The Philosophy of Fear

"In general remember that it is we who torment, we who make difficulties for ourselves—that is, our opinions do." -Epictetus

If you’ve been exposed to any semblance of motivational jargon, you’ve heard the following adage more than once: be fearless. Don’t let fear rule you! Fear is the enemy! The irony of preaching fearlessness as the answer is that achieving this clichéd state isn’t what induces action. Fear itself does that. It could be argued that without fear, we wouldn’t actually do anything. Some of our greatest accomplishments come after moments in which we were filled to the brim with fear—that project launch, that presentation, that pressing question that changed everything. It’s the very harnessing of this fear that leads us to astounding ourselves. With that in mind, it may be safe to conclude that “fearlessness" isn’t what we need; a set of right fears is.

A pointed method of getting to the core of a person is to ask what might be the most vulnerability-inducing, facade-removing question there is: What are you afraid of? And not just situationally, but generally. It’s the type of question that bears asking in the overarching sense. Some common answers: Failing. Loneliness. Not reaching one’s full potential. Never getting married. The judgement of others. Dying. The Stoics tell us that so long as we have these fears, we’re never truly free. What I’d like to offer as an alternative to our sometimes-valid but oftentimes-irrational fears isn’t the oft-proposed adage of fearlessness (a blatantly unreasonable state touted as the ideal), but a complete reframing of the fear experience.

“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears.” -Epictetus

If philosophy "makes sense" of our fears, as Epictetus says, then so too should it give us the capacity to determine whether we have the right ones. A few “right fears” for reference: You should fear not making the utmost use of the gifts given to you. You should fear looking back on your life and regretting what you didn't do rather than relishing in what you did, in who you loved and how. You should fear falling so deep into the trap of "I'm going to do blank" that you never actually did anything. Instead of fearing what people might think of you, you should fear what would come of your life if that's all you ever considered. And spoiler alert: people don't think of you that much.

Let's dive into that for a moment.

“Whenever I see a person suffering from nervousness, I think, well, what can he expect? If he had not set his sights on things outside man’s control, his nervousness would end at once.” -Epictetus

There's this arrogant notion we fall victim to in which we're convinced that everyone around us is watching our every move and scrutinizing our every word, and so we censor and we hide and we confine ourselves to our own tiny corners where we can't risk embarrassment. We stay away from the weights section at the gym. We don't speak up because we're afraid we'll sound uneducated. We find ourselves crippled by the thought, "What will they think?”—the irony of which being the human tendency to suppress our own real thoughts and elevate the imagined ones of others. We tend to reserve the category of “things outside our control” for catastrophic events—traumas, getting laid off, the circumstances around our upbringings, etc.—and yet convince ourselves, through our behavior, that another person’s reception of us is somehow in our control.

As the Stoics iterate, all we control is our output—our efforts and what we think of them. Epictetus depicts this effectively in Discourses and Selected Writings when he shares the example of a performing musician who errs only when he succumbs to the illusion that he actually had any control whatsoever over the audience's reception. Epictetus goes onto describe the physical manifestation of this illusion: nervousness—that pesky, sweat-inducing state in which suddenly all that matters is another’s perception of you. It’s as absurd as it is natural. As Shakespeare famously wrote, "all the world’s a stage," and the nature of being calls us to perform daily. In knowing this, we’re left with only one way to overcome the potentially debilitating states of nervousness and anxiety: acknowledging that our peace must begin and end with our efforts alone. This frees us from expectation, allowing us a clear space to determine what fears are worth possessing.

"We suffer more often in imagination than we do in reality." -Seneca

And we’ve now arrived at the burning question: what is worth fearing? The answer: living in a diminished state should your worst fears come true. 

There’s a Stoic practice called negative visualization in which you intentionally expose yourself to conditions that, by your standards, would be undesirable. If you’re a Tim Ferriss Show podcast listener (which, *cough,* you should be), you know that some of the author-investor-life hacker extraordinaire's favorite iterations of this are taking cold showers, fasting, limiting his clothing options, and the like. This intentional simulation of less-than-ideal scenarios allows him to ask himself, in the words of Seneca, “is this the condition that I so feared?” True thriving requires that we perform the mental equivalent of this practice. In other words, we must create in our minds a bulletproof state in which the materialization of our worst fears is no match for us.

“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” -Seneca

So let’s get practical. First, you must define precisely what your worst fears are. Be specific and painstaking. Is it never getting married? Is it getting (or staying) sick? Is it never reaching your full potential? Whatever it is, sit in it. Breathe it. Be consumed by it.

You now need to define the life you will live if your worst fears come true, and how you’ll thrive regardless. You need to be fully prepared to exist in a world where nothing works out the way you’d hoped. It goes beyond fearing what you can’t control and into controlling who you decide to be if those fears manifest. If you get sicker, if you stay single, if you get let go—what does that mean for who you are? This is the importance of not being attached to externals, as the Stoics call them, lest our identities be so tightly bound to our achievements that we crumble prematurely. Hope and strive until the cows come home, but reject the lie that satisfaction exists only in the attainment of that thing. Let contentment be your baseline, and consider all else to be pure bonus. 

A detachment from externals is what creates in us this bulletproof state, and is precisely what frees us to embrace life for all that it is, and all that it sometimes isn’t. It means we can give and be and love without any expectation or hesitation, knowing full-well that what’s been given to us was never ours to keep anyway (ringing even truer for what isn’t ours yet). Everything is fading, and all should be savored. Life’s fickleness should be utterly invigorating, compelling us to live in that sweet dissonance that is an indifference toward staying or going, keeping or having it taken away. It’s that rare ability to both deeply love something, and yet be deeply okay without it. The awareness of life as a loan is what fuels the latter. 

Epictetus, as he does, sets the standard for the embodiment of this idea. He was a slave, he was tortured, he was poor. To the everyday emotionally-aware human being, these things sound terrible. Alternatively, Epictetus had no opinion of these things, as the following fact was hard-coded in him: that it’s opinions that color our experiences, versus the severity of the experiences themselves. This may perhaps be the epitome of easier said than believed. To say it is wise, to believe it is to be accountable—to be responsible for responding with dignity when life hands you its worst. Because you will get your uniquely-tailored blend of the worst. And when that custom-built misfortune looks you squarely in the eye, you’ll be forced to ask yourself, “Will this be the end of me, or will I be okay?” The answer: if you’re still breathing, you will be. 

This means your fears don’t win. This means that when fears materialize, you thrive even-still. It means that when you don’t get precisely what you set out for, you rest content, deeply convinced of how completely okay you still are. A right perspective of fear frees us from crumbling when they inevitably show up at our doorstep.

“Everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even being withstood if they have been trained for in advance. Those who are unprepared, on the other hand, are panic-stricken by the most insignificant happenings. We must see to it that nothing takes us by surprise. And since it is invariably unfamiliarity that makes a thing more formidable than it really is, this habit of continual reflection will ensure that no form of adversity finds you a complete beginner.” -Seneca