Fear Is Boring

In the months and years leading up to my bankruptcy in 1999, I was very resistant to going broke. I kept sinking further into debt year by year, and bankruptcy was becoming increasingly inevitable. I kept doing whatever I could think of to stave it off, including selling off lots of items and trying to stay afloat with fewer and fewer resources.

Eventually there wasn’t much of a choice. I fell behind on paying many bills, and consequences started happening. Creditors began calling – eventually up to 10x per day. The daily mail filled up with past due notices and collection letters. I had to scramble to find a new apartment after getting kicked out for nonpayment of rent. Debt was getting charged off and sold to different companies and collection agencies. Many people who were calling weren’t even the original creditors anymore. By this point my credit rating was already trashed, so a bankruptcy wasn’t going to make it much worse.

When I finally surrendered to the inevitable and stopped resisting it, then my attitude was: Okay, let’s just get this over with then. It took some research and lots of paperwork. I had to list and estimate a market value for every item I still owned, including my intellectual property like computer games I’d written. It was actually a pretty straightforward process – basically a thorough accounting of one’s personal financial situation including assets, liabilities, income, and expenses.

I filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which was approved. That meant that the debt was completely eliminated. The court appearance involved being asked some routine questions for about five minutes, and that was it. Most of the time in court was just waiting to be called up. These days I think it’s more difficult to do Chapter 7 with more people being pushed to Chapter 13, which usually involves some sort of repayment plan. I’m grateful that Chapter 7 was possible then since it allowed for a fresh start.

The process really wasn’t that bad. The biggest part was doing the personal accounting of possessions and trying to come up with decent estimates for the fair market value of items like an old couch or chair. In the end it felt like most of that was for show – to satisfy the court. The personal exemption back then was $15K for an individual and $30K for a married couple. I was married at the time, so we weren’t going to lose anything in the bankruptcy since our total possessions added up to well below $30K.

A lawyer wasn’t even needed. The process wasn’t that complicated or scary. Other than the paperwork part, the filing and court appearance part was easier than a trip to the DMV.

What sucked about the whole process was resisting it and stressing about it for so long. The actual process was straightforward and boring. While going through the process, I was struck by just how routine it was for all involved. It certainly felt like a big deal to me at the time, but no one else seemed to care how I felt about it. For those involved in the process, my situation was no more special than buying groceries – just another day of processing dozens of bankruptcies, same as the day before and the day before that.

That showed me just now unspecial all of my stress and worry was – and how utterly pointless it was in the long run.

Emotionally I’d been preparing myself for the equivalent a public flogging and shaming – humiliations galore.

But nope… it was nothing like that at all because nobody gave a fuck.

More people will go broke and bankrupt this year. And it will sure seem like a big deal to them. They may invest plenty of stress, worry, and resistance leading up to it just as I did. Oh no! How are we going to pay rent?

And they’ll probably also be struck by just how little anyone else involved really feels much emotion about their situation. For anyone who has to deal with this sort of thing on a daily basis, it’s the most boring and routine thing ever, and it’s certainly not worth getting worked up about.

Even death is like this for some people. A while back I read a fascinating book called Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, which was about what it’s like to work with dead bodies that are about to be cremated. Some of it is pretty gruesome like how the fat liquifies from the heat. And while it can seem special at first, that kind of work also becomes routine eventually… just another body to cremate… and then another… and then another… After enough time of doing such work, the bigger challenge is finding a way to still care.

It’s an interesting perspective shift to consider that your biggest worries and concerns are part of someone else’s boring routine. Realize that for someone else who has to deal with such situations regularly, your fear, worry, and stress is dreadfully boring.

When I was getting daily calls from creditors and would sometimes talk to them, I was struck by how little they actually cared. It became obvious that they were just going through a process like machines following instructions. I felt sorry for them after a while, given how utterly boring that kind of work must be. Oddly that helped me feel luckier. I realized that it was better to be the one in debt than to be the person whose job it is to make collection calls day after day.

I also noticed that when I surrendered to what was coming up and began to see it as more boring than stressful, the actual difficulties went down too. For instance, I thought my credit would be ruined for 10 years, but credit-wise I was fine in less than 2 years. Bankruptcy wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as I thought it would be.

Worrying and stressing about what’s coming up is common, and maybe you feel that it’s justified, but remind yourself that your biggest concerns are just one small part of a boring routine for someone else. If that bothers you, then also realize that your being bothered about it is also boring to many people because they’ve seen all of that before too. And if that in turn pisses you off, well… they’ve seen that as well, and they’re still not impressed.

It was actually kind of sad to realize that what I thought was my biggest failure in life at the time didn’t even register as important enough for other people to really care about. In that sense it seemed like the public flogging would have been better, at least to mark the momentous occasion. Marking the occasion with a 5-minute court appearance followed by a short drive home was rather underwhelming.

I think it’s a positive shift when we can start tuning into the boredom behind the fear, worry, and stress. Eventually we can grow bored of worrying.

While we could regard going broke as stressful, it’s actually quite boring when you think about it. It’s hard to think of it as special when it’s so common. Any other part of life that we could get worked up over can also be considered boring from the perspective of those who have to deal with it every day. The source of our stress is a small part of someone else’s dull routine.

Consider that eventually an AI will be processing whatever it is that you’re worrying about these days. Your months and years of stress will warrant no more than a nanosecond of its time… a small slice of electricity flowing through a tiny processor in some large cloud computing facility. And no one will care. No human being will even look at it.

At first it may seem disappointing that no one cares, which is understandable. But it’s also empowering in a way. It’s helpful to realize that your perspective on your problems is just that – your perspective. Your personal issues aren’t a major source of concern to other people or to society. What makes your situation stressful isn’t the situation itself. It’s the meaning you’re assigning to it, a meaning which others aren’t. If you pause long enough to realize that your problems are actually quite routine and boring from a certain angle, they become significantly easier to deal with.

Looking at my bankruptcy from the perspective that it was boring and routine made it much easier to process and recover from. This helped me to stop layering all sorts of stress-inducing meanings on top of it. The actual action steps like packing and moving, filling out forms, and going to court didn’t have to be stressful. At the end of the day, all I needed to do was some writing, talking, and moving objects around – really nothing to get so worked up about.

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Read Fear Is Boring by Steve Pavlina