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024 - On Conquering Fear - Moral Letters for Modern Times

I will tell you how to banish the demons that bedevil you.
Green-covered hills leading to blue sea - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

You commented that you are finding ways to find joy and not mere enjoyment, but that your mind is still troubled by the troubles that people too active in the world of business face. You are fighting frivolous lawsuits filed by unscrupulous lawyers, you must fend off unfounded accusations from claimants who would profit from your pain. You are at risk of shareholder lawsuits and regulatory investigations, and sanctions hang over your head like the Sword of Damocles. It is a wonder to me that you find any tranquility at all when you allow this parade of demons to march through your thoughts unbidden! The future is uncertain for all of us, Deuteros. Why destroy your happiness today because it may come under attack tomorrow?

I will tell you how to banish the demons that bedevil you. Contemplate from the safety of your home the worst that may happen in each of your disaster scenarios, and how much those outcomes would trouble you. Draw worries out of your mind like you would draw venom from the site of a poisonous snake’s bite. Spit them out on paper so you can study them at your leisure where they cannot harm you. The actual harm awaiting you is often not nearly as bad as the amount of anxiety you create in anticipation. Laugh at the myriad ways in which your mind seeks to burden you with cares.

The ultimate harm that can come to you is either not worth your bother, or it will be so serious that it will also end your life and with it your worries. You know from what we have discussed earlier that the loss of power, prestige, or possessions should not discomfit you, for these are fair weather friends and no basis for inner peace. “But,” you say “what if I fear a lingering and gruesome death from cancer? What if I lose not my possessions, but my self-possession, in losing control of my faculties?”

In the first case, there is no such thing as the unendurable. You either endure or you succumb. And anything you bear willingly you reduce the sting of suffering from. If, however, you prove in the circumstance to be unwilling or unable, your fate is the same as countless others who have gone before you under every circumstance imaginable. In the great sweep of time, your and their suffering ends just the same.

In the second case, you either know your mind and your thoughts, in which case you are still their master, or you do not, in which case you are not there to bemoan their loss. Your loved ones may suffer to see you thus incapacitated, but you do not suffer directly because another suffers. And keep in mind that if your loved ones would hear and honor your wishes, they would not suffer either in seeing your condition, for no one wishes their loved ones to suffer on their account. The only proper occasion for suffering comes when, knowing right from wrong and being of clear mind, you choose to go against your better judgment.

Compared to such weighty questions as life and death, are you really going to be weighed down by things like the fear of getting cancelled, of losing a friend, or even your business failing? Beware of those who offer to sell you an insurance policy against bad luck. Before you reach for your pen to sign up for such a policy, call to mind the words of the Dalai Lama:

Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.

It may be that the superficially happy person is one whose luck has not yet turned. Better the one whose mettle has been tested and whose peace of mind has not been found wanting than one who has never had cause for complaint.

Fear of loss is just an emotion, and you are not your emotions. Even when your fears arise, in the stillness of your well-ordered mind, you can recognize them, observe them, and ignore them. Your fears will then lose their power over you and fade away.

The Bene Gesserit were the philosophers of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Whenever they felt their emotions rising, they chanted the Litany Against Fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I do not fear Greeks bearing gifts, at least when they come in this form, and today’s gift comes courtesy of Epictetus:

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves.

We fear the loss of things because our fellow humans pursue them with such vigor. They would be devastated by losing their possessions, true, but that is no reason for you to lose your mind with worry. Though a thousand tell you that wealth is the true measure of a person, and consequently that loss of wealth is the worst that can happen, saying it does not make it so.

Fools do not make any more sense just because they are shouting.

Be well.

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