A Problem Of Lighting

In trying to properly document my beliefs concerning human morality, existentialism and justice I’ve had to write mostly about things that people don’t really enjoy experiencing – let alone reading. Things like suffering, loneliness, abandonment and mourning; important experiences to me but a little heavy on the negative.

I got in a bit of a tiff with my father the other night. I asked him what hearing the news of my spine disorder made him feel; I just want to get inside his head to understand why he chooses to dismiss the problems I bring to him, rather than comfort me and help me figure things out. He responded by telling me that I’m too negative; these events and problems in my life stress him out too much. And that got me thinking: am I too negative.

If the only picture of my life you had was this blog then you would probably think I’m a fairly negative person. Today I went to apply for a provincial benefit so that I could get a new bed. This past Saturday, on a whim, my younger brother and I decided to check out some beds in Sleep Country Canada. One of the sales-reps asked me if she could help with anything. Pushy sales-reps usually really get under my skin, but she was nice and pretty and most importantly not pushy at all. She helped me look at a few beds, and when I described the nature of my back problems she seemed to be genuinely concerned. All in all, it was a good experience. When she asked how long I was planning on keeping this new bed for (whether it’s a five ten or fifteen year investment makes a huge difference when it comes to price), I let her know that I had just purchased a bed from this store not three years ago; the bed I bought then was now broken – the sides collapsed, huge indentations from my body and uncomfortable springs poking through the mattress. Long story short, she spent a solid twenty minutes making phone calls to various distributors, and I ended up getting a full refund for my current mattress; a ticket to go towards the purchase of a new mattress.

So today I went down to start the application process; in two weeks I should have about 850$. To put that into perspective, my current bed costs somewhere around 600 dollars. That means I’ll have $1450 dollars to put towards a new bed. Awesome news, but not exactly the point of this story. The place I went is called the ‘Housing Stability Center’. People from all across Hamilton, Ontario come here when they’re down on their luck. The people you’ll find applying at any given time paint a scary picture of a future most of us fear having. And that got me thinking.

When I first applied seven months ago or so, the other people applying scared the absolute shit out of me. They made my fears real. They were homeless, disabled, forgotten and abandoned. They lived hard, hard lives. And even though I had a moral philosophy at that time built from the idea that the weakest and most at-risk are the most valuable and need the most help, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at them for too long. I’m not quite homeless yet. I’m still young, fairly attractive, and I still have my wits about me; I haven’t suffered for too long. But perhaps to someone like my father, or my brother, or even my old friends, I bring out their fears and make them real.

How do you shine a light on a problem without the illumination becoming uncomfortable?

I realized something as I was walking my dog tonight. I’d be having a fairly good day; I was thinking positively. But I heard something and for whatever reason that triggered this anxiety-response. And that too got me thinking. Chronic anxiety is so difficult to just ‘will away’ because it’s very compelling. Anxiety is like an alarm. Your body senses a problem and an alarm goes off in your head alerting you of that problem. That’s essentially what happens when you’re anxious. When you have problems, like I do, which persist, it’s hard to shut that alarm off. Right when you think you’ve accepted your fate, that alarm will start ringing and you find yourself again piercingly aware of what’s wrong with you.

Maybe I can be a trigger for others without even knowing it. The solution to that is obvious: don’t be a trigger. If you don’t paint a more positive picture, no one is going to help you. The problem with that solution is that it’s not very just to ask the person suffering to suffer more quietly because their pain makes others uncomfortable. But maybe that’s what I have to do. So I’d like to briefly acknowledge some things that I’m incredibly grateful for.

I’m grateful to be born to the family I was born to. I’m happy with the person I’ve become, and although there are many, many things that make my life very difficult (unsupportive parents and siblings, disease, pain, disability etc…), I know that things could have been so much worse. I’m grateful to be Canadian, and to have live in a Country that meets my basic needs for me. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to live, and to grow, and to help others.

I’ve always been grateful for these things, but I’ve never shown that I’ve always been grateful for anything. Even though it seems slightly unjust that I have to work even harder for attention, help and normalcy, It’s the only way I’ll ever accomplish the things I wish to accomplish.

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A Principle Bigger Than Us All

I’ve spent the past two years writing on this blog (often not well) hoping to find some answers and hoping that maybe others would find some truth in my truth. I’ve had some pretty crazy experiences lately that have made me realize just how contracted my life has been. In these twenty four years I’ve been given the privilege of seeing and living many different kinds of lives. I’ve been the athlete. I’ve been the jock. I’ve been the ladies man. I’ve been the rock-star. I’ve been the ‘genius’. I’ve been the inspiration. I’ve been the loser. I’ve been friendless. I’ve been despised. I’ve been stupid. I’ve been the cripple and the burden. I’ve lived with hundreds of friends, and an in-tact family, and I’ve lived with zero friends and no family.

