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Emily Bronte described in the following a poem, (Hatfield ed. No.101) the double burden of experiencing the sadness of others. “If I were quite alone, / It might not be so drear, / When all hope was gone; / At least I could not fear. // But the glad eyes around me / Must weep as mine have done, / And I must see the same gloom / Eclipse their morning sun.”
That notion is akin to Seneca’s sentiment expressed in a letter, On Tranquility of Mind: “To be tormented by other’s people’s troubles is misery.” Bronte and Seneca had two different conclusions though. In the poem, Bronte wishes she could take on all the suffering and spare “the glad eyes”; paradoxically, then sparing herself, since it was their suffering that caused her to suffer. Seneca’s theme is expressed here consistently with his Stoicism that the best course is to remain dispassionate, neither reveling in nor partaking of the torments of others.
What is our own sadness and what is that of others? Presumably any event that afflicts someone else more than it does us, even if we do not escape being troubled to some degree, is the sadness of others. Bronte accepted such suffering, describing it as impossible to avoid in her poem, ending with the stanza: “Alas! As lightening withers / The young and aged tree, / Both they and I shall fall beneath / the fate we cannot flee.” Seneca would agree that fate will have its way with our lives, but suggested that we can diminish through the effort of disciplined thought our anguish from the sorrows of others. Let me point out here that his advice is something other than denying compassion; one can feel compassionate and not suffer. Compassion has a point and a goal; to understand the situation of someone else and to act in a purposeful way to lend aid that will ease such suffering. Vicarious suffering does not achieve any purpose, certainly not subtracting from the portion of the other person.
Sometimes when a person who is near and dear is sorrowful and we suffer secondary sorrow, it is actually hard to know at what point their affliction is not truly our own. The classic example, to my mind, would be a loss in the family, which, while grieving a large number of relatives, afflicts certain ones (perhaps the parents, children or spouse) more than others. How much can we give ourselves permission to do only our own grieving? Another example illustrates the point of not engaging in pointless suffering. If someone I love goes to jail, I can lie awake at night imagining how awful it must be and suffering along with him, but that serves to make me miserable without either easing his suffering or getting him out of jail. Of course, I can take steps, out of compassion or affection, to hire a good lawyer and write letters to cheer him, but disrupting my tranquility is pointless. Again, by way of example, if my mother has Alzheimer’s I have my own loss to bear; I should limit it to that and not vicariously take on her own sadness and whatever I imagine she feels. Note the use of the word “imagine.” I cannot know; imagining the pain of others is one use of imagination. Another detrimental use of imagination occurs when we imagine for ourselves troubles that are not present. That negative form of imagination was raised by Keats in a letter to his sister. He advised her not to let “imaginary troubles” burden her. He meant all of those troubles that afflict us because we think about them rather than being beset by them in that moment. He felt that he had let imaginary troubles afflict him too often in his life, contributing to his “terrible morbidity of temperament.” He discovered when ill health took over his life what a real trouble was. Again here, we encounter that Stoic principle that what is at hand should command our thoughts, not what beyond us in either the past or the future.
So not only will I pointlessly gut my chances at tranquility to imagine what my mother suffers, but also by imagining that I too might lose my mind in a few years. We each have our own burden to bear, as expressed in a favorite line from Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” I love the succinctness of Arthur’s statement to Bedevere and his complaints about the loss of Camelot: “Comfort thyself, what comfort is in me?” Here is revealed our inherent separateness. We must live with ourselves every minute from birth to death, console ourselves, and think for ourselves. We can turn to others for certain kinds of help and it might be forthcoming, but no one is going to feel as we do, or suffer in the same way as we do—even if they did, it will not help us. Hence, after seeking what tangible aid one might get, there is no need to go further and resort to complaining: “comfort thyself.”
Some might look to a deity to stand beside them when the reality of the inherent isolation seems untenable; that is another use of imagination. Whereas imagination disturbs tranquility when it reproduces in us the anguish of others, resurrects past troubles or anticipates those to come, it can also produce some solace. Thank your imagination then if you can conjure up of some “other” watching over or walking by your side that will help you along in some way. I don’t benefit from or advocate such thoughts because my imagination does not allow me to trick myself with the existence of unseen beings who care about what I do and have a tidy plan for me. Returning to Emily Bronte, imagination was “her slave, her comrade, and her king.” She not only created but lived to some degree in an imaginary world, “the world within,” that bested anything in the real one. In her world she could “breathe new glories o’er the blighted spring and call a lovelier life from death.” “So hopeless is the world without, the world within I doubly prize,” she wrote and offered a grim litany of what the real world offered to the “mangled wretch.” The world within was her imagination grown from the power of her mind. I don’t think such an approach is generally available to common earthlings, as it was to her, Emily Bronte, the magnificent, my other household god; hence, unable to exist in my own world effectively and being challenged at all times by this one, I will continue to practice Stoicism.
For a thorough examination of the power of Bronte’s imagination, see my article “Emily Bronte’s Defeat of Death and Unintended Solace for Grief,” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, No. 121, spring 2012.