You can be free: How fear holds you back

I’ve been reading Ryan Holiday’s inspiring Courage is Calling. Holliday practices Stoicism, a way of life that’s become my life credo, though I confess my frequent failure to live up to its tenets of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom.

Stoicism is a discipline requiring daily practice. It’s taught me how much fear lies behind our modern anxiety and behavior. As Holliday writes, “This is how it goes, whether you’re a billionaire or an ordinary person, no matter how physically tough or brilliant you are. Fear determines what is or isn’t possible. If you think something is too scary, it’s too scary for you. If you don’t think you have any power . . . you don’t. If you aren’t the captain of your fate . . . then fate is the captain of you.”

Anxiety with its burden of worries culminates in stress, and we know its harsh consequences for our mental and physical health.

Worry teaches you that the future is happening now.

It falsely tells you that worry will make it go away.

Worry makes you care more about what others think.

It inhibits your boldly attempting new things like falling in love again, having children, resuming your education, investing your money, traveling to new places, changing your residence, trying a new doctor. Maybe even quitting your job for something, even if for less money, but more fulfilling.

It says you can’t ever escape your past, whether a bad childhood or failed marriage, a hurtful friendship or demeaning rejection.

Fear anchors you to what’s familiar, seemingly safe. It forfeits possibility and, with it, the future.

The truth is life is inherent with risk. Loss, illness, grief, death embrace every nook and cranny of life. Its remedy is to step up and step out, doing what you can.

Paradoxically, mastering anxiety begins with acceptance of what you can’t change. Uncertainty is inherent with life. In his book, The Liberated Mind, psychologist Steven Hayes writes that “people like to think the world is ‘happy happy joy joy,’ but if you live long enough, you start running into pain and illness and loss and tragedies of all sorts. It’s just part of it. That’s part of life.”

But there are things you can change. Yes, you can master living in a temporal world of vicissitude, but you must be willing to sign the bottom line.

Take inventory of what inhibits your resolve.

It may cost you money, even estrangement, but how much better to walk away free. One of life’s caveats is knowing when and how to jettison habits and worries weighing you down.

You can be courageous in every day life in so many ways.

It takes bravery to ask for a pay raise, confront injustice, leave a demeaning relationship, find a new hobby.

Don’t let fear bully you.

Don’t let routine dictate your everyday doings.

Happiness doesn’t just happen. It requires flexibility, resilience and daily practice. Frequently, it’s a life of sips more than gulps to get there.

So much of life is living in the moment. You do what you can, attempt what you’ve wanted. You act to realize yourself, becoming agent of your own destiny.

Mastering your fears begins a new portal. Yes, you can find freedom in an unfree world.

–rj

When Worrying Helps

Bob Marley’s hit song “Everythings Gonna Be Alright,” delivered with hypnotic reggae beat, buoys our spirits when we travel troubled waters:

Don’t worry about a thing
Cause every little thing gonna be all right.

Don’t you just wish it could be so in what poet W. H. Auden famously dubbed “the age of anxiety”?

Let me count some of the worries that trouble many, including myself:

  1. Climate change with its perilous threat to life upon our planet, or at the very least, its incalculable fallout as millions flee flooded homelands, hunger, and economic devastation.
  1. A disease pandemic as the world increasingly shrinks and we’re introduced to new diseases, augmented by exponential germ resistance to last stand antibiotics.
  1. Emergence of a new Frankenstein in the guise of artificial intelligence with the smarts to outwit humans bent on shutting it down. According to Stephen Hawking, it’s not a question of if, but when, and may lead to the end of human life.
  1. Massive technological replacement of human beings in the work force by computers and their robot offspring, performing tasks more quickly and efficiently for fewer bucks.
  1. Continuous rise in human population, especially among the most impoverished, threatening to outstrip resources to feed, shelter and provide economic well-being, increasing the likelihood for conflict. Malthus may have been right all along. He just didn’t get the timing down.
  1. Nuclear proliferation with more nations, some of them rogue, seeking the Bomb, increasing the possibility they might get used.
  1. Fanatics ultimately cajoling us into doing stupid things like opposing vaccines, free trade, immigration reform, fossil fuel addiction, gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, ad infinitum.
  1. Depletion of resources, including not only metals, soils and fertilizers, but flora and fauna essential to human survival.
  1. A natural calamity in which an anomaly intervenes, such as the sun increases its energy variability, or an asteroid hits us, or Yellowstone’s thermal springs go big time again.
  1. World markets collapse and a depression ensues, wiping out every vestige of economic security.