There’s this Becket quote that I like: there’s man all over for you, blaming on his shoes the fault of his feet. We always try to look for some meaning in the madness; some purpose. It’s an inherently human thing to do. We all at one point think that there is some great purpose for us;  that we’re some integral part of this grand design. We all hop we’re that special, and that’s one of those hopes that’s truly difficult to break away from, and incredibly hard to lose.

When I think about my purpose, and how ‘important’ I must be, I think about the disabled children abandoned because their parents didn’t want them; something that’s less frequent now, but incredibly common in the past. What about the kids and adults right now starving to death. What about the people slain for no reason but to satiate some sick sadistic warlord or sociopaths desires? When I think about these people I find it very difficult to see the great meaning in their lives. And I find it even more difficult to justify my desire to find one in my own.

I don’t know exactly what the future holds for me, but like everyone else I have a fairly general idea of the direction I’m headed in. I know that I’m going to have surgery on my spine to treat my Syrinx. I know that I’m going to remain disabled. I know that things are going to remain hard. When I think of my future I am stressed, but it’s not the surgery or the disability that make me feel stressed, it’s the lack of support and connection with others. And it’s the knowledge that the family I do have left aren’t going to make the world a much better place.

Recently my brother moved out, leaving me and my dog alone in this apartment. It’s made me really feel worthless, and really question the belief I used to have that I could find purpose and meaning. It was the hope that my brother would see my world and it would make him a better person that gave me purpose (I know that if I were magically cured right now I would go on to do wonderful things; the stuff that used to stress me out and prevent me from fulfilling my potential (the insecurity, the money-stress) pales in comparison to the stress of not being able to walk, or work, or really live. And so I thought perhaps it was logical to conclude that since he’s healthy, he could take that truth and completely transform his life; he could do the good things he is capable of doing). But now I  don’t know. It’s the actions that people make and the things that people believe and do that determine if the world is just and good. People make the meaning and purpose, not fate, not the ‘gods’, and certainly not ourselves. A person may be able to will themselves to greatness, but how you define greatness and the metrics you use to measure it might reveal that the greatest thing is to be good, not rich, or envied, or feared. Take the Kennedy family. Many revere them, and are inspired by them. But many people don’t know about Rose Kennedy. They had her lobotomized, and then institutionalized for life. She was very rarely visited. She was alone, to suffer and live out her existence; a causality for the greatness of others. And for what? Did the Kennedy’s change the world forever? Or was their greatness just as fleeting as the law student who passes his Bar, or my brother who gets the raise he’s been working towards.

The things we desire so much in this world are fleeting. I wanted nothing more than a nice car and fame when I was a kid. I pictured myself loved and wealthy. I am so far removed from that future I once longed for. If you had told my 14 year old self that in ten years I’d be disabled, in chronic pain, completely abandoned and alone, with too many scars to count, you would have crippled me. But I’m glad in some weird way that this has happened to me. It’s given me the privilege of seeing what it means to truly have a meaningful life. I am able to bear being sick and disabled and having such an uncertain future. I can find the good in those things and they are experiences and lives that I can use to paint a broader narrative with. It’s the lack of social connection. The lack of love and that opportunity to make someone better than yourself that comes with being in a family that makes me feel like nothing matters and I can’t possibly move on.

If my life has some purpose perhaps it’s to share that one small truth: being good (moral and virtuous – loyal, empathetic, temperant, prudent, just) and investing your future in others is the thing we need most in this life, and the thing we cannot live without. We can survive, and often thrive, without painlessness, without mobility, and without health. We cannot survive for very long (and we cannot really, truly thrive) without the meaning and the purpose relationships and connection to and with good people provides. It sucks going through hard things alone. But it sucks infinitely more going through them needlessly. Like Rose Kennedy, I don’t have to go through this stuff. It’s not actually going through it that stings the most (like I said before, humans are incredibly resilient), it’s the reason why I have to go through it that does. And that reason is the reason why people feel like the world is a harsh place filled with meaningless suffering. For me, that reason is that my brothers don’t understand that being good and moral means being there for others. It means just supporting them and loving them; calling them when they’re ill, trying to help them, and trying to learn from them. So that they can feel better, so that I can feel better, yes, but also so that anyone could feel better. It’s the principle that matters, not my particular happiness. It’s that my brothers don’t grasp that principle that makes me feel like my life is pointless and thus that life is pointless (their lives included, especially). I want to be happy, but I want them to want me to be happy more. Not just for me, but because it’s the right thing. I want them to get that one point. That being strong means going through hard things but remaining good. That the glory we can achieve in this life and the purpose we can find in some grand picture of some complex design cannot matter if there are people who are left in our wake starving, dying, and being killed. We can’t prescribe universal rights unless everyone has access to them. The world is harsh and life is often very difficult and unforgiving, but if people are good, and get that one main principle (being moral, and virtuous and supporting and learning from others) than even the most apparently meaningless fate can be transformed into the most meaningful one.

