All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.
I recently had an epiphany I want to share with you.
As I mentioned in my blog post last week I recently attended a several day long retreat geared towards people seeking early financial independence. I was listening to one of the excellent presentations in a small breakout session. Towards the end of the presentation we were discussing doubt and anxiety and how to move past them when we are faced with challenging situations.
There was a discussion of expecting these emotions and accepting them when they arose, and how to manage them when they inevitably came. To be honest I was a little distracted and tired from the little amount of sleep I got the night before and I was a bit unfocused at this point. Everything made sense, but don’t know if it was really sinking in.
There was a brief pause and a woman siting to my left raised her hand.
In a quiet voice she suggested when we got stuck in life and had difficulty moving forward we ask the following question:
‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’
For some reason this really caught my attention. It sounds like an innocent enough phrase, but it struck a nerve that I couldn’t quite put a finger on until a few days later.
What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
I kept repeating the question in my head, trying to figure out why it bothered me so much.
Notice the question didn’t ask if I was afraid, it already assumed I was.
It is actually a very subtly aggressive question.
But the question was right about me.
Like most people many of my actions are rooted in fear.
Many decisions I am making in my life are because I am afraid – afraid of failing, afraid of having regret, afraid of not being accepted, afraid of losing something or someone I loved, etc.
Only I didn’t realize this until it was verbalized.
What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
Bam! It was a swift gut punch that took me by surprise.
You see I pride myself on being a pretty enlightened dude. I like to imagine myself as a much improved version of me from 5 or 10 years ago; and I am in any ways. I am much happier, much freer and much more content. After all I’m the Happy freaking Philosopher!
In fact, that is my primary motivation for this blog, to share with you my ideas on improving happiness and freedom.
…but I’m still afraid at times.
Maybe more than I would like to admit.
This is not an easy pill to swallow.
I’m not sure we can really completely control our emotions. Influence them yes, but fear is something so primal, so basic to what we are. It just seems to bubble up from somewhere and take over. When we see the coiled up snake 3 feet from us or we hear that strange noise from the kitchen late at night the fear hits us before our brain even starts conscious processing. Maybe we can train ourselves to be less fearful, but it is extremely hard to just turn off fear. It is hard to shift these primitive ingrained thought patterns.
So what should we do? What can we do?
As I tried to wrap my arms around this dilemma I realized we can’t really talk about fear without mentioning the framework of mindset.
Stepping back from the primitive fight or flight fears, our mindset primarily determines our fear, not the actual facts of the situation. The exact same scenario can cause paralyzing fear, exhilaration or disgust in someone depending on their mindset.
Let’s examine the framework a common mindset dichotomy: scarcity vs. abundance.
The topic is more complex than I will discuss here, but in general when we feel things are scarce we have fear of losing them.
When we feel things are abundant we always know there will be more. We do not fear this loss because we can always acquire more.
I think most of us are wired to varying degrees of the scarcity mindset. This is why horrifying reality television shows like this exist.
The disconnect presents when intellectually we know we need to switch our thinking to abundance, but emotionally we are stuck in scarcity mode.
Let’s stay with scarcity for a moment. I think a good starting point is to reframe the way we think about scarcity and recognize what is actually scarce in our lives. This may help us at least redirect that fear to something more appropriate. For most of us it is not material items or money that is scarce. All of us living a first world middle class or above existence live in material excess – massive abundance.
Money in excess of our basic needs may not bring us more happiness anyways, even though we convince ourselves that it must.
But we all have scarcity of time, and many of us have a scarcity of friendship, love and fulfillment. If we are going to remain in this fixed scarcity mindset, then at least we should know what is truly scarce. The problem is we usually don’t have this fear until it is too late.
It may seem strange to relate fear and comfort together, but they are really two sides of the same coin in an odd way. We seek comfort to avoid the opposite, which is discomfort. We fear the things that bring us discomfort. Comfort is soothing, discomfort provokes anxiety.
We cover up fear with comfort. Comfort is fear in disguise.
I convinced myself how comfortable and easy things were in my life in order to avoid facing the fear. My lifestyle, my job, my routines – much is comfortably on autopilot.
And I don’t challenge the comfort primarily because of the fear.
But we cannot live our lives to their potential when fear and comfort prevail. We stay in a narrow band of experience. Fear and comfort hide what is truly wonderful about our short stay here on planet earth.
Ironically I can see this in others much easier than I can see it for myself. It is a blind spot for me, and I assume this is likely true for you as well.
After I recognized this in myself I started noticing the fearlessness of those around me. It was an aura that was unmistakable and now that I understood it I wanted to have it. I needed it.
I felt like I was in a video game and people were walking around with little blue bars of fearlessness next to their faces. I could see how much they had. I couldn’t see my own of course, but I sensed it was average at best or near empty at worst.
In the context of financial independence (which was the theme of this retreat) fear often manifests in the form of being afraid to start saving and the fear of missing out and fear of deprivation by frugality. This was not an issue for me; in fact I had quite an uncanny ability to not be afraid by these things. In me the fear was failing at some point in the future; not saving enough, making a bad investment, starting a business that failed, etc.
I was allowing my situation to fall into routine comfort mode, but it was not comfort I was running to. It was fear that I was covering up and running away from.
This comfort of mine was just an elaborate rationalization and a few conversations I had at this retreat exposed this truth. It was a little uncomfortable, like falling on a scab that’s almost healed and ripping it off again.
Luckily I’m a quick healer.
The seduction is that comfort does feel nice, so it seems like we are doing OK. I can look around and see people less comfortable, less lucky than myself, and because the human brain is so terrible at seeing absolutes it says:
‘Look at all those people who are struggling more than you, this means you are doing great and should change nothing! Well done you genius philosopher you!’
The problem with this narrative is it may not always be true, and if it is true, it’s not true for reasons that matter or are relevant.
Someday I will learn that the voice in my head really has very little useful to say.
Nobody else’s happiness or success matters. Nobody else’s material comforts matter. Comparison does not matter. It only matters to you if you allow it to. We do have the capability to filter out this nonsense, although it does not come naturally to us.
I wonder if at the heart of it all is my fear of the unknown. As I strip away all distractions maybe I’m most fearful of what will be there. Will there we anything left that’s worthwhile? Maybe this is the subconscious existential dilemma that keeps us going on comfortable autopilot much longer than necessary.
When we purge our biggest distractions (work and career being the largest for most people) and start the deep decluttering of our lives we are forced to look at ourselves and face our real fear, the fear of not being enough.
Am I enough?
I hope so…
But I will never find out until I face those demons.
To be continued…