Comfort Yourself

Many Stoic precepts have gained traction in our modern society, such as abandoning the quest for happiness through material goods, keeping in mind that each day could be your last, and valuing the present. However, the injunction in Stoicism against complaining and turning to others for solace finds no home in today’s world where, to the contrary, we are encouraged to visit mental health workers and share the vicissitudes of life with friends, both real and on Facebook.  Stoicism does not denounce unloading your emotional turmoil on others because it is in poor taste but rather because it does not help and indeed makes things worse.  Modern psychology has instilled in us the idea that “one must talk about it,” however, where is the proof that doing so helps?   In such a realm, anecdotal evidence reigns supreme, which does not count as proof.  I am as good of an anecdotal source as the next person, so I will not only describe how experience has taught that turning to others does not help but also explain why.

First, laying your troubles on others does not lead to getting over them; the talking constitutes rehearsing them and making them even more present in your life.  There is no real basis for concluding that by the act of talking you somehow expunge a sentiment from your life.  Of course, for psychologists, the idea of your talking to them is self-serving. I have talked to psychologists about various topics without one grain of improvement.  Instead, the fact that I was seeking professional help created righteous validation for my feelings and gave them more strength and traction. If you want to remember something and make it seem terribly important, rehearse it—go over it again and again.  Aside from the paid listeners, the same is true for friends, except they might grow weary and start to eventually resent hearing your hardship or decide that your complaining is an invitation to lay bare their grief, sadness, disappointment etc. After all, the person to whom you are unloading your parcel of trouble has his or her own hands full.  I must draw a distinction between seeking solace from others and seeking advice.  Asking someone for example:  should I take a trip to Italy this summer on my own after my spouse has just died.  I am concerned that I will feel lonely.  Any ideas?  To which your friend could suggest that you do or don’t go, or take a tour with others, or go with her to France instead. Or, you have suffered a severe setback and tell your spouse that you no longer find life to hold any joy.  He or she might be the kind to give you a helpful pep talk –just as likely he or she will pointlessly commiserate, or think “geez, I’m doing everything I can in this relationship.” If however, you seek advice on some proposal to improve your mood, then that gives the spouse something to work with.

With regard to grief, culture has recognized not the need to seek solace but the need to recognize the finality of death and bid farewell. After the ceremony has occurred, you are on your own to suffer your grief with your own resources simply because no one — no friend, no psychologist — will make it any better and reaching out for others is not only pointless for you but tiresome for them.  Does that mean that the suffering cannot be addressed?  Absolutely not.  There are ways that stem from bringing reason to bear. You can consider that your suffering is the common lot of all animals (and not just humans, mind you! Humans don’t even mate for life to a large extent, yet we like to think we have a monopoly on grief.) Consider grief as natural and loss as the way of things: you might as well shake your fist at the sun as rail against death. Second, meditation might quell anxiety.  Third, take action.  Even if you do something that you don’t enjoy, having it end and just getting back to home can bring solace whereas before the walls were closing in. Fourth, just give it up; just accept you don’t feel good; forgive yourself if that is part of the problem. In the end, a lot of sadness comes from expectations: turn down the dial on expectations and hoping. And, last, avoid people who foist their emotional narratives on others implicitly suggesting that they are special in their suffering.