I recently came across the following observation from the famous Russian author Feodor Dostoevsky:
"There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings."
This insight has greatly enhanced my understanding of the source of my fears. Quite simply, I fear anything that may be beyond my capability to endure and rise above.
I've long had a habit of investigating the limits of my courage by considering how I would respond to the extreme suffering of certain experiences. I find myself doing this more than ever with the cloud of Coronavirus relentlessly bombarding us with woeful stories of physical, emotional and financial suffering that are severely impacting so many of us.
An exaggerated (but fun) example of this exercise I regularly revisit is how I would respond to an un-winnable battle. Like the Battle of Thermopylae that pitted King Leonidas and his 300 Spartan (plus 700 Thespian) soldiers against a Persian army that numbered between 100,000-150,000. Would I:
Shrivel, give up my character and defect like the traitorous Ephialtes who had hoped to profit from Leonidas' suffering (but was ultimately forced to flee unrewarded and was later killed),
Flee and abandon my post to live and fight another day, or
Rise up to the challenge, show up as my best and go out in a blaze of glory like King Leonidas and his 300.
While it is impossible to truly know what version of me would show up until I'm actually put to the test, I find this exercise to be incredibly useful to assess my character, values and courage.
Like most (if not all) of us, I want to believe I would have the strength and courage to stand alongside Leonidas.
But, is that the truth of what I would actually do? Would I be worthy of the challenge and rise up to face it? Truthfully, I have fear that I would flee, despite knowing that standing by my fellow soldiers and fighting would be the right thing to do.
Leonidas and his 300 have served as a beacon of inspiration through the ages because they did rise up to the ultimate test of suffering (death) with courage and strength. We are inspired because, in many ways, each of us spend our entire lives training to do just this.
Learning from the example of Leonidas and his 300, they were able to rise above fear by diligently building of the following muscles:
Character: We must have a North Star, something that is always guiding us toward our best selves. As warriors, Leonidas and his 300 knew the success of their lives would be measured by their effectiveness in battle, which in turn protected their families, their fellow warriors, their state (Sparta) and their country (Greece).
Skill: We must develop skills to help us meet our challenges as our best selves. Leonidas and his 300 spent their lifetimes building the skills, experience and mindset to thrive in the most trying of battles. When the time came to face the impossible odds of holding off 100,000+ enemy soldiers, they knew exactly what do to and were able to rise up to the challenge.
Faith: We must have faith that our lives have meaning and that we're meant to endure the suffering we're faced with. Leonidas and his 300 were certain that, by fighting gallantly against such a vastly superior force, they were living out their life's purpose and embraced the opportunity to cement their legacies in glory. Their actions have lived on for millennia, long after the victor's celebrations have ceded.
Inspired by the insight of Dostoevsky and the example of Leonidas and his 300, I recognize that fear arises in situations that test my character, skill and faith. My ability to harness these muscles in the face of fear determines whether I shrivel, flee or grow.
As I navigate through the uncertain waters of this pandemic, my worthiness will be continuously tested. To thrive in this uncertain new world, I must hold fast to my character and faith, which will keep me afloat as I diligently build the necessary skills to dull the impact of this new fear.