Living in Fear – the mode of seeking “Freedom from” and seeking validation for our past decisions
Living in Confidence – the mode of clarifying “Freedom to” and making choices as a responsible being.
Over the last 7 months, I have noticed that I have slipped into the living in fear mode. I knew what I didn’t want, but not what I did. I was waiting to see how the world would work out rather than committing to creating my own clear path.
I ran out of battery on my iphone this afternoon while sitting in starbucks. I was waiting for 2 people. I had to stay. It was good that I ran out of battery, because I ended up looking at Tibidabo mountain for 30 minutes and thinking about life.
Where did this fear of living an ordinary life come from?
I read intensely as a child. I would read anything, but by far my favourite type of novel were the fantasy or science fiction novels where a young unknown hero saves the universe.
From age 7, I watched Star Wars repeatedly. I would watch 10 to 15 minutes each morning during breakfast before going to school. The books are terrible, this was a movie world not a book world.
Starting from age 11, I read fantasy books. My favourite fantasy world of all was Dune. I found Dune aged 12. There are 8 books (I still have them here on my bookshelf) in the series. We follow the life of Paul Muad’ib from his life as an unknown son of a small time aristocrat to his becoming the Divine Emperor of the entire known galaxy, including mystical powers of telling the future and reading other people’s minds. I fancied myself as a version of Paul. I tried the mental skills that he was taught in the book. Never did work.
Didn’t stop me imagining. As a teenager, I read the Dune books twice; from start to finish. Each time, it was a 6 month journey. (I have only ever read 3 books twice: Dune, Lord of the Rings and Steinbeck’s East of Eden.)
I remember the first time I finished the Dune books, I searched everywhere to see if there might be a ninth book. There was no google, no amazon – only my local library and local bookshops. When I realised that it was over, that there was no more adventure to be had in the fantasy world of Dune (and that Frank Herbert had passed away… the final book was finished by someone else) I was devastated.
Real life never felt as intense or as alive as the experiences that I was living in these book-based worlds of fantasy.
In the real world, I went to school (boring), did my homework (boring), climbed trees (fun), ate breakfast, lunch and dinner (alway enough and healthy).
I think it is this immersion in these fantasy worlds for much of my childhood that shaped my fear of living a life that is ordinary.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
The Fantasy Worlds I Lived In
The Author’s & series that I loved during the ages of 10-15 (in order of preference):
It describes the anxiety arising from the Fear Of Missing Out, made famous as FOMO. I have a hard time sitting at home doing nothing productive. I have a sense that I am wasting my time. Classic FOMO. (I won’t mention the clues of social media addictions… I had to delete facebook from my iphone… it was becoming too consuming).
Summer amplifies this anxiety as I have too much time to think. I don’t teach too many classes and spend a lot of time reading, reflecting and thinking.
As I reflect, I think my fear is less FOMO – fear of missing out, and more FOOL – Fear of an Ordinary Life.
I am a F.O.O.L.
…it does cause anxiety late at night, through the morning, before lunch, after lunch… etc.
Fear of an Ordinary Life
It strikes me as supremely arrogant to believe that I deserve a greater than “ordinary life”, but there is definitely a striving inside myself pushing me to live a meaningful life. I have the feeling that I was given great gifts in this life: where I was born, when I was born, the brain I had, the health I had, the options that a good education has opened for me.
As a meditative exercise I sometimes reflect upon how tiny I am in this universe. It is 11 billion years old, and more enormous than I can imagine. I am miniscule. In 100 years I will be forgotten. In 1 million years… why does any achievement or lack of achievement matter?
This meditation takes away the rational questioning about whether I should care about doing meaningful things or not, but it doesn’t take away the underlying unease with myself.
The Buddhists say that this is an itch I should not try to scratch. I should learn to observe the itch without being driven, moved, affected by it.
I am a poor observer of the itch. FOOL is running like a clogged back-end server process on my brain’s CPU.
Wisdom is to accept that we do what we do and that is enough. Even if I don’t do my best, it is the best that I could deliver at that time and that moment. We can learn from poor decisions, but we get nothing from the emotion of regretting past decisions and we get nothing from the emotion of anxiety over current decisions.
My father takes decisions very quickly. He has the attitude that he will change direction tomorrow if he is wrong, but he will not wait to take a decision.
Maybe I only see the outside of my father – maybe inside he does face anxiety and frustration at himself for not doing better to get prepared for something. He does a good job of hiding it.
I feel like I spent far too long in agonising worry over decisions. I should take a direction more quickly, but also be open to reversing the decision tomorrow. (As some that know me well will attest: I am poor at accepting that I am wrong).
