I’ve heard it said that there are only two basic emotions, love and fear. Everything else is a derivative of these basic two drivers. When we talk about freedom it is useful to differentiate freedom to (love) and freedom from (fear). It is about running towards something or running away from something. This is an oversimplification, but perhaps a useful way to frame the world.
As I thought more deeply about my last article on the dangers of relying on the 4% rule in early retirement I realized this was really a post about love and fear. It was about the fear of running out of money at some point in old age, the fear about having to go back to work and maybe be miserable, or worse not being able to work at all when I need to the most. It was about the fear of losing my health or a lifestyle I crave. Saving more makes those fears less likely to be realized. The fear of future problems is greater than the fear of losing a bit of freedom in the short term.
But it was also about the love of freedom. Saving money does create freedom in the future; freedom to never have to work for income, freedom to change your mind, freedom to spend more on whatever you love, freedom not to have to choose between chemotherapy, helping a loved one in financial need and an exotic vacation. This is real, and no less valid than the fear.
At the end of the day there are simply too many variables to really make a completely rational decision about many things. We will rationalize our decision of course and tell everyone how smart and well thought out our plan is and why it is better than anyone else’s plan, but at the end of the day it comes down to those primal gut feelings of fear and love.
There is a curious thing about staying in situations we do not care for, whether it be a tedious job, a loveless relationship or a city we can find nothing redeeming about. Even though we don’t like it, we don’t fear it because it is known. It is a tangible amount of discomfort that we can manage. Many times we stay here because it is comfortable. Many times we stay there too long, like the frog in the proverbial pot of boiling water. We know there may be something better out there in the world, something we will love more, but we are fearful of losing what we have. Sometimes we are so driven by fear we are unable to act, even when it is obviously in our best interest. We can become extremely unbalanced, and when we do we will usually be unhappy or feel anxious.
When fear rules our lives we are not living to our potential. We limit ourselves. We all probably know someone in their 70’s or 80’s with millions of dollars and terrified to spend any of it even when it is clear they could never run out of money before they die. We know people that fear angering their ego to the point they hold petty grudges with family and former friends. The fear is so great at this point in some cases there is no love left, nothing to run to. This does not look like a pleasant way to live.
We see extreme examples of fear all the time, maybe even in ourselves. Many of us have a fear of public speaking. Some of us have a fear of flying, or spiders or even going outside. Some people don’t seem to fear anything (or at least they hide their fears well).
We are all wired a bit different. Each one of us has a different threshold of love and fear that we will run towards or away from, and by listening to that little voice we can learn a lot about ourselves. When we step too far to one side maybe this simple awareness can nudge us back on track.
Throughout most of my life the decisions I made were primarily fear based. I did things to avoid pain, loss and uncertainty. This is where I found comfort. More recently I have tried using love to make decisions. Going part time was an example of this. It was hard to change this fundamental mindset, but ultimately possible.
At their core, fear and love are just complex chemical reactions that occur in our bodies. They don’t exist outside of us. Empathy is an elaborate illusion. We do not feel what others are feeling but instead creating it within ourselves. Fear is generally when adrenaline and cortisol take over (think fight or flight). Love is generally when oxytocin (a chemical produced in your brain) takes over. If we can influence these reactions we can change our response.
Knowing when you are acting or thinking because of fear is a very useful skill.
When I am aware of fear I immediately stop whatever I am doing. I consciously relax; accept whatever is happening in the present moment and breath. It is amazing how simply paying attention to breath will influence mood. I may imagine a smile or think of someone I love. I may actually smile or change my posture. Physical contact with another person is beneficial (although depending on the level of intimacy this may be quite impractical in the immediate setting). If I can’t snap myself out of it I formally meditate or go on a walk. I have found these techniques to be extremely effective.
I don’t know if my decisions are any better, but I do know it feels better to make these decisions from a place of love rather than a place of fear. Maybe the fear is still there and I am just covering it up, but in any event it is a better place to be.
Pay attention to love and fear in your life and see what changes.