Learning

Control Your Fears, Control Your Life

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of fear. There are few emotions that affect our ability to reason more than fear, particularly the fear of death.

As a nation, indeed as a world, we’ve been grappling with this kind of existential fear for the past several months.

There is fear of the unknown, fear of getting sick, fear of dying, fear of our way of life evaporating before our eyes, fear of going broke.

We seem to have broken down into two camps. The first are those who are allowing their fears to overwhelm their ability to reason and, as a result, are living in a state of suspended animation, somewhere between fully and halfway living. The second are those who are controlling their fear, transcending it, and using it to make their lives better.     

Fear is a natural part of life. Anyone who tells you they never feel it is lying, crazy, or both.  

On its own, the feeling of fear doesn’t equal weakness; but how we react to it determines whether it is a positive or a negative in our lives.  

Definition

Let’s define the word. The Cambridge Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen.”

The key to the definition is the last three words – “or might happen.” The things we fear might happen, but they also might not, and this uncertainty debilitates us and causes anxiety for many.   

My Fears

I have many fears, including losing my ability to support my family, not being able to defend them if called upon to do so, and dying young suddenly so I can’t grow old with my wife and see my kids grow up.

Those fears are a part of my life, but they don’t control me. If I let them control me, I would never take any risks and would live a safe, antiseptic, and ultimately unhappy life.

Life is unpredictable. Bad things do happen to good people. How we react to these possibilities tells us a lot about ourselves.

Control Your Fears

To me, Mike Tyson is one of the baddest men who has ever lived. People of my generation remember when, before the shocking Buster Douglas fight, Tyson seemed to be invincible. He exuded a cocky confidence every time he went into the ring that drew people to him. He seemed fearless and unbeatable. Yet, despite this façade, even Tyson felt fear every time he fought.

Tyson wrote: 

“Fear is the greatest obstacle to learning. But fear is your best friend. Fear is like fire. If you learn to control it, you let it work for you. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you and everything around you…So one must never allow fear to develop and build up without having control over it, because if you don’t you won’t be able to achieve your objective or save your life.”

I love the analogy of fear to fire. Flames, on their own, are not something to be feared; in fact, fire is life-sustaining and necessary to life. It becomes dangerous and deadly when it is allowed to spread uncontrollably. The key to staying safe around fire is to control it and use it for your purposes. 

Tyson notes, contradictorily, that fear is both an obstacle to our learning and also our best friend. How can it be both an obstacle and our best friend? Think of the fire analogy again. When fire is used to cook our food and sustain us, it can be thought of as our “best friend.” When it’s burning down our homes, it’s an obstacle. It can be both sustainer and destroyer.

If we remain irrationally afraid of fire even when it’s controlled, we won’t be able to live very long. I’m thinking of my furnace that burns in my basement. Those flames heat my house, provide me with hot water, and ensure I can cook my food. It’s fire under control. If I let a fear of fire control me, I would be cold during the winter, hungry, and taking only cold showers.

I respect the fact that my furnace is potentially dangerous, and I would call a trained professional if I had major, potentially dangerous, issues with it.

The fact is without feeling fear, we would be completely reckless, so it acts as a mechanism to provide us with good judgment. It’s our best friend because it prevents us from acting stupidly to our detriment. We allow it to become an obstacle when don’t control it.  

Think of the rare genetic disorder Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA), which makes people unable to feel physical pain.

At first blush, this sounds like a good thing. After all, who wants to feel physical pain. Yet, it is extraordinarily dangerous because that pain acts as a mechanism that regulates our actions. We generally fear pain and without that fear we are more likely to put ourselves into dangerous situations.

Fear acts like our pain response. It regulates how we act so we don’t do reckless things without considering the consequences and taking precautions.

Tyson, importantly, focuses on that fact that we have to control our fears. Returning to the previous section where I discussed the things I fear, if I didn’t have those fears I might act in an incredibly reckless way. I might take actions that could harm my ability to support my family or that would cause me to die very young.

