I have the power to make myself miserable simply by thinking. If I were to sit down and give myself over to thoughts of my various failures, losses, inadequacies, and sorrows, I would be forced to lament in the manner described by Shakespeare in his sonnet that, as I recall, goes like this: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought / and with old woe new wail my dear times waste. / Then can I drown an eye unused to flow / for precious friends hid in death’s dateless night / and weep afresh love’s long since canceled woe/ and moan the expense of many a vanished sight. / Then can I grieve for grievances foregone / and heavily from woe to woe tell o’er the sad account of fore bemoaned moan which I new pay as if not paid before. . .”
What beautiful language –particularly expressing the timelessness of death with the alliterative phrase “death’s dateless night;” however, such use of sweet silence sets a bad example for anyone seeking a tranquil mind. Shakespeare ends the sonnet with his consoling couplet: he can divert his thoughts to his dear friend and then sorrows end. Incidentally, I always read that consolation wondering about the sonnet that will address the dear friend’s death. Imagining the need for such a sequel is not idle negativity, but the realistic appraisal that placing your happiness on and finding all solace in one person is risky. This sonnet catalogues several insidious pointless thoughts, in particular the chief of all perhaps–those that cannot quit the past.
Conversely, I would assume that I also have the ability to make myself tranquil through my thoughts. Why should the power of my thoughts only go one way? It does take more effort to not dwell on the pointless past, or the emotions generally, because, I believe, we have the habit of thinking mournfully and nostalgically; and we think that indulging such emotions is productive or valid, influenced by modern psychology and modern culture (even literature, such as Shakespeare’s sonnet). Now is the time to acknowledge the influence of the sycophants of the god Emotion: psychologists and those whose feelings are touted as inviolable. As for the latter, we all know such individuals who like to throw around as justification, “that’s just how I feel.” So what? How about what you should reason? Whatever the myriad explanations that lead us to emotional indulgence, there are three basic and related Stoic principles to escape the anguish of the past and promote a tranquil frame of mind: avoid cogitating on things over which one has no control; value what is at hand; and understand how much worse any situation can be.
On the first principle, of all the things over which we have no control, the past is the vast area that is forever and totally beyond any control whatsoever. Remember that there is no point in thinking pointlessly. Likewise things in the future also elude our control and therefor hoping is equally pointless. The middle-kingdom of events comprises those over which we have some control, which includes our own actions, although not for the most part the actions of others. Here we might think about the proverbial sated horse: I can lead him to water but I can’t make him drink. I can control my actions—I can put the halter on him and lead him up and down the fields by any path I choose to the pond. Becoming furious with the horse will serve no goal except agitating me, so I must relinquish attempts at control over him to preserve my tranquility. Certainly our actions are at times circumscribed by consequences, but whether or not we choose to undergo the consequences is within our control. Without veering to far afield into existentialism and the notion that we are completely free to define ourselves by our unhindered actions, I will aver that the “self-defining” ability applies to actions not titles. I can write a book; I can put the words on the page, but I cannot determine that I am a writer if that designation includes the requirement that others read my work. I can only be an unpublished or unread writer or an aspiring writer or a writer whose work few have had the pleasure of reading. So, on the whole we cannot control others. That does not mean we must relinquish all attempts at influencing or even compelling others, just that when those attempts have been made to no avail, at some point, which we all must figure out for ourselves, the power to control the person or situation has passed from our hands, or was never there in the first place. Last, in the triage of control, there are the things over which we have complete control, although complete is a risky and overbearing word I hesitate to type in this context. Such things are typically small and personal and debatably include how we act and present ourselves in any given situation. Although emotions seem to arise unbidden, thanks to clumsy and excessive natural forces that unleash sentiment and pain upon us, we do have the power to act in one way or the other—or could have if we realize that ability, value it, and practice it.
Secondly, to engender thoughts purposeful to achieve tranquility, we must take stock of what we do have rather than what we have lost. As discussed in my post of February 14, while we lament, ruminate, and regret, we miss this living moment. This day might be our last, we have no way of knowing whether or not it is; pretend it is, it might well be. This realization brings to mind the question that some people find so fascinating and which is really very simple: how would you live this day if it were your last? A Stoic would live it as he or she lives every day because every day could be the last.
The third thought process to benefit a tranquil mind entails remembering that things could be much worse. We still have very much to lose and could, given the vagaries of life, find ourselves in an instant in an even more regretful situation. To the wretched slave in Ancient Rome who complained that he had nothing but a loin cloth, he needed only to think how much worse he would be without his loincloth. As I have mentioned before, Seneca pointed out that there is no situation so dire that the dispassionate mind could not find some consolation in it. There is one useless but powerful emotion, however, which Seneca recognized defies reason –grief. He admitted that grief is always stubborn. More on grief, that great flaw of nature and master useless emotion, in a future post.