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.

Hip Undertakers, Seneca, and Emily Bronte

Did anyone read the article in The New Yorker “Or Bodies, Ourselves”? As a Stoic, I am drawn to reading anything that brings death forward for our consideration.  Stoics use thoughts of death to appreciate life, to remind themselves to make the most of time with loved ones, and to remember that most things in life are trivial.  I think death, in addition to being the catalyst for the carpe diem mentality just described, is the great equalizer; we humans are quite smug in the superiority of our species, but we are animals and, like all the other species, we will die and become nothing more than that which we were before we were born. Some may question the latter part of that assertion, unable to accept such finality, but at least it is true that our bodies (if not cremated) will rot just like the bodies of our dogs, cats, and other animals great and small. Seneca exhorted his readers to study death up close in order not to fear it. Given the times and situation of living under the gaze of a crazed emperor, Seneca and his friends needed to be prepared at all times to dispatch themselves at his command.

The article acquaints us with a young, hip undertaker named Caitlin Doughty, who runs L.A. Undertaking.  She is a proponent of returning to the old-fashioned way of handling our dead. Similar to the at-home birth, she advocates an at-home death, complete with participation in corpse preparation.  Returning to the good old days in this regard is worth doing only if we stand to benefit by it.  If by handing over the corpse, we are somehow depriving ourselves because doing so fosters our fear of death or complicates or worsens our grief, then we should take her up on this idea.  If not, then keeping the corpse around is no better than returning to a lot of old fashioned things that ranged from very inconvenient to miserable. Women used to get this task.  Read Wuthering Heights: Nelly Dean is routinely called upon to deal with a dead body. On the topic of women and death, a subtopic of the article is the infusion of women into the undertaking field, which was traditionally male.

One thing that strikes me right away about our having a more involved role with our dead is that bathing and dressing a body is not something we do for each other generally dead or alive. That thought leads me to suppose that I might actually feel that tending the body would be more natural and better if it was that of my own child, but even then, only if he or she were young. However, body preparation is not the sole aspect of the return to the old way of doing things; another is the suggestion to have death occur at home and keep the body there for a while. I have gotten close to that proposed situation to evaluate. I had Gentle Goodbyes euthanize my golden retriever in my home for a backyard burial, which approximates the death experience Doughty endorses. I would hope nobody scoffs at the notion that love of a nonhuman is profound and that the loss can be as great as a human death. I am pretty normal (who isn’t or who is) and have experienced both.  In familiar surroundings, without subjecting Katie to the pain of getting into the car, we remained at home, and a veterinarian of trust-inspiring calm and tangible empathy (a woman) made Katie comfortable with drugs, let me take my time, and ended her suffering. I think Katie had a better end, but did I suffer less? Did having her die at home help me? After all, right behind me will forever be the place where she last lay. My memoires of the room and this house must include her death and the ineffable sight of her dead body, on the floor, then in the blanket that we wrapped her in to place her in the grave dug outside.  My conclusion: it was better that way, so maybe Doughty is on to something, with a large qualifier that I find expressed (again) in Wuthering Heights.  In that novel, Brontë expresses her realization that grief is a personal experience of which the severity or nature depends on the survivor’s particular feelings for and level of dependence on the deceased and not at all on the relationship per se. This is not something Doughty mentions – that dealing with grief is not one-size-fits-all and sorrow does not result in the same ways even for the same kind of losses.

I wonder if Doughty has ever read Wuthering Heights, that death-infused prose-poem, or read it carefully enough to notice all the scenes involving corpses and how some of her words describing her own experiences in dealing with death echo lines from that book.  In particular Ellen Dean’s: “I don’t know if it be a peculiarity in me, but I am seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death should no frenzied or despairing mourner share the duty with me. I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break; and feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter.”

Letter to the Editor

I write letters to the edtiors of “The New York Times” and “The New Yorker” from time to time as an exercise of self-espression, remembering that Stoic truth that when it comes to having an audiance or readership, “Few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.” What one writes might matter a little, but who is writing counts the most, and I like most people, as Emily Dickenson said, “am noboday, are you nobody too?”

To the Editor:

Roxanne Gay’s editorial piece, “Of Lions and Men,” uses the killing of Cecil the lion and the resulting grief and outrage to propose that we extend those sentiments to the death of all human beings, particularly black lives lost at the hands of the police.  There could be no disagreement there; and even though the tragedy of police racial bias persists, I think no one but the most depraved would take issue with her plea.  There is another lesson, less obvious to most, to take from our sadness and outrage at the senseless slaughter of Cecil.