To be wrong is to have learnt something new. If I take a decision now, and tomorrow I realise it was wrong for me – this new wisdom could only come because I had taken the decision.
What about you?
Are you good at taking decisions? Are you good at dealing with anxiety? I’d love to hear how you approach decisions and deal with yourself.
Status Anxiety is a much bigger issue today than at any time in history.
The self-help gurus have sold us on the idea that each of us individually has the power to succeed or fail within us. If I read “Awaken the Power within” I will find my power and inevitable achieve riches. If I read it, and I am not rich by Friday… I am a loser.
17th Century: Nobody Expected to Become An Aristocrat
Nobody in the time of Louis XIV thought that if they just worked a little smarter that they could be as rich as Louis. Today we see Bill Gates in jeans and a tshirt and it feels like if I had a garage and worked hard I too could become a billionaire.
It is probably as likely to become a billionaire as it was to accidentally switch places with Louis XIV… but we don’t feel it… and so we have enormous anxiety over the fact that we ourselves haven’t got a billion in the bank.
Driven By Status, Not Money
Economists give a vision of us that we are rational actors almost entirely driven by money.
According to Alain de Botton, the truth of it is that we are far more hungry for status than we are for money. It tends to be that well paid jobs come with lots of status, and poorly paid jobs are very low status. If you were paid €100K for cleaning plates in McDonalds – the lack of status would still make the job tiring. Research says that only about 10% of the population who are not bothered in any way by their perceived status in society.
Career snobbery is a major feature of modern life: “What do you do?”, a positive answer… conversation; a non-status job… hmm, is that the time… I need to refill my drink.
A Ferrari is not just a fast car, it is an object that confers some degree of honour on the owner. People are a little nicer to you when you show up at a party in a Ferrari than when you arrive on a bicycle.
“Every time a friend of mine does well, a little piece of me dies” George Bernard Shaw
The basic freedom we have in life is the freedom to make mistakes. If we can’t make (reasonable) mistakes and learn from them, what freedom do we really have?
“The first time it is an accident, the second time it is a decision.”
My girlfriend likes to say: “The first time it is an accident, the second time it is a decision.”
My daughter is 8. She is starting to develop the ability to be guilty about something, and expresses anxieties about the world like never before. I assume this is a normal part of the growing up. She has a powerful creative imagination and it can develop some pretty powerful scary future scenarios. She hears about a plane crash and imagines her family on that plane. She hears about a boat sinking and imagines her family on that boat. She does something that hurts her friend (accidentally) and now spends 15 minutes feeling guilty and wallowing in the sadness.
Slaves to Guilt?
The limit on our freedom in most western societies has nothing to do with rules or laws or police. It has to do with guilt, and imagined potential guilt. Animals have a freedom in that they don’t lay awake at night painfully reliving their mistakes of the day and reliving the crap in a self-destructive guilty wallowing.
The first time you try anything, you should not be able to feel guilty. I am able to feel guilty about certain things when just imagining them… and then feeling guilty that I even imagined it. This then puts me in a crappy mood and I give up all efforts to be a better version of myself.
Sometimes it would be good to fall sleep with the guiltless calm of a dog or a cat. A deer watches another deer being caught by lions without dwelling on the idea: “it could be me.”
Accident or Benefit?
I wonder whether guilt and anxiety are evolutionary advantages or they are accidents that came with the enlarged frontal cortex? Our ability to imagine the future and plan how we will meet challenges is no doubt a powerful survival advantage. The agonising feelings of anxiety, of low self worth, of being “bad”, of guilt – do they help? Maybe they help us survive, but they do not help us thrive.
With my daughter, I don’t try to tell her to not feel the anxiety or the guilt. What she feels is real. I loved a conversation she had with a wise 11 year old. My daughter asked “what is the worst thing that has ever happened to you?” The older girl replied “I don’t find that a good thing to think about… I prefer to ask what is the best thing that has happened.” The older girl has a great imagination but has learnt to direct her imagination towards the positive. It doesn’t mean that she ignores reality, but it does mean that she doesn’t wallow in the negative feelings of what could go wrong.
Life can be scary and bad things do happen. We cannot pretend that this is not the case.
We can cultivate the belief that we are resourceful and when we face challenges we will do the best that we can do – but we don’t have to spend our hours, days and years preparing for every horrific potential scenario.
Are you a parent who has seen a child face anxieties and feelings of guilt? How have you helped them deal with these uncomfortable feelings?
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