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From Vol. 5, Issue 3, March 2023

How to live with your fears?

Practicing Stoicism || SENECA

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Difficulties test our strength

We can never be sure of our strength until we have faced many difficulties that come to us from every side and until the moment when they have come quite close. This is the test of such a spirit: no fighter can go with high spirits into the contest if he has never been beaten badly.

Our imaginary fears

More things are likely to frighten us, than to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you as a Stoic but in my natural style. It is our Stoic style to dismiss things that provoke cries and groans as unimportant and not worth noticing. You and I should drop such great words even though, heaven knows, they are true. I advise you not to be unhappy before the crisis comes. The things you fear as if thought they were impending may never happen. Certainly, they have not happened yet.

Some things torment us more than they should; some earlier than they should; and some when they should not torment us at all. We exaggerate, or imagine, or anticipate sorrow. Let us put off the first of these three faults because it is still under discussion and the jury is out on that question. Something I call trivial is serious in your estimation. I know that some people will laugh when whipped while others groan when just slapped.

Do not go by other people’s opinions

Do me a favour. When people around you try to convince you that you are unhappy, don’t listen to what they say but consider how you actually feel. Question yourself because you know your affairs better than anyone else. Ask yourself “Why are these people commiserating with me? Why should they be worried? Why should they be afraid even to come into contact with me, as though troubles are contagious? Is there any evil involved or is it just a matter of reputation?” Then ask yourself “Am I suffering for no reason? Am I miserable? Am I making something bad when it is not?”

How to know if you are imagining things

You may say, “How am I to know whether my sufferings are real or imaginary?” Here is the rule: We are troubled by things that have happened already, things that may happen in the future or both. As to what is happening now, the decision is easy. If your body is free and healthy and you are not in pain from any injury, today there is nothing wrong with it. We can wait to see what may happen in the future.

How to deal with imaginary dangers

Somehow or other, it is the idle reports that disturb us most. Real dangers have inherent limits. But things that arise from uncertainty are given over to guesswork and unrestrained anxiety. Let us look at this carefully. We will likely face some troubles in the future. But it is not true as of now. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never happened! Even if it is certain to happen, what good is it to run out to meet it? You will suffer soon enough when it comes. Meanwhile, look forward to better things. What do you gain by doing this? Time.

Many things will happen in the meanwhile that may help you avoid the approaching danger. Even if the danger is near or already at hand, you may be able to postpone, end, or pass on to another person. The fire has an escape route. People have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Perhaps it will happen, perhaps it won’t. But it is not happening now. So look forward to better things.

At times, even when there are no signs to indicate that there is anything bad on the way, the mind imagines false things. It takes some ambiguous word and gives it the worst possible interpretation. Or it imagines that some personal grudge is more serious than it really is. There is nothing so certain among these things to fear. It is more certain that the things we fear sink into nothing and that things we hope for cause pain. When the situation is uncertain, decide in your favour and believe what you prefer. If fear wins the majority of the votes, go in the other direction anyway.

You can win even if the worst happens

You may say, “Perhaps the worst won’t happen. But you must say “Well, what if it does happen? Let’s who wins. Perhaps it will happen for my best interests. Such a death will bring honour to my life.” It was the hemlock that made Socrates great. Take away from Cato, the vindicator or liberty, his sword, and you take away of much of his glory.

The fool is always “preparing” to live

As I end this letter, I only have put the seal upon it; that is, to commit some noble message to be delivered to you: “The fool, with all his other faults, has this as well: He is always getting ready to live”. Think, my esteemed Lucilius, what this saying means and you will understand how sickening it is that people are fickle, every day laying new foundations for life, building fresh hopes even when they are about to die.

Look within your own mind for individual cases. You will think of old men preparing themselves for a political career, for travel, or for business. What is lower than getting ready to live when you are already old? I would not name the author of this saying except that it is a one of the less famous sayings of Epicurus, which I allowed myself to praise and to take over.

Condensed and rendered into plain English - Seneca Moral Letters 13