Are you afraid of being afraid?

The property which causes that sudden feeling of dread when confronted with a painful or stressful situation is anticipation. We are very symbolic beings. Our neocortex alone dedicates millions upon millions of neurons to the task of recognizing patterns; and almost double that number are redundancy neurons which are tasked with recognizing patterns of patterns. When we experience a stressful or painful event, our minds work to symbolize that event, and encode context specific patterns. Any stimulus involved in that event is further associated into that symbolism. As a result, we don’t just experience one stressful and fearful event. We experience thousands of different versions of that very same event. Over time, we begin to consciously recognize this confluence: dread sets in.

We match up this event consciously with representative standards in order to solve the pressing problem stress is meant to create: can we overcome, or do we have to adapt? As a result, if the event (which is now more of a state) in question becomes a stable state of existence, and that state is grossly disproportionate to societal standards, we begin to mourn.

The initial assessment and span of time required to encode and regulate redundancies and consciously digest all the necessary information just simply must be endured. Yes it’s going to suck and it most definately will have a negative impact on your quality of life. All things being equal, I would hope that this wouldn’t happen to anyone. But all things aren’t equal, and so this stuff does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate – for some, at such an alarming rate they cannot find the ability to cope and instead take their lives. You cannot change the fact that it does happen, and you should not change the fact that you become familiar with it. Most people will catastrophize and admit defeat; they believe they are destined for a life of misery and pain. But the only way they can really ‘know’ what misery and pain entail is by matching what they’re experiencing with generic standards. They mourn based upon the difference between the two.

Let’s say it was the norm for a people of a certain society to be blind. In our world, we view blindness as a disability, but in this particular society, it is the norm. If a sighted person became blind in our society, but was informed of another society where it was the norm, is it possible his coping skills would improve? You can obviously make the claim that objectively having sight is better than not having sight, always. Healthy people living in our world with no visual disabilities are absolutely happy and content. Why? Well, because as far as they know, they are at the apex of what we call the ‘generic standards’. Lets imagine some time in the distant future we gain the ability to communicate telepathically, to see and think on a quantum level, and never die. A person living now at the height of his health is relatively satisfied. Lets further suggest even that this person knows he will probably live forever (life extension therapies are available which will ensure his foreseeable lifespan). We can all probably agree this is an ideal scenario and probably accurately guess at this persons sense of well-being. Lets take this person and place them in the future. In the future, remember, people can think telepathically, have incredibly advanced IQ’s, never die, have none of the pratfalls of human biology, and can think at a quantum level. Would that man be happy living there, and then? I doubt it. I think he would be as miserable as the man living in our world without eyesight, or the woman who cannot move anything below the waist.

What I’m playing at is an existential interpretation of illness and disability, rather than a cultural and societal one based upon norms and averages. When we are ill and afraid our minds conjure horribly unbearable emotions and force us into the darkest corners of the most depressing scenarios. The causes of these phenomena are varied and impossibly complex. But for once that complexity does not hint at a mindless fatalism. We think in averages and problem solve with patterns. We are symbolic and allegorical creatures with a knack for intuition and emotional reasoning, but we kind of stink at calculating the cold hard facts. We label realists as unemotional robots (a title I have been affably given, many times…) and praise idealists with their deep insight. The answer isn’t a ‘balance of the two’ – which seems to have become the catch-all category for people who don’t really want to think too hard about the problem. Offering a banal ying-yang response to a complex question fundamentally presupposes that the two poles in question are the only two poles… and further that they are also the correct poles. That’s not always the case, and particularly in this situation it is definitely not the case. In this situation, dealing with fear and with expectations and mourning, the answer comes in the form of a question: why is standard upon which your fears are based the only possibly and necessary situation? Is it really the only possible state of existence? Is it possible things could have evolved differently? Is it possible we could experience pain way differently than we currently do? And death? And why does the thought of death ‘objectively qualify’ feelings of absolute terror – possibly the most aversive feeling in the world. The answer is that it one hundred percent does not. Death is the zenith of symbolic thought. We have absolutely no clue, subjectively, what death entails. And so since we don’t have even a marginally accurate redundancy for death, our patterns will be based solely upon weak metaphor and general symbolism. When we think of death thoughts like darkness and night-time and space, and cold come to mind, accompanied by feelings like ‘where’s mommy’ and ‘someone save me’.

