We suffer more often in imagination than in reality, said Seneca almost two thousands years ago.
For some reason, this rings so true today more than ever. On the one hand, there is little change in how the human mind works, so these words of wisdom will continue to find an echo over the centuries.
On the other hand, the reality of our times is bound to reduce actual physical suffering for more and more people around the world, while suffering in imagination is only growing; or so it seems, when we think about all the anxiety and the stress we allow into our daily lives.
But there is something a lot more subjective and personal about this. We’ve all been there, we’ve all experienced it first-hand. That’s why it rings true.
The full quote goes as follows:
“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” (Seneca, Letters from a Stoic)
The meaning of the whole sentence for me points to a basic human emotion — fear. The suffering in imagination is the fear and other negative emotions that generate the worry, the anxiety, the restlessness that we experience in our minds. And while fear can be debilitating, it’s not something that can crush us.
There’s something empowering in this quote, because it teaches us that in reality, we are stronger than we think. That although fear is real and things do happen and feed it, it’s in our power (our imagination) to deal with it.
Like with any other emotion that we experience in our life, the way to deal with fear is to sit with it, understand it, but not let it overwhelm you or take control over your life. Embrace it for what it is, then go on and do what you know is right and true. Despite the fear or other uncomfortable emotions.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear. (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
For further reading on Seneca’s quote, I recommend this brilliant essay on Brain Pickings.