Every now and then we are surprised at how we can grieve the death of a non-human being, such as Cecil the lion.  That was also the case with Barbaro the race horse a few years ago. Such sadness leads to confused questioning; how can we mourn an animal’s death, or as Ms. Gay noted, even cry at that death while not giving way to such emotion for a fellow human being? On such occasions we overcome our pervasive and deeply rooted bias toward the human species. That emotional connection to an animal perplexes us, although many do know the feeling, having experienced it before; anyone who has had a companion animal, such as a family dog, die knows the grief a non-human death can bring, although many would labor at grieving less at that death than at a human death and wonder why the recovery from it is so long and painful. In such cases we humans slam into our cultural, ingrained bias toward our own species.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that the human species matters most, the other species differ so much from us that our sentiments cannot extend to them, and therefore we humans enjoy the privilege over all the other species to do as we will. Humans live according to the code with regard to non-humans that “might makes right.” We can kill them, we can hunt them, we can imprison them, we can use them for experiments, we can eat them without regard to their interests or their lives because it serves our interests and nothing is stopping us.  The contradiction, or cynically stated, hypocrisy, of mourning one dead animal within that cultural background is striking.  That contradiction should not lead us to suppress out sadness for Cecil or Barbaro or the family dog.  The reality of that sadness should open our eyes to the worth of the lives of other creatures who cling to life, have interests, and no more deserve what the human species inflicts on them than Cecil deserved to suffer and die for the human joy of having his head on a dentist’s trophy wall.

All That Love

Clicking through the channels during idle minutes I came across a documentary on Ethel Kennedy (and unavoidably in large part about Bobby Kennedy) made and narrated by Bobby’s posthumous daughter Rory.  Leaving aside any criticism of the film and commentary on the lifestyle of the subjects, I will note one particular revelation that made a statement, unintended I believe, about religion and literature/philosophy.

The Kennedys are almost synonymous with personal tragedy, and Ethel (although she married into the Kennedy curse) suffered many profound losses: the deaths of her parents in a plane crash while she was young; the death of her brother-in-law Jack, a loss not only of a relative and beloved president, but also a huge vicarious loss through her husband, Bobby, for whom Jack was the right and left arm (the film made clear to me the degree to which Jack paved the way for Bobby).  Ethel would later lose two sons, one to drugs the other to a reckless accident. In response to all the loss, a subject to which Rory devotes a substantial amount of time, she points to the support of religion and lingers over images of Ethel (whom she must refer to through the film as “Mummy”) kneeling in private worship and lighting candles.  At one point, Ethel states that she is sure that all the departed are “up there” happy together.

On the other hand, when Bobby loses Jack—his beloved brother, his livelihood, his inspiration, his confident, his political base of support and more—he takes to reading poetry.  Where was his catholic faith?  Rory of course could not interview him to see if he refers to anyone being happy in heaven, but she makes a large point of relating that in his grief he withdrew and read Aeschylus.  I would have liked to know what else he read at that time. (I am not familiar with Aeschylus, but I generally don’t like to read poetry in translation because there is always that other writer who has a very large hand in the end product.) Even when we see Bobby comforting a crowd of African-Americans upon informing them of the death of Martin Luther King, he quotes Aeschylus.

I did not get the sense that the filmmaker was making any tacit statement about her father’s loss of faith (whom she also must refer to through the film, as does everyone else, as “Daddy”). Yet clearly, if he isn’t kneeling and lighting candles, then res ipsa loquitur—he is not seeking his consolation through religion. By the way, I have always been baffled by the purpose of lighting candles and praying for someone after death.  If you believe that they are happy “up there” then what are you praying about? Either they are happy or not, and only in the latter case would they need your prayers, I guess so they can get to heaven from limbo or some such other place?  As for praying for things, I have been treated to many instances where people were going to fervently pray for my brother; he died young of a heart attack after a life of horrible alcoholism. We must, I suppose, forget about the workings of cause and effect here, or else conclude that the praying was detrimental.  Back to praying for the dead, if it is just an expression of thought for the deceased, I would ask, are there many moments when you are not thinking about a loved one who has just died?

Death gives religion its finest moment—without grief I would say that religion would wan or disappear.  I think people can face their own nothingness after death more than they can come to terms with the irrevocable disappearance of a loved one.  There might still, though, be pockets of use: some might still feel the need for that something bigger than themselves, or need a story about “how we got here” with more color than science can give, or want the social support and affirmation of gathering in groups and performing rituals. Still, as I read in a blog by a minister, the best time to make a convert is at a funeral.

My final perplexing religious notion– why is everything good attributed to god, but none of the bad?  This came to light recently when I listened to a Franciscan brother who was doing good work in the slums of LA.  He found the love of god in every instance of success he had in convincing a youth to turn from a life of crime, in every commercial success of the homegrown businesses he set up for the unemployable, and in every feeling of mutuality between two people.  God’s love was conspicuously absent when he described that the children with whom he worked were products of neglect and abuse, that they had routinely witnessed deaths of family members, and grew up in fear and poverty.  He noted that children were frequently victims of violent deaths. All good?  The devil’s work?  Is man now responsible? A mysterious manifestation of god’s love?

I did a good Samaritan act last week—it was easy to do; I offered a woman, who was obviously hurrying for the train station on a very hot day, a ride to the station where I was headed. She was so happy, nearly ecstatic, that I had stopped, and she exclaimed repeatedly, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.”  My name is not Jesus.