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January 17th, 2019
This episode is dedicated to S.E. Wells for inspiring a meditation on the following concepts.
The roots of the word ‘caution’ point towards a meaning that is more akin to observation. We might think of the observational phase required to take effective precautions.
If the meaning and use of the word ended here, we might be able to keep it handy as a useful tool, however, the word clearly has a modern dimension that weighs us down.
‘Being cautious’ is generally praised as a good thing. It invokes the roots of the word – that of being observant, looking forward, recognizing dangers. It sings a song similar to the thoughtful pause. But like a mockingbird, caution is a wholly different animal when compared to a genuinely thoughtful pause.
Our thinking goes that we should be cautious of real dangers and these real dangers are something to wisely fear. And yet, we live in the safest version of human society yet conceived. The real dangers that we should genuinely fear are now far less obvious. Texting while driving is an excellent fit here. Every year many people die because someone had to text someone about being 5 minutes late, or about something they just heard on the radio, or any variety of thought that completely lacks urgency. This strange phenomenon is something that we should actually feel fear about, and yet, complacency is the overriding natural disposition. In such a case, where have our evolutionary tools of caution and fear gone? Unfortunately they are at work at far less appropriate tasks. Fear is without a doubt chiefly employed by the human psyche as a needless limiting factor on our own personal agency. It is the roadblock we place in front of ourselves.
While ‘facing one’s fears’ is a healthy maxim touted as the courageous option, it is caution that whispers a slow drip of reasons into our argument, slowly soaking it, weighing it down, until we cannot move forward for our own benefit. Caution has become that I.V. drip through which fear slowly but steadily subverts our most productive notions.
We must be cautious of letting our fear control us, hold us back, and what this should mean is taking a good look at what real risks are present – if any - and then throwing caution to the wind and diving straight into that thing we fear. Chances are there are no true real risks. Most of the things that we fear doing in life are not at the risk of life itself which is really the only thing that we should be mindful of when hesitating to move forward with our aims.
Caution is a double agent, masquerading as our ally, but in secret it’s an operative of fear. The two live in the same house of our mind, pretending to speak different languages, feigning knowledge of one another. But like an aging spy working for some anachronistic agency, these mechanisms are long past their prime.
In fact, caution may be a bigger problem than fear itself. Fear, properly framed, can function like a compass that actually illuminates the directions we should pursue in life. This is how ‘facing one’s fears’ can be a powerful directive. But it’s caution which tempers our muster, slows our rise to action, seeds doubt and sets our thoughts chasing their own tails in unproductive loops of circular thinking.