Death is further qualified by the notion that it is inherently bad. But how is it? If it weren’t for death, there would literally be no new life, or any life at all. You are hear reading this only because trillions of ‘things’ died so that you could be here, at this particular moment of terrestrial time. There’s a certain feeling of endowed responsibility and pride in that thought, isn’t there? Further, what is greater in our universe, life or non-life? Non-living things, to be sure. There are more atoms and molecules and mass collections of ‘stuff’ out there than there are complex life forms. There is also more ‘darkness’ than there is ‘light’ – which is another great example of our weak symbolism and metaphor. Darkness is not inherently scary. That being said, place the bravest man in a dark room with loud haunting, staccatto noises and he will surely experience fear.

The point is simple: you qualify your feelings of fear by searching for standards with which to compare your situation to. The problem is in the limited number of standards we can come up with and find, and the definition of standards itself. Human emotion plays us and convinces us that the proof is in the feeling. Next time you’re feeling afraid, think of how that situation may be not a bad situation, or may be a different situation. If you can think of a way in which the painful or stresful situation, in some possible thought experiment, could be good, or at least not as bad, than I assure you your fear will lose a tremendous amount of its potency.

At the end of the day, death is still bad and pain still sucks. We will all face those two things at one point in our lives or another. You do not have to give in to them and they are not the only states of existence out there. You have a choice to change the way you experience them, existentially and phenomenologically  by altering the way you go about thinking about them. Unfortunately society and religion have come together to define what good states of existence are and what negative states of existence are. To Christians, having a healthy body is good, and having an unhealthy one is bad – and usually implies some evil or past transgression. Let me tell you right now that that is fucking bull-shit. It’s a consequence of poor thought and an irrational attachment to cultural tradition. The standards society forces on us can have an unconscious  and profound effect on how you cope with just shitty situations. If you are courageous and strong, and you can bear out the initial stages, you will find a way to adapt. If you think about what I have written for a little bit each time you are faced with a shitty situation, you’ll find yourself adapting to different patterns and experiencing a higher level of peace and satisfaction.

My Life of Fear:

Fear is a big part of my life – more in the vein of competition rather than oppression. I have a lot of fears in my life, and a great portion of my day is spent being afraid of different things. Those moments, however few or fleeting, can be extremely useful if you have the courage to try and really roll up your sleeves and get to the root of the problem.

I have written quite a lot on the topic of fear, and while I feel comfortable with all that I have learned so far, I still yearn for more answers. I don’t think there is one absolute truth out there for anything; I  don’t believe in an absolute ‘hockey standard’, or  a ‘fashion truth’. I don’t believe in any type of ‘abstract’, objective standard of perfection. But I do think that we can find answers to many of the questions which we have. I think that each individual person is walking a completely different path from their fellow man, and as such, they will see ‘truth’ in a different context than everyone else. Our world is proof of this: there are Christians who are absolutely convinced of Christ, and atheists who deny his existence completely (as a spiritual being). I’m not saying I think everything is relative, and I don’t think supporting the idea that individuality extends well beyond our vain, egotistical values commits me to any form of post-modernism. I just sincerely believe that the amount of ‘stuff’ out there (facts, truths, things, events, future events, possible events) is infinitely larger than our minds can grasp. And I find an extreme sense of comfort in knowing that.

The particular question I have been obsessed with lately is this: how can I overcome fear. Overcoming fear doesn’t mean feeling absolutely no fear, but, for me, it means having an overarching understanding of fear, and all of the different ways of understanding fear. I think we can look for truth in many directions, and find incredibly satisfactory answers. But I don’t think those branches all converge onto one fact, or principle, or set of truths. I also think that our species is stupid and limited. We are beautiful and amazing, don’t get me wrong. But now that we don’t fear for our lives on a daily basis, we have food and shelter and disposable income, we have begun to fully grasp just how limited we are, intellectually.

