our control; our reactions and responses.

Discipline of Will: governs our attitude toward things that are not within our control; response to the actions or attitudes of others.

So again, how do we respond to fear?

If we look at the discipline of perception, we see that we need to recognize the situation for what it is. Identify the facts, without judging beforehand that it is a very bad or very good situation. See it clearly.

This clear sight will help you with the discipline of action. You can now determine what aspects of the situation are in your control, and which are not. Here, you will learn what you can control or determine. Your habits develop from this discipline.

Finally, the discipline of will. This is the tricky one. The will can be thought of as that innermost part of you – your soul. This part of you is the only one that you always control, because it is truly you. You literally have to choose who you are each moment. You must choose to either remain the same (can be good or bad), or change directions (again, can be good or bad).

When you understand that outside events and other people don’t change you, then you understand that they don’t control you. Only you control you. And that means you can control your response to anything that happens to you.

And that knowledge allows you to live without fear. We will have to face it every day, on the long road of life. But we can always choose our reactions to fear.

 

Stay Out of Prison

“What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? Let him be alone. Is a man dissatisfied with his parents? Let him be a bad son, and lament. Is he dissatisfied with his children? Let him be a bad father. Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison.” – Epictetus

Denial of reality is a prison of our own making. Refusal to accept the actual state of things prevents us from making useful decisions. Complaint about our life situations locks the door on us and keeps us powerless in those situations for as long as we focus on the dissatisfaction.

How then do we stay out of this prison? We recognize each situation for what it is. Rather than complain about being alone, or being overwhelmed with people, see the isolation as solitude and reflect; see the abundance of contact as cause for celebration or opportunity to develop your network. Instead of complaining about poor treatment from others, see how you can treat others better. If your children aren’t turning out the way you desired, reflect on your actions that may have influenced the outcome. And then change what is not desirable. If your career isn’t developing the way you had hoped, find out the cause – don’t bemoan your fate.

We always have choices. We will always have undesirable truths to deal with. How we focus on our options means the difference between a life well lived, or a life wished for.