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France Philosophy

More things will scare us than crush us…

Seneca, a Roman philosopher, playwright and statesman wrote, “More things will scare us than crush us, for we suffer more often in the imagination than in reality” in letter 13 to his friend, Lucilius.

In France, people often ask their friends and family to help them move house. And afterwards, they reward everyone for their effort with takeaway pizza and rose wine, and sometimes champagne. 

This year my friend Stephane asked me if I could help him move some cardboard boxes and furniture from street level to a third-floor apartment. I would regret saying yes…

I like challenges. So I gave myself a target of ascending 450 metres. I calculated this would require carrying 50 cardboard boxes, one at a time up the three floors. Most of his boxes contained books and comics or BDs as they’re called in France,  so I couldn’t lift more than a single box at a time. 

After three hours, I had climbed 420 m. I was chuffed with this. But I was exhausted. I had just come back from an active hiking holiday, driven 500km, and I had a cold. I wasn’t in good form. But the pizza and champagne that my friend offered perked me up.

As I climbed the stairs into my apartment building I felt a stab of pain in the place where I had an inguinal hernia operation in 2017. Oh damn!

I ignored the pain for a couple of days.

“It’ll go away, “I thought, doing my best to ignore the pain. 

I knew the whole process of having a hernia would be difficult. I would need to…

visit my doctor,

then have a scan,

then visit the abdominal surgeon, 

then talk with the anesthesiologist, 

then have the operation with a general anaesthetic,

then change the dressings every day and, 

then be very careful for weeks after the surgery. 

I knew that having a hernia would mean: no yoga. no squash and no running. And no lifting my dog into the bath for a wash which she really enjoys. 

I just didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to deal with this again. 

Three weeks later, the pain had gone, but I was still feeling discomfort in my abdomen. My wife convinced me to schedule an appointment with a doctor.

I explained to the doctor that I thought I’d opened up my old hernia. He asked me why I thought of this.

“I have some discomfort in the place where I had my operation two years ago. And I was helping a friend…” I replied.

“…move house,” he finished my sentence for me. Apparently, a moving house hernia was common. 

He confirmed I would need a scan to see what damage I had done. 

I was gutted, probably literally as my gut was probably hanging out my abdomen.

“Here we go again!” I thought. 

Two weeks later, I walked into the radiologists waiting room for my scan. 

The other patients in the room were chatting among themselves and laughing crazily. I slinked into the nearest seat. I had no idea what they were laughing about and was once again reminded of how poor my French was. But the laughter was contagious so I laughed alongside even though I did not understand why.

“Monsieur MacGregor,” the radiologist interrupted.

Bonjour doctor, oui, c’est moi,“ I replied, and returned to my worries.  

As I walked the pale green, well-lit corridor to the radiology department, I thought, “What a fool you are. Pushing your body like that. And the result, you’ve got another hernia. And you could have made it worse by leaving it for three weeks.”

Inside the examination room, I yanked down my trousers, hopped onto a turquoise leather examination table covered with a layer of clean tissue paper. The doctor squeezed some clear gel on the ultrasound scanner and pressed it firmly against my lower abdominal area. 

He pushed harder than I would have expected. It hurt. As he examined the screen, I studied his face for any evidence of good or bad news. 

“Tout va bien,” the doctor replied. 

I stuck both thumbs up and squinted at him to confirm. “Ça va,” I said.

“Yes, you have no problem,” he replied in his best English. 

“You stretched muscle too much,” he explained. 

I was so relieved to hear this that I smiled from one side of the examination room to the other, forgetting I still had my trousers around my ankles.

If I’d visited the doctor earlier I wouldn’t have spent three weeks worrying over whether I’d need surgery again. But thinking about having to deal with multiple doctors and complex administration with my poor French was intimidating. However, most of the doctors and nurses spoke some English and were very helpful. 

The fear of speaking and not understanding what people said in french. The fear of finding out once again that I had a hernia. 

I’ve also put off making a sales call to a lead because I was afraid that I’d say the wrong thing and they wouldn’t be interested in working with me. 

For months I have postponed contacting my clients to tell them that I am increasing my prices – anxious that they will be upset and no longer want to use my services. 

I’m also terrified at the idea of doing a Facebook live or creating any video with my face on it.

I know it’s not easy to move beyond our fears but there is a different way we can consider the thing that is creating the fear. 

Seneca’s advice to is that as we have limited facts and an outcome we can’t accurately predict, why not consider a more hopeful outcome to help balance the fear. 

Most things turn out to be less bad than we imagined. And when we’re putting off doing something due to fear of something imagined happening, the constant presence of this thing we must do but are postponing, attracts anxiety and stress. 

Creating our imaginary disasters is exhausting work. We predict, exaggerate, and conclude the outcome of future events based on few facts and little consideration for the hand that fortune will play. 

“Perhaps the bad things will happen. Perhaps they won’t. Even bad luck is fickle. Almost surely they’re not happening now.”

Seneca, Letter to Lucilius 13.11

Have you considered how many unexpected things happened to you and how many of the things you expected never happen?

We let ourselves be blown about by the winds, troubled by the unknowns, as though they were confirmed. And in this, we lose our sense of proportion and the tiniest of uneasiness turns quickly into fear. 

Is it necessary then for us to run out and meet our suffering? If it’s going to arrive it will do so soon enough. In the meantime, why not look forward to better things. In the time before the thing you imagine happening will arrive, there are so many things that could interfere to change the outcome. 

So, the next time I’m avoiding my doctor or afraid to prepare a Facebook live, I must remember,

“Weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline toward hope.”

Seneca, Letter to Lucilius 13.13

By David P. MacGregor

Living and working the good life in France with my wife and dog.