February 7, 2014 6:48 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: Should we fear the worst?

‘People cope with what they consider disasters much more positively than they would have guessed’

The Shrink

illustration by Laura Carlin of fearing the worst©Laura Carlin

Despite all we’ve heard about the benefits of having an optimistic outlook, we shouldn’t make a habit of hiding our heads in the sand and imagining that everything will turn out well. By doing so, we abandon realism in favour of wishful thinking and open ourselves to disappointment.

But, asks a reader, “should we actually fear the worst?” Considering the possibility of negative outcomes might be a good idea but it’s difficult to do well.

The Stoics, who inspired the pioneers of modern cognitive-behaviour therapies, recommended a practice called premeditatio malorum. This involved envisaging all the evils one could foresee – such as being sent into exile, tortured or shipwrecked. The idea behind this seemingly morbid exercise was that it would help them to react to bad news with equanimity. If such things actually happened, they’d be well prepared. The Stoic advice was to anticipate, not fear, the worst.

The second component of the practice – cultivating equanimity – is as important as the first. If we just focus our attention on all the things that are bound to go wrong and how awful it would be if they did, the exercise would be likely to cause depression rather than serenity.

Most of us are not Stoics but we could still benefit from reflecting on how we think of potential negative events. The first point is to remember that these things may, rather than definitely will, happen. The second is to ask what the most constructive reaction would be if they actually happened. Imagine you lost your job: what resources could you draw on to deal with the situation?

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that there’s evidence that people cope with what they consider disasters much more positively than they would have guessed. At such times, it seems that what psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson called the “psychological immune system” kicks in to help us to process what happened and adjust.

Considering the worst could be beneficial but it’s important to do it constructively.

. . .

The Sage

Philosophers do not so much fear the worst as court it. Just consider some of the most significant possibilities they have countenanced over the years: free will is a myth, the self is an illusion, the external world doesn’t exist, moral values have no objective existence, life has no purpose, true knowledge is unattainable, and death is the end. It’s a catalogue of metaphysical horrors to make our daily trepidations look trifling.

Despite the stereotype, however, most philosophers are not suicidal melancholics. David Hume, for example, was something of a bon viveur who enjoyed good food, drink and company as much as the next sceptic. Wittgenstein famously said, “Philosophy leaves the world as it is.” Whatever he meant by this – and people never agree on what he meant by anything – it seems true that adopting apparently radical philosophical positions often has less effect on how people live than you might expect.

One reason for this is that most of these seemingly appalling philosophical possibilities have more bark than bite. Your cake remains just as tasty and filling if it is purely mental rather than physical. We don’t stop condemning torture just because we come to doubt that moral values exist outside of time and space. And no one who claims the self is an illusion gives up referring to “you” and “I”.

We can learn to see the world in any number of ways with relative equanimity. What’s disconcerting is the prospect of the view we have got used to being turned upside down. To use another metaphor, the prospect of having the rug pulled from under our feet is frightening but not because we can’t stand up perfectly well on floorboards.

Contemplating the worst doubts is therefore more a recipe for peace than terror. It is a means of getting used to the idea that even if our most fundamental beliefs are mistaken, the world will carry on more or less the same. Dare to fear the worst and it often turns out the worst isn’t so bad after all.

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The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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