The 50th Law Part Two: FEAR and POWER
Our lives are often subject to a pattern of movement that is set in motion at birth. The human animal spends an inordinate amount of time in the mother’s womb. When we are suddenly thrust out of that zone of comfort–where all our needs have been met–we enter an unfamiliar world of noise and light. We cannot help but desire a return to the womb. The mother serves as a substitute for this desire and we cling to her. We experience her absence for any extended period of time as a kind of terror.
This is the source of our deepest dread–of being abandoned and facing life alone, of emptiness and separation. This infantile fear bears little relationship to reality (the mother is never very far away); it stems from weakness and ignorance. As adults, we may think we have left such a fear behind, but it remains buried deep within and determines our actions in ways we cannot imagine. From our birth to our death, we continually crave comfort, warmth and security in whatever form we can find it. Forward is life and power but a part of us always wants to regress to the womb.
In childhood, a critical phase is reached. We are no longer so weak and helpless. We have a restless, adventurous spirit and we want to explore the world around us. If we are bold and given room by our parents to attempt things, we can develop a taste for risk and freedom that will mark us well into adulthood. But if we are held back, if we experience traumas in the form of unwanted change and confrontations, adversity, criticism from others, failure on any level, feeling too alone, then the opposite movement will occur. We will develop irrational fears about the world, and we will always move back to the warmth of the family to protect us. The need for comfort becomes more powerful than the desire to explore. And if our parents are nervous and full of fears themselves, this centripetal pull will be even stronger.
Our childish anxieties always have a grain of truth to them: there is danger in the world and pain that can come from venturing too far. But the anxiety we feel makes us exaggerate the danger, focus unnecessarily on the threat and causes us to stop moving out into the world. This at least gives us the illusion of control. If we stay within the circle of what is warm and familiar we can protect ourselves from hardship and suffering–or so it seems.
In adolescence we add a new layer of fear. We look beyond our family to our peers. Our greatest anxiety is to be ridiculed and excluded from a group, which now represents to us a new circle of warmth. We seek their approval. Our personality becomes formed around this desire. We smooth away our rough edges, what makes us an individual, and become obsessed with what people think of us and how we can please them.
At some point on this journey we find ourselves thrust into the cold and merciless work world. The illusion of being protected by mother, family or group is now gone. We must fend for ourselves. Our actions will determine how far we advance towards power. And if we continue to carry within us the irrational and unchallenged fears of our youth, we will inevitably resort to the regressive pattern that began in infancy. We will stick to a job or position that seems secure. Within that job, we can collect a paycheck and have our needs met–a womb-like relationship. We will adhere to the behavior patterns of our peers, or listen to the voices of our parents. Deep within, our thought process will also be infected. Certain ideas, cherished beliefs, strategies of action will become fixed in our brains; we will no longer be so open to new concepts or ways of doing things. Our minds will circle in familiar patterns.
We can express this in the following way (see diagram above): we begin life holding on to positions of comfort and dependency. As we get older we are naturally drawn outward, towards actions that will bring us power. This outer zone seems unfamiliar and unpredictable, but inviting. At certain points of moving in this direction, however, we inevitably encounter a resistance or obstacle that triggers a fear–that of being alone, having to confront people and possibly displease them, making mistakes and being criticized, feeling bored and empty, dealing with change and possible adversity, losing what we have, facing death itself. At the instant we feel this fear we look backwards towards what is safe and comforting and move in that direction. We do not explore or take risks. We react and retreat in a single line. We draw a circle around ourselves that cuts us off from power, one that becomes a kind of self-imposed prison.
Life naturally involves moments of pain and loneliness, battles and setbacks. To feel fear and retreat because of them is to struggle against life itself. As conscious, rational adults, we are called to finally move past these childish illusions and fears, to embrace life and reality.