It’s weird how our brains work. We see patterns and we see redundancies for patterns, and our brains work tirelessly behind the scenes interpreting and sifting through these patterns. As a result, answers often come from places we would never even think to look. This is called the Butterfly Effect.  I bring this up because this very phenomenon happened to me recently, and it dramatically changed (and improved) my understanding of fear.

I was reading the famed ‘Ender’s Game’ series (I’m currently reading ‘speaker for the dead’), and although almost everything in those books has had a tremendous impact on my perspective, there was one part in particular that really connected with me. Ender was talking to an artificial intelligence and they got on the topic of emotions. The AI said that emotions were something she did not understand, as they are a direct product of our evolution – that’s why we share these emotions with animals. She said that she had been created, and so as a result she finds it very difficult to ‘feel’ the way that humans do. And that’s what got me.

When I stripped everything down, ultimately my fear was rooted in this feeling of mourning that things just hadn’t turned out ‘right’. I thought that there was some ultimate objective standard, and that fear itself derives objective existence from the concept of ‘well-being’. That insofar as life is better than death, death is a bad thing, and should, ought, to be feared. But why is that true? Why are the metaphorical, dark images which come to my mind when I’m afraid ‘bad’? Why is darkness ‘bad’? Why is ’empty space’, scary? The fact of the matter is, they aren’t. I find a crisp, clear summer day on a tropical island beautiful. But, perhaps to another creature, or even to another person, darkness is beautiful, and emptiness is beautiful.

Sure death sucks, and I can accept the fact that I will probably never rationally welcome death with open arms, but that fact does not commit me to the position that says fear has inherent existence and should rightly be feared.  Fear does not exist, it just exists in us. It is incredibly complex, and if I try to surmise exactly what fear is in one, succinct sentence, I will fail. But fear is not real. It is a product of our evoultionary history, consciousness, our minds. Fear is as much a part of us as our arm, or leg. Evolution created fear, not the other way around.

I was thinking about this the other day: what would really happen if I gave up fear altogether. What if I were a soldier in battle, and as the enemy charged I threw caution to the wind and met them in pace and in spirit. And do you know what my very next thought was? I shit you not, “what if I just died directly after that. What if after throwing caution to the wind and meeting my enemy in battle I am instantly killed? What if my death is that unceremonious?”. What the fuck kind of disillusioned thinking is that? I decide to give up fear, but then the very next scene, the scene enshrined by both logic and reason, is a scene born of fear. What are the chances that I would just instantly die, unceremoniously directly after I give up my fear? Is that really an even balance of all the options?

See, that’s what fear does. Fear makes you think like there’s no other way out. It makes you see one single story, and then live by that story. Maybe in our evolutionary past this was adaptive (maybe that’s not even relevant), but now it’s not. Fear goes by another name: Barabbas. Fear can go fuck itself. We don’t need to let fear control us. You will not find that control in any religion, you will only shift the control from fear to God. The whole point of this rambling essay is to communicate that you can in fact let go of fear. You have to make that decision. It’s not going to be easy. You may feel slightly informed and maybe partially inspired after reading this, but your journey is far from over.

A few parting tips:
  • Turn everything into a challenge. Life will be much less threatening if you realize you’re a competitor. 
  • Accept your inevitable death. You’ll never truly get a grip on fear if you constantly entertain the delusion that you’re immortal.
  • Shed your fucking ego: chances are, you will not be remembered long after your death. Find how empowering that is. Empowering in the sense that at the moment you realize how insignificant you truly are, you will finally see how much work you have to do to get where you thought you were going.
  • Stop being so entitled: like I said, you’re going to be forgotten when you die. That means that no one will remember except for your family. This is why Eric Harris did what he did; he wanted a shot at immortality. Don’t do that. Instead, do everything you can to be remembered once you die – for positive reasons. At the very least, after your gone people will have a whole lot of respect for you. And there are few more comforting thoughts than that.
  • Work hard: work when no ones looking. If you work for recognition only, than you really didn’t grasp the last four points at all.
  • Be nice and kind to others. Fear leads people to do horrible things, and transforms people into horrible little mirages. If your afraid, run in the opposite direction. Be as nice and kind as you can, and I guarantee you, your fear lose that intensity.

Philosophy of Virtue: prudence and fear (part 1)

The key to fear isn’t any one thing. It isn’t some misdirected sense of courage and honor, abstaining completely from any thought or any pretense of thought pertaining to fear.Luca_Giordano_014 Neither is it giving yourself completely to fear, hoping to learn some invaluable truth by totally offering yourself up to its unforgiving arms.

The key to fear is balance, it’s harmony.

