The Important Thing Is to Not Be Afraid
In uncertain times, it’s easy to be scared. Events can escalate at any moment. You could lose your job. Then your house and your car. Something could happen with your kids. Of course, we’re going to feel something when things are shaky like that. How could we not?
Even the Stoics, who were supposedly masters of their emotions, admitted that we are going to have natural reactions to the things that are out of our control. You’re going to feel cold if someone dumps a bucket of water on you. Your heart is going to race if something jumps out from behind a corner. They had a word for these immediate, precognitive impressions of things: phantasiai. No amount of training or wisdom, Seneca said, can prevent us from having these reactions.
What mattered to them, and what is urgently needed today in a world of unlimited breaking news about pandemics or collapsing stock markets or military conflicts, was what you did after that reaction. What mattered is what came next.
There is a wonderful quote from Faulkner about this very idea: “Be scared,” he wrote. “You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.”
A scare is a temporary rush of a feeling. Being afraid is an ongoing state. Fear is a state of being. The alertness that comes from being startled might even help you. It wakes you up. It puts your body in motion. It’s what saves prey from the tiger or the tiger from the hunter. But fear and worry and anxiety? Being afraid? That’s not fight-or-flight. That’s paralysis. And that only makes things worse.
Especially right now. Especially in a world that requires solutions to the many problems we face. They’re certainly not going to solve themselves. And inaction (or the wrong action) may make them worse, or it might put you in even more danger. An inability to learn, adapt, to embrace change will too.
There is a Hebrew prayer dating back to the early 1800s that translates to: “The world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid.”
The wisdom of that expression has sustained the Jewish people through incredible adversity and terrible tragedies. It was even turned into a popular song…