Better Than Courage

Originally published October 3, 2014

I've been climbing trees lately. Physically, it's easy (almost like I'm an ape and climbing is a natural activity for me, or something). But once I ascend a certain amount, the ground seems so far away, and I lose heart. I can't continue, no matter how I exhort myself to be a man and get over it. This got me thinking. I'd be better off if I were oblivious to the danger. I could get to the top of any tree if I didn't feel so afraid.

It's like what Gandalf said about Merry and Pippin when he was trying to convince Elrond to let them join the Fellowship: yes, their courage would fail them if they knew the dangers awaiting them, but if they did, they'd wish their courage hadn't failed them.

Or like what Paul Graham said about instinctive aversion to boring difficult work: "Frankly, the most valuable antidote to schlep blindness is probably ignorance. Most successful founders would probably say that if they'd known when they were starting their company about the obstacles they'd have to overcome, they might never have started it."

I perceive that I've done myself a disservice by allowing myself to feel fear more often and more keenly as of late. I don't remember why that started happening. Physical pain such as from falling didn't concern me before.

It also reminds me of the good kind of advice about temptations. Resisting them isn't really an action you can take. The best you can do is put yourself in a situation where you're not tempted. You can show off more virtue by heroically trying to resist procrastination and occasionally succeeding, or you can do the smart thing and make it impossible to procrastinate.

Courage and temptation-resistance are classic virtues. But in both these types of case, you're better off if you never have the chance to exercise them. This is an opportunity for a consequentialist meta-virtue about minimizing the impact of your vices.

"Secret of Adulthood: Use self-control to avoid situations that require self-control."

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