For the longest time I have been vacillating between those two poles. At the one end stands this stolid creature, unwavering and immovable; ready to take on any and all fearful things. And at the other a man who for all intents and purposes appears completely absorbed by his fear, absolutely and completely entrenched.

Both of these ways of addressing fear and living with fear are imprudent and incomplete, but few of us ever understand why. Our society offers up these binary oppositions to us all the time. This time it’s what a man facing his fears should look like, and what a man facing his fears should not. It’s a lie, though; I can tell you from first hand experience that neither work – that is, they are not inherently useful.

So lets take a brief moment to look at our options (options as dictated by society and the media):

  • Option A, distance yourself from feeling fear.
    • entails reckless abandon (only not the romantic type).
    • It involves abandoning your feelings and never thinking about the harsh realities of life
    • It is by definition passive, non-action. It does not entail an active attempt to control fear. 
  • Option B, give in to fear
    • entails, for the most part, a pathological need, an insatiable desire, to obsess and ruminate over all the negative possibilities.
    • It is defined by catastrophising

Society favors option a. It’s clean, it’s easy to mimic,  and it inspires a generic sense of hope. The only problem is, it’s nearly impossible to meet the standards required for execution; or at the very least, it is entirely draining, leaving little room to ride on horseback across the desert shooting Indians or lead the vanguard on Stalingrad.  Some can play this game, but they have won a certain type of genetic lottery. The point is, it talks of reachable conditions nearly impossible to replicate in the average joe’s life.

In response to the impossible nature of option A, most people romanticize their own journey with fear (which usually parallels option b). They talk about addressing your own fears and emotions and sharing those fears and emotions. They say this is ‘healthy’ and ‘it’s what real men, with real  courage do’ (I realize the irony in using the masculine form… but I can only include so many layers of analogy). They talk about their struggles with obsessing and catastorphizing as if they were desirable. They are playing the same game they lost at; pretending they’re something they’re not because facing that fact is too hard.

The real key to fear isn’t option a or option b, nor is it c, d, e, or f. The key to fear is just a balance. It requires wisdom and knowledge to keep yourself afloat.

For the longest time I have been trying to find a way to rid myself of fear altogether. I have been trying to find some nice clean-cut category to fit everything into. I wanted to say ‘fear is totally bad, and we are all better off without it, completely’, or I wanted to say ‘fear is totally good, it was the driving force behind evolution’. But it’s a balance. It’s more nuanced and subtle than any one cliché allows.

In order to get the upper hand on fear, we have to be constantly on guard and diligent with what goes on in our lives. We have to know when to let go, and when to hang on.

There is no such thing as good stress, or good fear. Eustress is a lie, and fear and stress are always bad. So long as we live in this ‘broken’ (I use that word very lightly, and so not in the same way a Christian would) world, we will always have to deal with that fact. One day I hope that we live in a world where no one has to suffer or fear. But until that day comes, all we can do is distance ourselves from fear when appropriate, and try to control ourselves when we need to face it.

I know how obvious this sounds, but look inward into your own life. How many of you are able to successively balance fear? Or have even recognized addressing fear as a scale rather than a categorical imperative? It’s easy to read through this and go ‘oh yeah, that’s just obvious’. Many of the structures in our lives are characterized by an equilibrium, not these black and white categories (shades of grey).

Most of us think in black and white terms, but be diligent for fear is a mix of good and bad. We cannot rid our lives of fear totally, but sometimes fear can save our lives (when we find Allegory of Prudenceourselves in an area plagued by some viral disease, fear makes us diligent and helps us avoid situations which might land us in our death-bed). I’m sure most of us have encountered this evolutionary argument for fear, and anyone who has graduated high-school has learned about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, of fight-or-flight. Fear in non-conscious beings is a great blessing; it turns on when there is a threat, informing the animal of immanent danger. In a way, fear bridged the gap between non-consciousness and consciousness; its the first form of artificial intelligence. But it’s not such a great thing in us conscious beings. We can think and that has proven oftentimes much more vice than virtue.

We cannot evaluate every aspect of every situation, and so fear kicks in and instinctively promotes an adequate response. The problem, is that for the most part people don’t live in conditions requiring around the clock diligence anymore, and so fear has mixed with consciousness, forming this ionic bond – weighted heavily in favor of conscious fear. Our conscious thoughts create this dense mine-field around the central kernel, the real threat. We spend most of our time navigating that minefield trying to reach that kernel, and identify that real threat. The problem is, we rarely get there, but we’re almost always stuck somewhere outside the gates.

