The role of emotion in our lives is an issue that perplexes me still. By emotion, I mean the negative ones and the ostensibly good ones that become negative when excessive. I know as a Stoic that emotion generally is detrimental to our tranquility and reason is the better guide. One might be confused about the relative importance of the two—emotion versus reason– given the great weight in favor of feelings in our day and age: men can now cry and show their emotion; we are advised to pay people to listen to us pouring out our feelings; we are to have our feelings validated, like getting a stamp on our receipt that gives us free parking. It is acceptable and encouraged that we talk about how we feel to friends, strangers, family, counselors, psychologists—anyone who will listen; this is a good thing? What is the origin of this idea? I must suspect some mercenary motive. I have concluded that such a notion is a huge fallacy because such gushing serves no purpose whatsoever. Talking (i.e. complaining) about something for which there is no remedy to apply or path to take is pointless. Having aired our grievance we do not feel better or consoled as much as righteous in our indignation or awaiting the next opportunity to give spurious meaning to the sound of our querulous voices. Has our listener (except for the paid mercenary/counselor/ psychologist) gained anything from the exchange? If we can’t articulate the purpose of the communication, offering a purpose that passes the muster of reason, then all that palaver is not only pointless, but detrimental. Accordingly, I bear in mind the line from Tennyson’s poem “The Idylls of the King”, “Comfort thyself, what comfort is in me?” And Seneca’s exhortation to complain as little possible and to avoid people who do.
The Acela from Stamford to Boston was not as full as it seemed when I first passed down the aisle. Travelers were sheepishly appropriating more than their own seat with purses and sweaters, but one seat, on the aisle no less, remained vacant and I aimed for it. I scarcely looked at the passenger against the window, but couldn’t help seeing he was a young man, wearing shorts, a tee shirt, and Teva sandals. Most importantly, he was not large (and therefore unlikely to spill over into my seat), talking on a cell phone or eating a pungent sandwich. That was all I needed to know under the circumstances.
I was not in the quiet car. A man and a woman three rows ahead had struck up a conversation during which I learned their restaurant preferences in three cities, why they both enjoyed living in New York City, how far one of them had walked during the weekend even thought it was hot, that the woman was thirty-five and did not yet have children etc…) I also was treated to the phone call coming from my rear diagonal right canceling a colonoscopy appointment. I, and at least ten other people, learned that this gentleman was not going ahead with his colonoscopy on Tuesday. Despite these items of conversation, the car was not a noisy one and, at roughly the time of the phone call to the gastroenterologist, I clearly heard my neighbor, the young man right beside me, sob uncontrollably. At first I thought I was hearing laughter, but then it was unmistakable that he was crying full out. I couldn’t turn to look at him, so his voice alone conveyed his anguish.
Many long years ago before I became a Stoic, I cried on a means of public transportation. In my case, it was the subway. The subway is so impersonal that one can easily feel like no one else is there, or counts as being there; everyone ignores the panhandler, the raving lunatic; the person who just spat in the idle of the car in the most disgusting manner. There is an unspoken pact of invisibility on the subway. One is on the subway so much, it also might start to feel like an extension of home—and there is nowhere to go for privacy. There are bathrooms on the Acela for private moments. Still, I would not under my current approach to life cry in public. Nonetheless, I was not without compassion for this young man’s suffering; but I also know that the affairs of a stranger are not mine. The subtle irony was not lost on me that I was at that moment reading Seneca (as I must do from time to time to aid in the “practice” of my philosophy). What was I to do? Ask him if he was okay? Offer a Kleenex? What would have been achieved if he had “opened up” to me? The only consoling truth that I know is that we all suffer. If he had been sobbing about any number of painful occurrences, I could have told him that I too had known such or similar events and that we share them in common with much of humanity and that no one escapes. Would that have helped? Or, I might have suggested to him that he simply had to comfort himself, in the vein of King Arthur to Bedevere at the fall of Camelot. Actually, that must have been what he did—which is what we must all ultimately do– because after a few minutes he stopped sobbing and carried on like all of us other passengers.