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 that was broadcast to troops and citizens alike during the Yom Kippur War. It’s a reminder: Yes, things are dicey, and it’s easy to be scared if you look down instead of forward. Fear will not help.
What does help?
One of my favorite explanations of this idea comes from the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. “It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people,” he told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “We’re just, you know, meticulously prepared.” Think about John Glenn, whose heart rate climbed only to a modest 110 beats per minute as he was launched on America’s first orbital spaceflight. That’s what preparation does for you.
Astronauts face all sorts of difficult, high-stakes situations in space, where the margin for error is tiny. In fact, on Hadfield’s first space walk, his left eye went blind. Then his other eye teared up and went blind too. In complete darkness, he had to find his way back if he wanted to survive. He would later share what he saw as the key to navigating such situations: “There are six things that I could do right now, all of which will help make things better,” he told Fresh Air. “And it’s worth remembering, too, there’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.”
That’s the difference between scared and afraid. One prevents you from making things better, and may make them worse. After the stock market crash in October 1929, the United States faced a horrendous economic crisis that lasted 10 years. Banks failed. Investors were wiped out. Unemployment was at some 20%. Herbert Hoover, who’d only been in office six months when the market collapsed, tried and failed to stem the tide. FDR, who succeeded him, would have never denied that this was scary. Of course it was. He was scared. Yet what he said in his now-legendary first inaugural address in 1933 was that fear was a choice, and the real enemy to be fought. Fear would make the situation worse. It would destroy the remaining banks. It would turn people against each other. It would prevent the implementation of cooperative solutions.
Today, whether the biggest problem you face is the coronavirus pandemic or the dire economic implications that come with it — or both those things plus a faltering marriage or a cancer diagnosis or a lawsuit — you have to know what the real plague to avoid is. This life we’re living in, this world we inhabit, is scary. If you peer over the side of a narrow bridge, you can lose the heart to continue. You freeze up. You sit down. You don’t make good decisions. You don’t see or think clearly.
The important thing is that we are not afraid. That we don’t overthink things. That we don’t get distracted with the worst-case scenario on top of two other worst-case scenarios. Because that doesn’t help us with what’s right in front of us. It doesn’t help us put one foot in front of the other, whether it’s on a space walk or a tough business call. It doesn’t help us slow our heart rate down whether we’re reentering the Earth’s atmosphere or watching a plummeting stock market. It doesn’t help us remember that we’ve trained for this, that there is a playbook for how to proceed.
We can’t give in to fear. We have to keep going, like the thousands of generations who have come before us. We have to focus on the things that are in our control. We have to repeat to ourselves over and over again: The world is a narrow bridge, and the only way to move is forward.