We can talk about two different formats of fear: unconscious fear and conscious fear. Unconscious fear  is the form of fear produced by natural selection in order to keep us alive; it is reflexive and instinctive, rarely consciously initiated. Then we have conscious fear; cognitively based, produced by thoughts we create (often takes the form of obsessive rumination and catastrophising) carrying varying degrees of epistemic value. If you’re anything like me, you find yourself afraid of the most trivial things; losing a pen or paper, wasting time, spilling a drink. We understand the function of fear (to keep us alive), but our biology wreaks havoc on the rest of our lives. The ratio of unconscious to conscious fear is sharply titled in bias towards cognition. The problem isn’t any one format, the problems arise when both are at play.

For the time being, all we can do is control our conscious fear. We cannot control our unconscious fear, and nor should we. There aren’t many problems associated with unconscious fear. The problems, again, arise when we start thinking of all the negative possibilities. We have to learn to respond to unconscious fear with instinct and intuition, not with conscious fear, worrying and obsessing. We can learn to allocate a certain degree of distress depending on how threatening a particular situation is.

Exercise prudence:

  • compare the risks of failure 
  • the rewards of success
  • the odds of success.

In respect to fear, the risk of failure could mean death, humiliation, losing social status or financial wealth. The rewards are various and generally universal. This all hinges on the odds of success. That might seem odd, talking about fear, but if we take a different perspective it makes more sense.

The odds of success can mean one thing or another, depending on the perspective you take. You could look at it in respect to the odds the outcome you picture through fear will come to fruition. Or the odds you will be able to control fear.

Allocating attention to distressing emotions depends on these three key things, but most importantly, the odds of success. Ask yourself “what are the odds this fear will be successful” . If you’re afraid of public speaking, and more specifically afraid that you will mess up and lose respect of your friends and colleagues, calculate how likely this is to happen. You can quickly form and test beliefs for each specific situation (fear of speaking generally, or of losing respect to friends or the public more specifically). With more general, conscious fears, the outcome need not be known (there is more epistemic wiggle room). But when it comes to something as precious as your life, you should take a little extra time with your addition and subtraction. A good rule of thumb is not to use belief as a truth-bearer.

When it comes to fear, generally ‘mums the word’. However, upon closer inspection, we find the walls of these traditional archetypes quickly fall away, revealing a vast array of different approaches to fear, and different definitions of what fear is. Some look at fear as a process or a unique entity. I take a secular humanist approach to my analytics, so I opt for the definition which says fear are, not is – that is, that fears exist, and that fear is just the collective abstraction, not a distinct entity. The key here is nuance and prudence. Nuance in understanding ourselves, and prudence in how we respond. Fear is not an entity, but a product of our biology, and the thoughts we create. Fear seems very real and is often very crippling, but it is not fear that brings us down, it is our fears… and we can control those.

There is hope, both that one day we will live in a world without fear, and that we have the tools at hand to respond with control and resolution to fear.

The old man smiled. ‘I shall not die of a cold, my son.  I shall die of having lived.” 

-Willa Cather, Death Comes For The Archbishop.

Quote

Insight Into Emptiness:

“For example, a medical student may make the strong determination, ‘I am going to cure all the illness in the world when I become a doctor.” Even if she is not able to do this, all her activities of caring for the sick will be more powerful because she has this intention. In the same way a warrior who vows to wipe out all enemies no matter what it takes will put everything he has into the fight due to his powerful intention. Similarly, with strong compassion and bodhichitta for all sentient beings, our ability ot progress along the path and work for the benefit of others will increase dramatically.”

KHENSUR JAMPA TEGCHOK

Fight or Flight

It seems to me that we suffer under the illusion that panic and anxiety enhance our problem solving in times of crisis and duress. Like that gripping, tight feeling of panic when your confronted by a potvaliant bare-knuckle brawler you accidentally eyed at the bar, who now wants to knock the living shit out of you, or when you’ve fallen ill. Or the moment you realize accidentally did send that text to that person you didn’t want to send that text to. We are deluded in believing that giving in to that feeling of fear helps us; but it’s easy. And fuck me if in that moment our bodies sure don’t make a good case for it. But it’s not.

Lets take a pragmatic approach: fear is important. Fight or flight is important. Not giving in to the psychological manifestations of panic, the prolonged shadow of fear, is something everyone has to learn how to do; that is, everyone who wants a happy life. If you die tomorrow, and you spent the last year worried straight, especially when you didn’t have cause to always worry, you’ll feel like you never had the chance to live. Listen to fear. Flee when necessary and fight when possible. But never give in to panic. Don’t spend all of your days worrying and afraid. listen to what your body is telling you, respond, but don’t for a second believe that your body knows exactly what its doing. Life is nothing if not imperfect.

