Overcoming Fear: Stoic Philosophy From Mr. Rogers, Yoda, and Seneca

I don’t think I watched much Mr. Rogers growing up. I think he was winding down by the time I was watching TV. I was more of a “Sesame Street” kid if memory serves me right, big Oscar the Grouch fan.

I watched “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” a couple months ago. Awesome movie. Then I went down a Mr. Rogers rabbit hole, watching old episodes on Amazon Prime Video and buying some of his books. The movie highlighted Rogers’s masterful ability to help children process their emotions, especially their negative emotions.

Can you think of anyone who could use some help processing their negative emotions?

The more I learned about Mr. Rogers philosophy the more he sounded like a modern day stoic to me. Stoicism is a philosophy of conquering our emotions, passions, and fears. Stoics pursue virtue instead of being governed by emotion.

Fred Rogers got me wanting to take another journey into stoic literature, so this summer I picked up copy of Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. It was good timing. Our world is filled with uncertainty and change. Everyone is in a heightened emotional state. Two key emotions kept sticking out to me in Seneca’s writing: fear and anger.

Then I thought of another popular stoic, this one from a long, long time ago. This fan-favorite stoic taught us about the relationship between fear and anger. Remember when Yoda was teaching Luke the ways of the Jedi? All of the instruction was centered around Luke conquering himself and his emotions. There was no sword fighting technique. Yoda wanted Luke to understand that he must face and overcome his fear. Yoda wanted Luke to be a stoic. Because “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering.”

Do you know anyone who might be suffering from overwhelming fear?

Fear is the root emotion of most (maybe all) anger. Inside every angry adult is a scared child. Understanding this is a path to empathy. When we see others experiencing anger, or when we’re angry, the best path to understanding that anger is to wonder, “what is this person afraid of?”, not “why is this person angry?” We should move from meeting anger with anger to meeting fear with compassion. We need to see the scared child inside of the angry adult, especially if we are the angry one.

Some thoughts from Seneca:

“‘Ungoverned anger begets madness.’ Indeed this emotion blazes out against all sorts of persons; it springs from love as much as from hate, and shows itself not less in serious matters than in jest and sport. And it makes no difference how important the provocation may be, but into what kind of soul it penetrates. Similarly with fire; it does not matter how great is the flame, but what it falls upon. For solid timbers have repelled a very great fire; conversely, dry and easily inflammable stuff nourishes the slightest spark into a conflagration. So it is with anger… the outcome of a mighty anger is madness.”

Do you know anyone who might be a little angry right now?

To build on Seneca’s fire metaphor, does it feel more like we are a forest of “solid timbers” or are we kindling, utterly vulnerable to a chance spark? The way to strengthen our resolve and douse our anger is to first deal with our fear.

Once more from Seneca:

“If, however, fear is once given an entrance, it will by frequent use pass over into a vice, and anger, once admitted into the mind, will alter the earlier habit of a mind that was formerly free from anger.”

The stoics view fear and anger as vices, indulgences, like alcohol. We can become addicted to fear. Anger can be a habit. We have to find a way to make a healthier choices. Say no to the intoxication of fear and replace it with virtues like courage, wisdom, compassion, and harmony with each other.