Worries come in temporal wrappings, short and long term.

Those we can do something about and those we can’t.

Our most subtle danger, however, lurks in the human leaning to ignore possibility, despite ample signs that “everythings [Not] gonna be all right.”

When we do this, it’s the Child, not the Adult, within us that speaks: “Please, Daddy, make the pain go away!

It gave us WWII. And in 1962, nearly World War III.

We push aside possibility daily in so many ways, neglecting our health, or overspending, or investing in wrong loves.

We do it on a larger scale when government prefers expediency, refusing to fund social security sufficiently, or confronting global warming, or curbing its addiction to deficit spending, or standing fast against terrorist regimes.

Bottomline, not worrying when we should may pose the most lethal danger of all.

–rj

What if: Reducing chronic worry

We worry about a great many things:  How will my interview go? What will people think of me?  Will I pass the test?  How will I pay this bill?  Will I get the loan?  Do I have cancer?  When worry becomes chronic, it can be debilitating, souring our relationships, triggering illness, and fostering pessimism.

Worrying is always an exercise in control.  It prospers because it temporally gives us a fix, falsely giving us a sense we’re in charge, only to reach an inevitably higher threshold to keep our anxieties in check.

One lasting memory I have of my father was his spending long hours in his favorite chair looking out the window, deep in thought, most of it worry.  In doing so he lost a great deal of life’s joy.  It’s what worry does in overdrive. If he had been paid for every worry he’d have been very rich.

Worry is a bully you need to standup to, not indulge, to make it go away.

It’s also a habit and in this case, needs undoing, and like all bad habits, can be unlearned.

The good news is that its remedy may be less difficult than you may have expected, or a matter of getting a handle on it by changing the way you think about life’s inevitable stresses.

The vast majority of our worries fall into three categories, each with its own remedy:

1.    The unimportant:  So much of what we worry about turns out to be trivial if you apply the test of time.  You’re having trouble with a neighbor. That can be unpleasant. Or what about the deadline for getting that assignment done at work?  Or that you may not get that job or promotion you had your heart set on?  Or that Nancy or Bill may not return your affection?  For perspective, ask yourself what would something like this matter a hundred years from now?  

 2.   The unsolvable:   Common sense should tell us the futility of worrying about fixed verities like death and taxes that can’t be changed no matter how we try.  I know such things can be scary, but we lessen our anxiety when we accept life’s randomness and adopt coping strategies to keep ourselves reasonably safe, and pile-up while we can, the nows of life around us as in fostering good relationships, doing what we enjoy, and thinking positively.

3.   The uncertain:  This category may include what we worry about most.  Will I still have a job?  How can I pay my bills?  Is it cancer?  If we could predict the future, we’d invest wisely and profit immensely in the best stocks, bonds and real estate. But even here, the experts at this sort of thing often predict wrongly and fail miserably. The consolation is that most of the uncertainties we worry about never happen or that we”ve simply squeezed out alternative possibilities with one scenario conclusions, making ourselves miserable.  As Montaigne in his inveterate wisdom once put it, “My life has been full of miserable misfortunes, most of which never happened.”  The trick is to accept uncertainty by not reaching conclusions you’ve no way of knowing are inevitable. It’s always a good thing to question your assumptions and consider alternative outcomes.

Summary:  Worry has a positive role when it alerts us to take action as a preventative. It’s why we save for retirement, buy life and health insurance, limit our indebtedness, change our diet, etc.  It becomes a weight when we wake to it, carry it throughout the day, and take it to bed with us at night.  It can harm relationships and affect our physical and mental health.  Remembering the three primary worry types and putting their coping strategies into daily practice can help you retrieve the happiness you mislaid.

Be well,

rj

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