We can talk about higher strategy. We can talk about the best methods of waging war. We can talk even about the lessons about personal disposition and conduct to be learned from the simple flowing of water. But let’s be real here, for a minute. At the end of the day (or especially its beginning), the reality is that sometimes we are just plain too afraid to do anything one way or another, and the result is that we have a worse time and it ends up seeming like things are just happening to us, without even our most basic input.
I might be a wizard, but some days I am flat-out terrified. I’m afraid of all kinds of failure. I’m afraid of displeasing my superiors at work. Afraid of being fired. I’m afraid of being crushed by debt and obligation and their unpleasant enforcers. I’m afraid of losing the good things that I have and I am afraid of ruining them through my own faults and defeats. I’m afraid I can’t handle the weight of my own life, much less the lives of others around me or whom I don’t even know. Less often, I am at times nonetheless afraid of apocalypse. Seriously, I could go on forever. I like to think I don’t show it much on the outside (although certainly there are times when I do) but there are seemingly no limits to the amount of fear I can construct and in which I can indulge and which often serves to paralyze me completely.
Winning, or even the attempt to turn events to our personal advantage, are both fine and good—important, in fact, which is why we spend so much time talking about them—but they do not represent the path to shedding oneself of crippling fear. I’m not trying to be like the nefarious Ms. Farmer from Donnie Darko, blindly and stupidly dividing the world and “the entire spectrum of human emotion” into the minimalistic elements of fear and love. Nor would I be so foolish as to suggest that a little fear isn’t sometimes a good thing, one that helps us survive. Sometimes. What I’m getting at here, instead, is the notion that if we allow the state of being scared to interfere with our freedom of motion, we can neither survive nor win because we are failing to truly live. The path to life, the path for which I advocate, involves the conquest of fear by means of not really caring whether we win or lose or come out on top at all.
I have recently completed the short novel (or fable, or retold myth, or whatever you want to call it) The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The only thing wrong with this work of art is that I hadn’t read it earlier in my life. Other than that, it’s pretty much perfect. Other than to say that I recommend that you read this work with the most strenuous possible Wizard’s Seal of Approval, I’m going to stop right there, because otherwise I will end up gushing on and on about how good it is. If you’ll indulge me, I wish to share a single simple quote, a line of dialogue from a wise camel driver to our protagonist:
“‘I’m alive,’ he said to the boy, as they ate a bunch of dates one night, with no fires and no moon. ‘When I’m eating, that’s all I think about. If I’m on the march, I just concentrate on marching. If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other.’”
It boils down to a statement of simple acceptance. Some might even read a defeatist bent into this line, but who among you can claim to being as fully alive as this camel driver? In our last edition of this series, we laid out three very important (suggested) aims to potentially agree upon: freedom, meaning, and harmony. Yet can it not be said that, arching above all these three lofty goals, is the greatest of them all—the goal of being truly alive?
Living is not just for night-time. It is not just for weekends and vacations. If we are not alive at all times (or at least most times), we are not alive at all. In his simple sentences, the camel driver (who is, incidentally, a minor character and the least of all the many wise teachers in the story) is telling us the way to be alive even when in our terrible cubicles and suffering the terrific indignities of our office jobs. It’s really simple: when it’s time to work, do your work. When it’s time to do other things, focus on those other things. You know, I don’t mean to bullshit you, but it really can be that easy. If you focus on your responsibilities when it’s time to do so, you’re more likely to meet them, right? If you focus lightly on the duties of your job when it’s time to perform them, am I wrong in thinking you’ll be more likely to complete them well?
Taking it all one step further, if you meet more of your responsibilities and take the completion of your duties to a higher level, you’re going to have fewer battles to fight, because there are fewer things you are doing to cause conflict with anyone above or around you. With quiet diligence and humble focus—none of this to be confused with obsession or driving ambition—you will have less need for strategy and defense because you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Moreover, while all of that is a nice bonus, you won’t have any time to be afraid of what’s ahead because you’re focused on what’s in front of you. You perform better at work and, with little fear to follow you home, you’re a better person to be around at home. A better family member, a better parent, a better partner.
And yet sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes the fight comes to you, no matter what you do. No technique or approach or mindset can ever change this—so if it happens, it happens. If the worst should come to pass, but you’ve been spending your time leading up to it truly living, present for all moments, when is there ever a bad day to lose or to die?
There isn’t, and you should take that with you. Go into your days and your weeks with open eyes, put your head down and see only the task at hand, and if you must take time and energy to consider the worst, know that if you just focus on being alive, even the worst is never really going to be that bad.