This is the essence of the 50th Law: when you move past this self-imposed circle, then you suddenly have options. You enter the realm of power. In the face of adversity, you no longer retreat along a single line. You explore the world and remain open to trying several things, depending on circumstances. With antagonists coming your way, you can bait them into a rash attack and follow this up with a counterattack; or you can lay low and buy time, seem to befriend them; or, believing the threat to be minor, you can choose to ignore them and conserve your energy. Beyond the circle of fear, you have the freedom to experiment and be creative with your response. You adhere to the 50th Law when you operate in this way.
Moving in the regressive, fearful direction, your options narrow with each passing year. Your fears tend to create new fears, as you back yourself into a corner and lose contact with power. Moving in the other direction brings the opposite dynamic. By being bold and true to your individuality, you make people respect you. They tend to get out of your way or follow you. You create your own circumstances, and one success tends to bring another. You have flow, moving with the chaos and changes in the modern world, instead of holding on to the past. All of this translates into potential force, as defined by Sun-tzu.
At such a point, the fears noted on the circle reverse themselves into forms of power. Overcoming the fear of loneliness, for instance, helps you develop self-reliance; moving past the fear of criticism brings you the power to learn from your mistakes; getting over the fear of boredom and empty moments helps you cultivate discipline and the ability to learn any craft.
Understand: we all feel too much fear in our lives. It is the source of our unhappiness. Almost all powerful, creative people in this world feel less fear than others; it is the secret of their success in any field.
Being fearless is not necessarily what you think. It does not mean being aggressive and bold at every moment. People who are uncontrollably aggressive in life are often secretly governed by fears and insecurities. Fearlessness on this level is more about possessing balance. When events occur, neutral or seemingly negative, fearless types have the capacity to focus on reality and not give disproportionate weight to the threat or risk. Having confronted and overcome the fear of death itself gives them a sense of proportion and priority–considering that our days are numbered, it is often not worth it to get so upset over the petty battles of the moment; better to act with urgency and energy on things that really matter. Unconcerned with what people think of them, these types feel free to give rein to their desires and whims, to be themselves.
In the end, what marks their spirit is a sense of calmness, freedom and mobility that are the necessary qualities for power in periods of dynamic change such as now. They are not weighed down by all the negative emotions that come from being overly concerned about others opinions, or feeling dependent on people. This frees up more energy to be creative. And what spells the difference between these types and those encircled by fear is merely the attitude towards life that they have chosen.
The book The 50th Law is based on a simple premise and strategy: You are asleep. You are not aware of the degree to which fear determines your actions. What bothers people now and makes them fret and retreat would hardly have upset an American in the 19th century, facing constant threats from the environment. We cannot see this, however. We don’t have enough distance and detachment to observe how far we have traveled down the path of fear. And so the book is designed to fill such a role–to wake you up and make you reflect upon the fears inhibiting your mobility. There is no good in avoiding our fears and pretending they don’t exist–we must turn around and look them square in the eye so we can move past them.
The fearless types in history generally experienced harsh circumstances that toughened them up. But many people suffer adversity and are simply overwhelmed by them. The difference is the ability that some people have to absorb these experiences and reflect on the negative influence of fear in their lives. What matters is awareness not experience. And so The 50th Law functions as a tool for leading you to similar levels of awareness. Each chapter focuses on a particular primal fear we all feel. It shows how the fear hides itself within you and subtly misdirects you in life. It indicates ways to confront and overcome each of these fears, strategies on how to convert them into their opposites. Each chapter is illustrated with stories from Fifty’s life, as well as from historical figures who are exemplars of the 50th Law. Such stories serve as inspiration and guideposts.
This is only half of the equation, however. What will probably happen is that at some point during or after the reading you will have to confront some novel situation or difficulty. Made aware of how fear will cause you unconsciously to react and retreat, you will stop that motion and reflect. You will not give undue attention to the threat or danger that it involves. That alone will make you open to the possibility of trying something different. And having tasted a bit of the freedom that comes from moving past the circle, you will want more and more of this. Once you set foot on this path, you will never want to turn back.
Coming next–Part Three, The Republicans, Barack Obama and the 50th Law.