My fears, thus, force me to exercise good judgment. Yet, they don’t paralyze me or make me indecisive. In fact, they do the opposite. I’ve learned to control them by thinking through and preparing so I know how to react if I find myself in one of those fearful situations. Think of it like soldiers drilling and training for war. They train so much to ensure their actions become automatic in chaotic situations.

I don’t want to lose the ability to provide for my family, but if something were to happen I’ve built a network of people, learned skills, and would take any job, no matter how menial, to provide. I also take steps to not do stupid things that could lead to a loss of my job.  

Sure, I fear not being able to provide, but it’s under control because I take reasonable steps to prevent it from happening AND I know what I would do if it were to happen.  

I don’t want to die young, but I’ve ensured I have sufficient life insurance to continue providing and have given my family many good memories so that when remembering me they would smile and know that I loved them.

I also obsess over keeping myself healthy by physical training, eating right, and taking the proper supplements. These are steps I can take to keep myself in the best health to hopefully prevent that fear from coming true.

Sure, I fear leaving them too early, but I’m taking to steps to make it less likely to happen, and I’ve prepared so if it does happen things would be as easy as possible for my loved ones considering the circumstances.

Jeff Putnam in his book Setting Yourself On Fire discussed some of the darkest and most defining times of his life to show how he overcame his fears and rose from the ashes to create the kind of life he wants. I highly recommend this book to all, particularly to those going through difficult circumstances.

What is to be done?

The key actions to control your fears and turn them into your best friend are:

  • Search your mind and heart and name your fears
  • Acknowledge those fears and don’t ignore them
  • Take reasonable actions to prevent them from happening in the first place
  • Prepare your response and make plans if they were to come to fruition. This includes running through different scenarios in your head, in a sense drilling your response so it becomes automatic

By taking these steps, you will eliminate the uncertainty and better control your fears.

Life is never a perfectly safe endeavor. There is always some risk inherent in it. Don’t let that risk prevent you from living life on your own terms. Fear can be an impediment to action or it could provide us with the tools and motivation to act. The choice is each of ours.

We are living in a particularly fearful time. You can see it in people’s faces. Fear, however, doesn’t have to be an obstacle. It could and should make us stronger, more resilient, and more prepared to deal with anything life throws at us.  

Why You Should Not Always Listen To Your Elders

Growing up I was often given the admonition to “listen to your elders.”

The underlying assumption was that by virtue of one’s age alone, a person had accrued sufficient wisdom to guide those of younger generations.

While the passage of years does presumably give a person certain life experiences, a blanket “listen to your elders” statement does not take into account the kind and type of experiences that “elder” has accrued.

As my teens turned into my twenties, then into my thirties, and now into my forties, I have learned the valuable lesson that someone’s age on its own is not sufficient for me to allow that person to speak into my life.

Age is simply not a barometer of the quantity or quality of wisdom a person has.

I was duped.  

I would argue that when a young person is told to “listen to your elders,” the one saying it is trying to mold the younger person into one who is pliable and compliant to those in positions of authority.

This command is, thus, used as a bludgeon to keep younger people in line and unquestioningly obedient to authority. Respect must be earned – and being alive for a large number of earth rotations around the sun is not nearly enough to earn it.

Our Children Learn From Us

This is the lesson I try to impart to my children. Those who wish to speak into their life must earn that right, and they should never blindly trust or submit to anyone. When kids are taught to unreservedly “listen to your elders” it leads to unthinking, passive, complacent, and submissive adults.   

As my friend, The Polite Savage, said:

“As a parent if we instill obedience, submission to authority, and reinforce complacency as opposed to encouragement, curiosity, and self worth, we are subconsciously setting the stage for bullying.”

I have found that some of the wisest people I know are younger than I am. Conversely, some of the most unwise people I’ve come across are older than me and thus, technically, my elder. If I allowed such people to speak into my life, I would be doing myself and my family a disservice.  

