More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Fear Is a Framing Problem

One of the things I find most fascinating is that we are born into the world crying. The inertia of the first breath is such an overwhelming sensation that it makes us scared, resulting in a cry that acts as a surrogate for surprise.

Fear is the first emotion that strikes us, and life is about continuously navigating the residue of that impact. Much of what we do in our day-to-day lives is to mitigate fear, mostly as a means to reduce uncertainty. We set up to-do lists so we can approach tomorrow with intention. We build habits so we can anchor our attention in an ocean of chaos. This is our attempt to ground ourselves in something reliable; something we can predict that gives us a sense of calm.

The problem, however, is that anytime we look to the future or revisit the past, we reintroduce fear. When using the future as your lens, fear takes the form of expectations. When using the past as your lens, fear takes the form of rumination. Today, I want to go into these two perspectives, and delve into how fear materializes within these two pathways.

Let’s first start with the future.

Whenever we think about what the future can be, a vision is introduced. Now, I’m not talking about some grand, utopian vision that you’d see in a sci-fi movie, but simply a vision of what some aspect of your life could look like. For example, if I’m going for a run and I suddenly think about a product I want to launch, I begin to think about what that may look like.

“I want this product to help people be more creative.”

“I want this product to contribute to the viability of More To That.”

“I want this product to be an enjoyable thing to create.”

A flurry of thoughts and wants emerge, all of which come downstream from the mere pondering of a future state. That’s because a thought about the future is almost always linked to some desire, or something I hope to see materialize at some point. This holds true across all scales, from thinking about how I’m going to host a holiday party, all the way to wondering how you can decrease the threat of existential risk on the planet. Of course, the magnitude of the desire fluctuates, but desire is there nonetheless.

Desire breeds fear because once you have a desire, you have an expectation. And because expectations take your mind out of the present, you cannot be at peace. This is the conundrum we all face, yet all too often, we simply accept that this is the condition we must operate on. After all, if you don’t plan for the future or contemplate it in any serious way, how can you ensure that you’ll be okay when that future ultimately arrives?

While this is a valid concern, here’s the truth: The future is a construct of our imaginations, and nothing more than that. The reality is that no one can truly predict what will happen tomorrow, let alone a year or decade from now. And if anything, the events that will truly sculpt the future are the ones that we never thought to predict in the first place. As they say, history is simply the cataloging of surprises, which by definition, cannot be anticipated.

Fear creeps in when you refuse to acknowledge this fact, and instead attempt to control the future. It’s when you can’t accept uncertainty, so you do everything in your power to build up a net of expectations that you hope to actualize. While this may be comforting in the moment, the reality is that this is an anxiety disorder waiting to erupt. That’s because the more expectations you develop, the more you can never inhabit any given moment, which is all there ever is.

So with that said, what about the past? How is that a source of fear?

Let’s first start with why the past is important. In many ways, the past is our shortcut to wisdom. We can study history to see what we got right about certain issues, and what we got wrong. It acts as a continuous reminder of what we can reflect on, and how we can extract the most useful things from these events to craft a better life moving forward.

The problem with the past, however, is that it’s often riddled with artifacts that don’t contribute anything valuable to the present. Regrets, remorse, what-if’s, what-I-used-to-be’s, and so forth. Of course, there are many pleasant memories as well, but the ones that we carry on our shoulders are these dark artifacts, and these are the ones that we tend to think most about.

Interestingly, things like remorse do have their utility. Without it, it’s quite possible that you wouldn’t give yourself the space to reflect on your actions. Without the negative pull of regret, perhaps you wouldn’t think about how you can become a better human being. So while it’s possible that briefly visiting the past may have some utility, what’s important is that staying in it does not.

Fear tends to emerge when you compare yourself to a past version of you. Even if that comparison is a positive one (meaning you’re so happy to be you vs. who you once were), that will breed fear because you are now so attached to the current version of you. And on the flip side, longing to be the past version of yourself will make you fear your present condition, which means that contentment will always evade you.

The temptation here is to simply state the tired mantra of “Be present.” While there’s truth to this, the imperative to be present is a difficult thing to pinpoint, especially because it can be quite esoteric (and frankly, wrapped up in a lot of woo-woo). Rather, the point I want to make here is that fear is the result of hoping for a particular view of the future, or comparing yourself to a particular version of the past. While this is something we can all nod our heads to, the key is to be viscerally aware of this as you carry out your days.

For each new project you embark on and direct your energy to, get a feel for what expectations you’re opening up, and what hopes you’re getting attached to. Are you desiring a certain outcome, or are you doing it for the process itself? For example, if you’re doing it for recognition, understand that fear will pervade the whole experience because you’re already expecting a future state that you cannot predict. But if you’re doing it solely because it anchors your mind to the present, then there will be no fear.

And when you find yourself gazing into the past, what are you doing it for? Is it to extract the hard-earned lessons that will better orient you today, or is it because you’re helplessly opening up the wound of comparison once more? Is there any utility to this, or is it yet another pattern of rumination?

Part of being present is being okay with what is. But the other part is being conscious of what makes you afraid, and understanding that when the doors to the past and future are closed, fear has no place to wander within the halls of your mind.


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For more stories and reflections of this nature:

The Problem of What Others Think

Why We Doubt Ourselves

The Function of Education

"How do you find your ideas?"

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