All worldviews agree: fear is a manifestation of weakness and a vestige of our past. I’m not religious. I believe in the order of science; I believe in cartesian doubt. I believe in classical theory and romantic theory. I believe what I think is believable.

Evolution paints a grim picture of existence, depending how you look on it; in this instance, it sheds light exactly where we can’t see.

We also live under the delusion that right now, this point of history, is super important. I’d wager everyone ever believed the exact same thing. Conscious beings place themselves, their time, at the center of the universe. Why? Because we are the center of our universe. Sure we can consider a priori knowledge, but its a posteriori that has the greatest influence over how we act an behave, what we choose to believe, and what we choose not to.

We think that we are the culmination of billions of years of natural selection and evolution. And in a way we are. But fuck me if it ends here. Were just one small dot on a giant non-linear graph. We will evolve further. Millions of years from now, who knows what we’ll be. Or even if we will be.

You may be wondering how that at all helps us with fear; I just told you that your not that important, and that most of what you believe is horse-shit – encouraging stuff… really. This information carries with it the weight of a promise. A promise that so long as things do stay alive, they will tend towards positive progression; they will get better.

Our response to fear is a conditioned response and a programmed response. We have been given the gift of consciousness. That’s the meaning of life, the beauty of it all. That’s why we think that our lives, right now, as your reading this, are of some grand plot – things are going to end with me…. We an change our lot in life. We can be the force of natural selection. Sure there are limitations to what we can do, but so long as we are conscious and capable of rational inquiry, we can surely change our selves – who we are.

the only thing lately that imbues me with a deep sense of confidence is this very fact: that our ‘calling’ is to self-evolve. To take humanity from the weak fucking subordinate position it currently resides in, and elevate that to the tip of the fucking world. That’s what Nietzsche was all about too. Everyone thought he was a weak crazy man, and Christian crackpots love saying he was a deluded schizoid, but he knew exactly who he was, and what he had to do.

Our natural response to fear is to panic. To curl up. Why? Because we associate whatever is causing the fear with its potential negative consequence; the harm it will cause us. Fear is like a phone call or a fax; fear is only a mediator. It is not real. Fear tells us that harm is coming. It’s aversive because it must warn us not to engage. Panic is the opposite; it is non-engagement. So when we panic, we think that we have separated ourselves from the conflict. Panic is also just a mediator. It’s also potent because it has to get our attention. Fight or flight. And this is the psychology of it; the romantic interpretation. Lets look at the classical interpretation.

Take a grazing zebra, for example. Say the Zebra catches a stalking predator in its periphery; the stress response is activated. In order to escape from the predator, the zebras body has to expend intense muscular effort and energy. The sympathetic nervous system activates to provide for these needs (panic). In response to a novel stimuli perceived to be dangerous, the locus coeruleus releases  catocholamine hormones (epinephrine norepinephrine) to fuel the immediate physical reactions, the often violent muscular action.

Fear is complicated and dense; our understanding of all its underpinnings and extensions and interactions will come only with time. In the meantime we have to deal with the problem at hand. If we want to have an enjoyable life, we have to be courageous. It will be hard, and it will take extreme effort; it will be the very hardest thing you ever have to do. But with a little wisdom, a little time and a lot of balls, we can look death in the face and say fuck you; we can turn stress, into eustress. And take any negative situation and turn it into a challenge.

It’s trite and slightly banal, but why wouldn’t you want to try? Why would anyone want to live their lives curled up in a ball, fearful of whatever comes their way? No one does. They just think there’s no way out; their lot is cast and that’s it – there’s nothing left to do. Wrong, as long as you’re still conscious, you can still fight. And I’d rather die fighting to live, than die in a confused panicky stupor… which is where we are all headed if we don’t man-up. This is the key. Listen to the panic; let it say its peace, and tell you what’s the matter, but don’t let it set up camp. Kick it out. Take all that stress and transform it into eustress. Your body is still telling you something is wrong, you’re not going around delusionally believing everythings perfectly fine and kicking all bad thoughts out, you’re just subtracting panic; you’re taking away the aversive feelings. Those are great for the savannah – but were not living on the savannah. Lets replace panic and the subjective feeling we call ‘fear’ with eustress. Lets face fear and stress with a smile and a shit-ton of determination. Everyone is going to die. Lets do it fucking epically!