Instead of “listen to your elders,” young people should be taught to respect those of all ages, but only follow those who have demonstrated through their actions and experiences that they are worthy to speak into their life.

I can give numerous examples of people in their twenties who are crushing it and who I listen to when they speak on matters of entrepreneurship.

I know men in their thirties who, while they have been a father for shorter than I have, bring so much wisdom to the topic that I would be stupid to not listen to them merely because I am older than they are.

I also know men who are older than I am and who have given me profound guidance on marital issues that have helped improve my life.

All of them walk the walk and have demonstrated to me their knowledge and wisdom. They have earned the right to speak into my life.   

Ultimately, it’s about swallowing your pride and understanding that the answers can, and do, come from people of all ages and backgrounds. There is no monopoly on wisdom and truth, and it can come from unexpected places.

If we are lazy and simply pay attention to those older because they are an “elder,” we don’t serve ourselves well, and we will miss out on many other sources of wisdom. This way of thinking closes off our minds to new knowledge.

At this point in my life, I have developed the quality of discernment and can spot from a mile away who is full of shit and bloviates about topics they know nothing about. While I show such people respect, I would never follow their counsel.  

Discernment and humility are the keys to the puzzle. Take the time to recognize who is worth listening to and be humble enough to consider their advice no matter their age or perceived experience level.

The right experience and true wisdom are much more important than age or outward expressions of confidence.

Fathers should encourage their children’s innate curiosity and help guide them towards the ability to discern who is worth allowing to speak into their lives and who isn’t.

If we do this, we will create children with critical thinking skills, humility, a healthy skepticism for unworthy authority, and greater self-respect.  

Hunter Drew is one of the examples I cited above of a person younger than I am who has proven himself to be wise and who speaks into my life. In his wonderful resource, Fatherhood For Modern Times, he goes into detail on many of these issues that are so important for raising children into critically thinking adults. I encourage all fathers and all who aspire to be one to pick up a copy.

Crush Your Ego

“Ego” is the Greek word for “I”.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ego as: “the idea or opinion that you have of yourself, esp. the level of your ability and intelligence, and your importance as a person.”

Why are we so unwilling to accept criticism, even of the constructive kind, and so loathe to change our opinions in the face of evidence that contravenes our opinions?

Our ego, of course.

We all have some kind of inflated opinion of our ability, intelligence, and importance, and when we admit that maybe we are wrong about something we often feel attacked or unworthy.

Our ego is always present, and always protecting its turf, which is our own perceived self-worth. If we question our own importance, abilities, and intelligence, we question our very core.

Thus, we will cling to our opinions and fight to the death to preserve the identities we have constructed for ourselves.

We begin to identify with our beliefs about the world and about ourselves. These beliefs become “us”.

But, have they really served us well or do they inhibit our growth?

Crushing Our Own Ego

I am well aware of the need to crush my own ego, so I can live more freely and continue to grow, and it has been a process I have been undergoing for months.

It is not easy.

Sometimes it is painful.

I understand that I have made myself the center of my own universe for my entire life, and it has not served me well.

This needs to die.

I am not the center of the universe and no one owes me a damn thing.

I am not special and need to get over myself.

I now understand that, paradoxically, when I complete this process I will be able to truly live without preconceived, and often erroneous, notions of how the world should work and my place in it.

At some point in the past year, I became tired of living in “bad faith.” My simple understanding of this existentialist concept (and I know it’s much more complex), is it refers to how we act inauthentically to fit in to social expectations and norms. We don’t act in ways true to ourselves, and thus are not truly free because freedom implies the ability to be our true selves and act accordingly.  

We become slaves to others and their expectations because we want and desire their approval more than anything else. Our ego, thus, gets intertwined with this inauthentic edifice around ourselves we have painstakingly constructed and jealously guarded.

Knocking that structure down becomes exceedingly difficult because it has been with us for our entire lives. It is, in effect, our security blanket, and we fear the process of creating ourselves anew.  

For about a year I’ve known I needed to do this work on myself because I’ve been living in bad faith.

