More To That

Fear is a framing problem 🤔

Published 3 months ago • 6 min read

Hey friends,

Happy new year! I hope you had a restful holiday season, and that you’re energized and excited for the year ahead. I’m in Toronto until early next week, so I’m enjoying any semblance of winter here before I head back to the perpetually sunny lands of Los Angeles.

As I alluded to in previous emails, I’m working on a big post about inspiration, and I’ll be sharing it with you later this month. January is usually a time where our aspirations are buzzing with promise, and I wanted to provide a story on how this outlook can be both generated and sustained at any time. I’m happy with how it’s turning out, and I’m excited to share it when it’s ready.

In the meantime, I have a reflection to share, and it’s on the topic of rethinking fear.

The new year is an interesting time because for a moment, the collective consciousness shifts toward the spirit of hope. All the uncertainties we have about ourselves and others comes to a brief halt, and we acknowledge the fact that having another year together is something to be celebrated, not feared.

This made me realize that fear is something that can be contextualized and played with. In short, it’s a framing problem, and today’s reflection will walk you through how this dynamic works.

When you’re ready, let’s dive right in.

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.

That’s it for today’s reflection. Was there anything that resonated? Anything that didn’t? Hit reply to let me know.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to share this email with anyone who might enjoy it. Have a great rest of your week!

-Lawrence Yeo

P.S. Thanks to all the wonderful people that support the blog on Patreon! It means so much. If you’d like to support More To That and get access to book recommendations, exclusive AMAs, offline posts, and other reflections, join as a patron today.

P.P.S. If you want to learn how to write reflections like the one I shared above, check out The Examined Writer. It’s 3 hours of self-paced material, all designed to elevate your writing practice.

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More To That

by Lawrence Yeo

Illustrated stories on the human condition.

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