James Hollis on Lethargy and Fear

In Living an Examined Life, James Hollis writes the following:

“Life’s two biggest threats we carry within: fear and lethargy… Those perverse twins munch on our souls every day. No matter what we do today, they will turn up again tomorrow. Over time, they usurp more days of our lives than those to which we may lay fair claim.”

Those words (from Chapter 2: It’s Time to Grow Up) struck me forcefully. I recognize this struggle in myself, and it’s also in the forefront of my mind now because I recently observed Yom Kippur – a day of fasting and atonement, and also reflection on my actions and what I’d like to change (and how I’d like to make those changes).

The effects of fear and lethargy often emerge in different kinds of avoidance. Avoiding specific efforts, backing down in various ways, complying without true conviction, disengaging from meaningful activities and turning to repetitive, numbing behaviors, or seeking what Hollis describes as “fundamentalist forms of thinking that finesse subtlety, fuzz opposites, seek simplistic solutions to complex issues, and still our spirit’s distress with the palliative balm of certainty.”

I also think lethargy can be born of fear. What looks superficially like laziness (like the choice to watch hours of TV) is sometimes a way of procrastinating because you’re afraid of what will happen if you act. It’s a way of hiding, remaining unnoticeable and as such more impervious to attack and less likely to suffer the disappointment of failure. (Though you may later suffer the regret that you didn’t act.)

Obviously some fears are warranted and need to be managed reasonably. And it’s ok to relax too. If you’ve worked hard, made various efforts during the day, you can take a break. The danger is when fear and lethargy begin to dominate you. I need to watch out for this myself – to pay attention to behaviors that are mere distractions from what’s important or avoidance techniques in response to things I need to face.

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