This realization was necessitated by a crisis, but not an acute one. Instead, it is one that has built up for more than a decade and cuts to the core of how I understand myself and the people closest to me.

The Work On Myself

While the work of crushing my own ego and remaking myself is not yet complete, I have made great progress.

Below are the steps I have been taking.

I am the first to admit, that I am not always successful and, at times, backslide into old ways of acting and thinking. The process is not a linear one; it has peaks and valleys.

No one said that undoing decades of constructing and defending my ego would be easy.

Remove unnecessary hobbies or actions from life

When you think about the things you do reflexively, consider how many you do because you truly want to, and how many you do because it is a societal expectation or just something you’ve always done without considering the reason why.

I realize I’ve wasted time, effort, and energy on trifles. I have settled for mindless pursuits and, in the process, missed numerous opportunities to live, learn, and love.

One small example is I no longer watch professional sports. I am not suggesting that everyone has to do this, but for me it’s something I never truly enjoyed, which made it an unnecessary part of my life.  

It is something I did because it is what is expected of men in America, and because it gave me something to talk about with other people. To not feel left out, and to fit in I watched sports.

At the beginning of the football season, I made it my mission to not watch a single down of a single game, and I succeeded. I didn’t even watch a moment of the Super Bowl.

Remove people from my life

We are taught the subtle and sometimes not so subtle message that having a bigger social circle makes us more valuable. We strive for popularity.

I’ve come to the realization that life is too short, and time is too precious to waste it worrying about and especially trying to please anyone who brings negativity or provides no value to my life.

And, oh have I expended much energy and time in this pursuit.

Time I can never get back.

Lest you think I am all negative, I am trying to double down on those people and relationships that are positive and do bring value to me.

I now know it’s not the number of friends that are important, but the quality of those relationships.

I would rather have one or two close friends who bring positivity than one hundred people who claim to be friends but are actually fair-weathered acquaintances.

Learn to Say “No”

The word “no” is now a regular part of my vocabulary. The fewer commitments and promises I make, the more time I will have to improve myself and spend with those who deserve my attention.  

I simply don’t have to say “yes” to everyone and anyone who asks something of me.

I know this may sound like a lack of empathy or an anti-social attitude, but it’s not that at all because I expect others to treat me the same way.

Just because I receive a text message, an email or phone call, it doesn’t mean I have to drop what I’m doing to handle it.

No one else owns my time and energy, nor has a right to it whenever they want it, and I owe no one explanations for my unavailability.  

Experience the Created World

I need to get out into nature much more often. Living in the city, I am not surrounded by magnificent mountain vistas or abundant forests, so this can be a challenge. Even when I hike in the woods near my house, the cacophony of vrooming vehicles is still omnipresent, making it difficult to truly melt into it.

There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes over me when I’m out in nature. I’m sure it is evolutionarily programed into all of us. Unconstrained by the four walls of a man-made structure, we are free to ponder creation and our place in it, and truly experience life.

I know this has been missing from my life, and I know some of the greatest freedom I have felt has been experiencing – truly experiencing – creation.

Love Unrelentingly

Although the word “passion” is, in popular parlance most often used in the context of sexual or romantic love, the definition is deeper than that. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it is “a powerful emotion or its expression, esp. the emotion of love, anger, or hate.”

Living with passion means that we allow ourselves to experience the power of our emotions. One of those is love.

I have been working on this intensely in my own marriage. I want my wife to ignite in me the highest highs, and she does. I want to feel the deep bond and connection, the desire to bring out the very best in each other.

In short, I want to feel.

This also, conversely, includes the lowest lows since everything is not always perfect, and the you cannot experience highs without also experiencing lows.  

There is nothing worse than indifference for another person because that means all passion is extinguished and, I know it sounds weird, but I would rather that she hates me than feels indifferent about me. At least with hate, I know there is passion still there, even though it is negative.

If she were indifferent it would mean I am no longer a blip in her mind.

