A common theme recurring in the works of Stoicism is navigating one’s fears. The purpose of philosophy is to learn to live well, and Stoicism teaches that this is found through the cultivation of our virtue on the way to self-mastery. In pursuit of our highest self, we traverse countless fears as we consistently exceed our comfort zones.
We mustn’t remove fear. We simply need to change our relationship toward it.
The feeling of fear– that subtle, queasy turning of the stomach, accompanied by increased heart rate and perspiration– arises not out of weakness, but, rather, as an indication that we are about to embark upon a difficult task outside of our comfort zone.
Sounding much like Teddy Roosevelt’s words about the man in the arena, Seneca writes:
“This is the touchstone of such a spirit; no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.”
Without difficult experiences, we can never come to truly know ourselves. We must be tried in order to tap into our depths and bring forth the strength which resides within us. The more fearful we are prior to an endeavor the greater the opportunity for growth.
“For manliness gains much strength by being challenged.”
Fear serves as a reliable metric for our values. We each feel stress (the fear of a particular outcome) regarding our relationships, home, and business. We feel stress when we worry about a child’s health. We feel stress when balancing the checkbook. This stress is a healthy emotional response ensuring we honor that which is deserving of our attention.
“There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
There is a subtle paradox concerning the act of worrying. The things we worry about rarely causes us great harm for the very fact that it garners so much of your attention. Often it is the thing we do not see, and subsequently do not worry about, which blindsides us and causes the most turmoil in our lives.
“Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
Though stress and fear come in different forms, they come for us all. We must master fear or be mastered by it.
When we feel fear, we must ask ourselves, is this a healthy indicator of our values, an opportunity for potential growth, or is it simply an unconscious thought pattern we have slipped into? If the fear serves us, it plays an important function within our lives and is most useful, but when groundless, fear becomes an obstacle to our development.
I find that that which I am most afraid of is often that which I most need. Joseph Campbell’s words have always held true:
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”