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Calm • Anxiety

Don’t Hope for the Best; Expect the Worst

Some of the reason why we are a good deal more worried than we should be is that we refuse to give our worries the kind of close-up focused attention they would need in order to dissipate. We assume that we are attending to our worries, because they fill our minds, but there is an immense difference between being obsessed by a worry and taking it apart rationally piece by piece. We can be preoccupied by a topic without ever actually reflecting on it.

J. M. W. Turner, The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons, 1810

Whenever we feel an anxiety begin to gnaw at us, we should immediately clear time to worry exclusively and properly about it. We must force our minds to get very specific indeed about how a given problem could apparently ‘ruin our lives’ and discern any implausible dimensions a catastrophic scenario might have acquired in our imaginations. As we strive to name the worst in great detail, some of the more outlandish aspects of our fears will by necessity come to light – and can then be allayed by reason.

Every alarming situation involves an oscillation between a hope and a terror. We should calm ourselves by ceasing to hope for a moment – in order to look at our terror bravely in the face. We should ask: even if disaster somehow came to pass, how survivable could it be? Of course we’d like things to go well, but could the worst be borne? We might be jobless, friendless, disgraced and an outcast. Yet how could life nevertheless go on? Far more than we’re inclined to believe, it would almost certainly be possible to survive despite our losses. Every day, people agree to continue without a limb or a key organ, a loved one or social status. What we think we need is very different from what we could actually bear. We’re a lot more resilient than we assume.

Peace of mind doesn’t come from hoping for the best; it comes from close-up attention to the very worst – and from the sure knowledge that we can, with the strength we have inside us already, endure whatever fate might assign us.

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