For us, we are at the point, after twenty-five years, where we often finish each other’s sentences and thoughts.

We lift each other up.

We desire the best for each other, whatever that may be. Sure, there is an element of selfishness still; I think it is impossible to totally eliminate that, but as time goes on I know our passion continues to grow.   

Let Go

We all have past actions that cause us shame. We have all made poor decisions that, when we dwell on them, cause us to shake our heads and wonder what we were thinking. Some of us, who are prone to excessive self-analysis and self-criticism, have a difficult time with this, but I am now more certain than ever of the need to work exceedingly hard on this.

This may be the most important thing we can do to crush our own egos, and it is also one of the most difficult.

I now know that it is a form of arrogance when I ascribe to past versions of me the same values I now hold as a result of my life experiences and the learning I have done since then.

We need to let the past go.

It is said that the past is dead, and we have to internalize this. If we don’t we end up with a lifetime battling ghosts. 

The past is the past. There is nothing we can do to change our actions, nor those of anyone else.

Failing to let go of the past imprisons us in the worst form of solitary confinement, and unless we do something about it, it ends up mutating into a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Without doing it we lose the freedom to live, to grow, to love, and to enjoy each fleeting moment.

That is profoundly sad, and a true hindrance to any growth. 

Don’t dwell on the future…too much

I am one of those people who, when reading a novel, is anxious to get to the end. I want to know what happens now. There have been times I’ve read entire books and missed many of the details because I have been so focused on the conclusion and rushed through it.

I need to remove from my mind excessive thoughts of the future. While it is important to make plans for growth and improvement, an excessive focus on what is to come makes us overly attached to outcomes, instead of focusing on the journey.

This single-minded focus on the outcome sets us up for disappointment since other people don’t always act the way we want them to act, and things will never go exactly according to plan.

This causes anxiety and worry and prevents us from living and experiencing each present moment.

The funny thing is that once those future situations come that we worry about so much now, we won’t really experience them then either since we will be living even further in the future by then.

It is important to stop to smell the proverbial roses and focus on the here and now without trying to control the future.   

Have Gratitude

We all must be grateful. This means we have to stop seeing the negative in situations, and more intensely and intentionally fight to see the positive.

I recognize that this is especially true when thinking of my own life. I dwell on what I perceive to be the negative aspects of myself and my situation and ignore the positives. This causes anxiety, sadness, and lack of motivation.

Forgive Ourselves

Very often, the person most hard on us is us. We imprison ourselves with our own second-guessing and have nightmares of our poor decisions.

We need to be less hard on ourselves and, while acknowledging our errors, accept them, transcend them, and recognize they are but a mere stop on the road to our final destination.

Forgive those close to us who have wronged us

A necessary component is having empathy for that person.

It is very likely that your loved one who hurt you is also living with the knowledge and pain of what he/she did to you and is also having trouble forgiving themselves for it.

Truly and unmistakably forgiving will set us free and eliminate bottled up tension that is eating us alive.

I know, for me, this has been a difficult process, way more difficult than I thought it would be; but necessary.

Without it, much of this other work becomes impossible to do.     

Ask for help

We must not be afraid to ask for help. Very often our egos and inflated sense of self prevents us from doing this. We think we have it all figured out or have the ability to handle every situation on our own.

We can’t, and we don’t.

Whether from loved ones, friends, or even strangers who care, I can’t do things alone and need to ask for help when needed. Sometimes it’s just words in a text message that help us cut through the noise and see things in a different way.

I mention this because this happened to me. A good friend of mine helped me solve a problem that was vexing me for many months with exquisitely timed words in a text message.

We have to understand that we don’t have all the answers, and we have to be willing to accept how much we don’t know.

I understand this requires a certain humility that can be difficult, but when we accomplish it we take a big step in crushing our egos.

Embrace solitude

I know I need to accept and embrace being alone sometimes. I have never lived alone, nor been alone for extended periods of time. I think this has resulted in a situation where I am uncomfortable with myself when I am feeling alone, a sense of loneliness. This leads me to overcompensate and rely way too heavily on my wife for affirmation and validation.

