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013 - On Anxiety - Moral Letters for Modern Times

There are more things, Deuteros, apt to worry us than there are to wound us; but we’re harmed in our heads more than by anyone else’s hand
Asian-style buildings in mountains - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I know you are ready for learning, because you have already taken one of life’s main lessons to heart.

Fall seven times and stand up eight

goes the Japanese proverb, and so also go the lives of the fortunate. It is our fate to fall, and only when it happens do we know how quickly we’ll rise to our feet again. You may think you are a trooper, able to withstand whatever fate throws at you.

Think how reassuring it is to have your faith tested and come out judged a success. The pandemic closed your workplace, cut you off from your friends, and kept you a prisoner in your house. Everything you didn’t realize you took for granted was whisked away without notice, and in the stillness that remained you noticed that you remained. Be thankful that you have been subjected to tests that you would never choose to submit to and come out victorious! This shows strength of character more than any course of study alone.

There are more things, Deuteros, apt to worry us than there are to wound us; but we’re harmed in our heads more than by anyone else’s hand. I know you will recall my prior teachings, that whatever happens to us is not unwanted if we are sufficient in ourselves. This is no doubt true, though I am writing here to advise you to be kinder to yourself. Troubles will come to you without you wishing them, so don’t trouble yourself before they do. The specters that disturb your dreams may slink by unseen, and in any event, they are not today knocking at your door.

Anxiety comes in four flavors: being bothered by things that are behind us, being bothered by things that should be beneath our notice, being bothered before any trouble is brewing, and being bothered by things that are no bane at all. We agonize ourselves more thoroughly than a medieval torturer in the dungeons of our minds when we relive painful moments in our pasts over and over. We also blow things out of proportion, dream disasters, and jump at shadows. Offense can be found anyplace one looks, if one goes looking for it. Those who have experienced real hardship are less likely to be troubled by trifles.

But let’s leave aside differences of opinion about who is harmed the most by the least and focus on the remaining two anxieties: worry about that which has not happened yet, and worry about that which should not worry you at all.

Everywhere you look, disaster looms. Social media, television talking heads, and politicians all proclaim: the heat death of the planet from man-made global warming is overdue, although you may be carried off by floodwaters before you can be burned alive. Rogue regimes threaten our way of life, if not our very lives, be it Iran or North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, or the Middle East. Our livelihoods are under attack from afar by China, and closer to home our border with Mexico groans with South American immigrants.

Before you give in to existential despair, ask yourself this: “Does any of this affect what I am doing today, and am I any worse off in a tangible way? Or do I accept the prophesy of doom without any evidence that I am actually damned?” If you wonder how to tell whether the trouble is real or imagined, you can use this rule of thumb: you are either affected right now, or will be afflicted tomorrow, or both. The right now is within your purview to assess, and do not let another tell you that you suffer when plainly you do not. We will come to tomorrow soon enough, so first acknowledge that today is OK.

“But,” you say “tomorrow may be terrible if we don’t act to prevent catastrophe now.” I urge you to remember that history is heaped more with gloomy predictions that never came to pass than those accurately foretold. The forests are dying, the oil is running out, the air is becoming unbreathable, crime waves will destroy cities. I do not say that bad things do not happen, oh no, but that prophesies of bad things are no good guide for what they will be or when they will arrive. Some people take a thrill in being terrified. The more dire the outlook, the happier they are to hear of our terrible fortune.

But, my dear Deuteros, it is a mistake to take the media’s frenzy for anything other than a whipping up the masses for profit. Too many uncritically accept all that is critical without questioning the track record of the purveyors of doom. Who dares question the “consensus” opinion when the fate awaiting “deniers” is not in doubt: ostracism, if not exile. That the consensus may be based on little more than opinion itself matters not when its breathless repetition blows it into a castle in the sky.

When you remember that most prophesies of disaster do not come to pass, you make room for yourself to be happy today. Even if you will suffer later, you do not suffer now, so why do you make yourself sad with the anticipation of your sorrows? If you wished, you could bask yourself entirely in worries, but what sort of existence would that be? Better to be a hopeless optimist than a hopeless pessimist. You are just as likely to have your comforting daydreams come to pass as your nightmares, for all the good that dwelling on either will do you. Thus, consider bright thoughts alongside dour ones, and when unsure which will come to pass, pick the one that makes you feel better. Even if you think the hill slopes downward, point yourself upwards, because you do not need to add your own momentum to its direction. Rather than letting yourself be carried along with the weeping crowd, take a single step to the side and orient yourself to the sun.

I commend this course to you lightly, because it is a slight solution. Let the next person say “I wish for the best.” You are infinitely firmer in your foundation by virtue of embracing the view “Let come what may. I am made stronger by my fortune, because my reaction to my circumstance is more important than my current situation.” But I know I browbeat you without need, for you are beating your own path in the right direction.

To finish today, I will address a proclamation of wisdom for you. Consider the saying

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time

from Marthe Troly-Curtin. Lest you get overly fond of this thought, my dear Deuteros, for it is surely appealing, remember that just as a great wall is built a single brick at a time, so too was Rome dismantled. Our lives are spent in building up or in breaking down, and you must choose a direction.

Or if you prefer to stay with the world of rock and roll, I cannot say it better than those latter day philosophers Pink Floyd:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today
And then, one day you find, ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

I know that you will not mind partaking of the font of wisdom wherever it may bubble up. For it is not the vessel that determines the value of a drink, but the contents themselves.

Be well.

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