Seneca on the Folly of Groundless Fear

Seneca on the Folly of Groundless Fear


hat is stopping you from pursuing your dream job, from making art, from travelling the world, from putting yourself out there? Fear. It’s that simple. We can blame it on being too busy or bad timing or a lack of talent or insufficient resources or a million other things, but at it’s foundation, it is often fear that is holding us back.

The funny thing is that usually the fears that we have are groundless and exaggerated. Things aren’t as bad as we think they may be in our head. It is exactly this subject that stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about in a letter to his dear friend Lucilius. These letters are part of some of the most popular writings by Seneca and they have been compiled into what is now known as Epistulae morales ad Lucilium or Moral Letters to Lucilius.

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.

This letter in particular explores fear that is unsubstantiated and yet holds us back. Seneca goes through the idea of such fears in a very rational and methodical way, putting to rest many of our concerns and sharing with us ways to overcome them. Here are the five major points from this letter that are still relevant today.

1. To Know Your Fear Is To Defeat It

Seneca begins the letter with a simple statement on the value of knowing your fear. If you fear something, but you have already experienced it and understand what it is, then you are more able to face it in the future. It’s a simple thought, but I think we overlook the value it really provides.

“…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.”

It makes perfect sense, but what we do not do is seek out the situations that we fear, so that we can face them head on. If you were afraid of something, why not throw yourself at it and see what it truly is. What were you truly afraid of? Is it even worth that fear? Doing so will only ease your fear when the stakes may be much higher and provide you a strength that can’t be found in any other way.

2. Things Are Often Worse In Your Mind

I don’t know why or how we do it, but when we’re afraid of something, we have a knack for coming up with the worse possible outcome we can imagine. We can get impressively creative when it comes to imagining scenarios that we think will happen to us.

” …we suffer more often in imagination than in reality….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.”

For example, let’s say I wanted to write a book, but I’m afraid of the outcome because I know all these terrible things will happen if I put myself out there.

  • I’ll get 2,000 1 star reviews
  • I’ll get fired from my job
  • I’ll lose all my friends
  • I’ll have no more money, ever

In reality, if I really did write that book, the worst that will probably happen is that it will be ignored. That’s about it, but at least I’ll still have done it and that’s worth a lot on it’s own. Moreover, the assumption that no one will read it is probably the WORSE that can happen. Don’t get carried away with your fears.

3. Don’t Let Others Scare You

Often times, it is not even you who are afraid or have any issues with what’s ahead, but others that plant these ideas in your mind. When people don’t understand what you’re trying to do, when they are envious or jealous or pessimistic, they will fill your head with negativity and fears. You have to be aware of this and not let it hold you back.

“…we agree too quickly with what people say. We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour. And somehow or other it is the idle report that disturbs us most.”

People will always say things, but we can’t just take their words as truth. We have to examine these fears ourselves, understand them, and see if they are really worth being afraid of. They may not be able to overcome them, but you certainly can.

4. Expecting Failure Is Worthless

It may happen, it may not. You never know what’s to come. If you allow your fears to dictate what might happen, then you’ll never get anywhere. You need to understand that currently everything is OK and taking that chance may result in something, good or bad, but it probably won’t be as extreme as what you’re worrying about now.

“…what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time…The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning… But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent.”

You are better off being optimistic and living your life without fear than to be tip-toeing around the possibility of your suffering and failure to come to fruition. Stop worrying about what you can’t control.

5. Explore What Could Really Go Wrong

A question that we often don’t ask ourselves, but really should is, what is the worst that could possibly happen? If you really look at it, how bad could things truly go? Aside from some freak accident that is highly unlikely, the reality of what your fear truly is may not be that bad.

“You yourself must say. Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins! Perhaps it happens for my best interests; it may be that such a death will shed credit upon my life.”

We may not be able to control the crazy extents that our fears take us to, but we can try to see what even those fears may feel like. What if you did lose your job? What if you had to start over? If you rationally consider these scenarios and take them to their conclusion, it may not seem so bad anymore. You’ll realize that you can actually handle it. That you could recover from it if it did happen. That the risk isn’t so great and that the potential failure is worth it.

The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.

In the end, the most important point is to remember that fear is doing one thing, preventing us from living the life we desire. The advice Seneca shares in this letter is both timeless and invaluable (read the full letter here).

If only we had our own good friends who could write such thoughtful insights to us now and then! Fortunately, we have these letters. So if you are suffering from such groundless fears, then take heart in what he’s saying and notice that things aren’t as scary as we make them out to be.  Pay attention, explore your fears, and understand what they really are. If you do so, you’ll notice that you can overcome them.

Image via flickr

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