This is too much pressure to put on another person. No one else is responsible for your happiness or comfort, and it’s unfair to put them in that situation.

Embrace your time alone and learn to become comfortable with yourself as a companion.

Conclusion

I know from experience that crushing my ego is not an easy task. It has been cultivated for 42 years and it gives me comfort. But, I also know it has not served me well.

It has led to poor decisions.

Faulty ways of thinking.

Hurting the people I love most.

I am still in the midst of annihilating my faulty ways of thinking about my own abilities, intelligence, and importance.

This process, which is not yet over, is leading me down a path that is allowing me to live a more loving and authentic life.

I am not sure where it will lead and what will be left of the me I’ve lived with my entire life at the end but, I’ll accept the uncertainty and I am embracing the process of crushing my ego.   

It is important. It is necessary. It is right.

*I am thankful to the men in the Fraternity of Excellence for discussing many of these issues with me since I joined in October. If you are looking for a brotherhood of like-minded men who are all working towards becoming better versions of themselves and provide support to each other, I recommend checking it out for a month. Joining was one of the best decisions I made.

My Childhood Encyclopedia Set

Growing up I had an encyclopedia set on shelves in my bedroom.

I don’t know how they got there or when they got there. They were just always there. 

The set was a bit out of date, but I credit that encyclopedia set with instilling in me the love of learning and reading that I’ve always had.

I devoured that entire set, probably reading the entire thing several times throughout the years.

It became a trusted friend, a comforter when I was feeling down, and a source of discovery and joy. While learning something new probably doesn’t compare to Columbus’ first sight of land, in my childhood mind new discoveries in those books probably carried equal excitement.  

Today we have instant access on our phones to whatever information we want whenever we want it. It’s a different world. The difference is my encyclopedia set didn’t come with the distractions that my phone does.

Growing up in the 1980’s, however, my encyclopedia set put the whole word at my fingertips. I spent countless sleepless nights on my bed getting immersed in various topics with the soft lamp light glowing dimly, while staying as quiet as possible so my parents wouldn’t know I was still awake.

One topic, particularly in history, always seemed to lead into another, sending me down various rabbit holes as I sought to make sense of whatever I was learning about. The best part was, after years of having them on my shelf, there were still nuggets in there I had never read or had forgotten.

I still remember the used book store smell when I cracked a volume open. Even today, when I sense a similar smell it transports me back to those sleepless nights reading alone by lamp light.

It strikes me that children today will never get to experience this. After all, who still has encyclopedia sets in their homes when we have Wikipedia on our iPads? Kids today, even if they are interested in learning, face the danger of distraction on their devices.     While so much more information exists in cyberspace than can ever be put in actual books, the fact is the books don’t have cat memes, social media, or Roblox to provide distraction and instant dopamine hits.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I realize now that my time alone with my encyclopedia set was learning for the love of it.

I loved learning alone with total freedom. At the same time, I hated the stifling school environment where the learning felt forced and was simply not fun.

I guess, in a sense, my time with my encyclopedia set was a more intellectual version of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book for me where I was free to intellectually transport myself where I felt led.  

This is completely different from the curricula-based school environment where children are trained to be subservient cogs who will eventually trade their time and souls for money in our modern-day economy. They don’t learn to love learning for the sake of learning and exploring the world and their minds.  

It was freedom, and it taught me that learning is fun.

I am so grateful that my parents put those books in my room. I know that is the reason I enjoy reading and learning so much still to this day. I also know it’s the reason I still know, to this day, a whole host of random facts.

This love of learning just to learn is something I try to instill in my kids, though it’s hard because of the constant distractions that bombard their minds constantly. It’s a struggle, but it’s one we as parents should undertake. If kids are not taught that learning can be fun, despite what they experience in school, they will never develop intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder at the world as a whole.   

That’s tragic.