“More things will scare us than crush us; we suffer more often in the imagination than in reality,” Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) once noted. One of stoicism’s most illuminating exponents, he spoke of our unfounded fears —those most recurrent, and the most insistent sources of our anxiety. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius, a collection of philosophical meditations, the Roman thinker examined the nature of these fears and suggested what he considered the only antidote.

When observed objectively, it’s clear that the mind has a strange tendency. Nearly always unconscious or even automatic, it functions independently of the events happening on the outside. In letter 13, “On Groundless Fears,” Seneca describes the exhausting habit of creating these imaginary disasters:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, 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. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime, it is not. So, look forward to better things.

Although it may seem obvious (what’s not happened has simply not happened), forecasts, predictions, fancy conjectures all tend to wander through the minds of the vast majority of people. But so long as a misfortune doesn’t happen, it remains but an idea.

Later in this same letter, Seneca (who’d once proposed the best way for dealing with the unknown) spoke of another feeling, one that’s above all, a decision capable of relieving the mind: hope.

In this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us.

Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favor. 

It’s likely that of those issues that concern us, that torture us, only some small percentage are based on real facts or on real suppositions. Seneca’s response to them is as practical as it is poetic, as brilliant as it is simple.

Image: Public domain

“More things will scare us than crush us; we suffer more often in the imagination than in reality,” Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) once noted. One of stoicism’s most illuminating exponents, he spoke of our unfounded fears —those most recurrent, and the most insistent sources of our anxiety. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius, a collection of philosophical meditations, the Roman thinker examined the nature of these fears and suggested what he considered the only antidote.

When observed objectively, it’s clear that the mind has a strange tendency. Nearly always unconscious or even automatic, it functions independently of the events happening on the outside. In letter 13, “On Groundless Fears,” Seneca describes the exhausting habit of creating these imaginary disasters:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, 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. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime, it is not. So, look forward to better things.

Although it may seem obvious (what’s not happened has simply not happened), forecasts, predictions, fancy conjectures all tend to wander through the minds of the vast majority of people. But so long as a misfortune doesn’t happen, it remains but an idea.

Later in this same letter, Seneca (who’d once proposed the best way for dealing with the unknown) spoke of another feeling, one that’s above all, a decision capable of relieving the mind: hope.

In this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us.

Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favor. 

It’s likely that of those issues that concern us, that torture us, only some small percentage are based on real facts or on real suppositions. Seneca’s response to them is as practical as it is poetic, as brilliant as it is simple.

Image: Public domain