Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

 An Antidote to Anxiety: Master Class | American Jewish University

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his influential lecture on the shapes of stories. “The
whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity,
and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it
is good or bad,”
Alan Watts wrote a generation earlier in his sobering case for learning not to think in terms of gain or loss.
And yet most of us spend swaths of our days worrying about the prospect
of events we judge to be negative, potential losses driven by what we
perceive to be “bad news.” In the 1930s, one pastor itemized anxiety
into five categories of worries, four of which imaginary and the fifth, “worries that have a real foundation,” occupying “possibly 8% of the total.”

A twenty-four-hour news cycle that preys on this human
propensity has undeniably aggravated the problem and swelled the 8% to
appear as 98%, but at the heart of this warping of reality is an ancient
tendency of mind so hard-wired into our psyche that it exists
independently of external events. The great first-century Roman
philosopher Seneca examined it, and its only real
antidote, with uncommon insight in his correspondence with his friend
Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship and the mental discipline of overcoming fear.

In his thirteenth letter, titled “On groundless fears,” Seneca writes:

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are
to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

With an eye to the self-defeating and wearying human habit of
bracing ourselves for imaginary disaster, Seneca counsels his young
friend:

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the
crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as
if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly
have not yet come.

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.

Seneca then offers a critical assessment of reasonable and
unreasonable worries, using elegant rhetoric to illuminate the
foolishness of squandering our mental and emotional energies on the
latter class, which comprises the vast majority of our anxieties:

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.

Sixteen centuries before Descartes examined the vital relationship between fear and hope, Seneca considers its role in mitigating our anxiety:

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; or it fancies some personal
grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry
the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is
not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge
our fears to the greatest possible extent; 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 favour; believe what you
prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other
direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually
that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are
certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted.

But the greatest peril of misplaced worry, Seneca cautions, is
that in keeping us constantly tensed against an imagined catastrophe, it
prevents us from fully living. He ends the letter with a quote from
Epicurus illustrating this sobering point:

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

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