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#22: Fear Can be Useful

#22: Fear Can be Useful

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Welcome to another edition of Motherf*ckin’ Monday, the only weekly newsletter that kills more germs than hand sanitizer. Each week, I break down three important ideas that will hopefully make you a slightly less awful person. This week we’re talking: 1) the joys of being quarantined, 2) when fear is actually useful, and 3) how to grow from your pain.

Let’s dive in!

1. See you when the apocalypse is over – By the time you read this, my wife and I will be locked in our house with about a month’s worth of food and supplies. That might make me sound like I’m the mayor of Crazy Town, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the most logical and responsible thing any of us can do right now. 

Probably the most famous message from my books is that we should “only give a fuck about what is true and important.” From weeks of steady research, it’s my opinion coronavirus is one of the most important events of our lifetimes.

Those who have read me for a long time know that I avoid discussing politics or current events. You know I hate getting swept up in the latest hype. But no matter how much I read and think about this situation, the conclusion seems unavoidable. This year is going to be incredibly difficult for all of us, all over the world. 

In my opinion, there are two articles that are mandatory reading on this subject. Please take the time to go through them: 

  • This piece gets into the math. The short answer: social distancing and isolation is not only effective but mandatory. For everybody. But especially for older and more vulnerable people. Each additional day we wait to isolate ourselves will have a vast impact on thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of lives. It’s better to do it too soon rather than too late.
  • This piece argues for the moral responsibility incumbent on all of us to limit contagion as much as possible. As I mentioned in last week’s email, the greatest danger of coronavirus is not the virus itself but the over-burdening of the hospital systems. 

Please read them both. It’s important. 

I’m fortunate. I work from home. Everyone on my team works from home. We all have the means to stock up on food and supplies. We have comfortable places to stay. 

Obviously, not everybody is as fortunate. Many people are living month-to-month, living with elderly relatives, running large physical businesses with huge staffs. In these cases, social distancing will be difficult, if not impossible. 

Yet, I encourage everyone reading this to take measures to do it. The risk here is asymmetrical. If this coronavirus thing ends up not being a big deal, then you will simply miss some work and maybe look like a kook for a couple of weeks. But if it is a big thing, then you’ve just protected the health of yourself, your family, your co-workers, and countless people around you. 

There’s a lot to gain in being right and little to lose in being wrong. Therefore, I go with assuming the worst: that this thing will be as bad as the numbers suggest.

2. When fear is useful – Watching coronavirus play out has been interesting. I think one way to characterize people’s responses is that some optimize for comfort and other people optimize for information. 

It’s alarming how many popular influencers there are on social media (even some doctors!) telling people that this is no big deal, that it’s just like the flu, everyone’s going to be fine, etc. I understand the temptation to say these things. I also understand the desire to hear them. It allays your fears. It calms people down. 

But, this is our weakness as a species. We cater to our Feeling Brains and not our Thinking Brains. In the face of uncertainty, we go with the option that is comfortable yet unsafe, rather than the option that is uncomfortable and safe. We would rather feel no anxiety than useful anxiety. We’d rather pretend there are no risks than deeply consider what is worth the risks. 

I wrote in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck that when you try to avoid or get rid of negative emotions you gradually disconnect yourself from reality. The key isn’t to get rid of negative emotions, it’s simply to use them well. 

In fact, the point of all of our emotions is to use them well. Anger can spur us to confront dangers. Sadness can remind us of the significance of our commitments. Anxiety can keep us alert. 

In the same way, fear can be useful. It’s the most primitive of emotions and therefore the most road-tested. Fear helps us prepare and protect ourselves from danger. Fear is necessary to get millions of people to kick themselves into gear, to do the smart thing, to stay home, to check in on a loved one. 

So don’t avoid your fear. Embrace it. Use it intelligently. And don’t let it boil over into panic and acting like a psycho in the supermarket line. We’re all in this together, after all. 

3. Learning to grow from pain – So it looks like we’re all going to be spending a lot of time at home by ourselves over the next few months. So how about some book recommendations? 

Glad you asked! 

You know, there are about eighteen bazillian self-help books out there all about how to feel great and make your life amazing and be happy 24/7/365 and think positive even when your cat is dying from coronavirus. But there are few books out there that take the opposite approach: how to benefit from your pain and struggle. And those are the books I want to highlight today. Check it out: 

Read: 6 Books to Help You Grow From Your Pain

Stay healthy. And don’t leave the house. 

Until next week,

Mark