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.


Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?

Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?


On the front page of a section of The New York Times this weekend was an article about a psychologist who has studied happiness and gives advice on how to achieve it. The piece revealed very little of her secrets to happiness (I guess they might be called), but one observation of hers is that renters are happier than homeowners. Maybe that is indicative of other conclusions she might propose, like married people are happier or people in a certain region are happier. Maybe people find that kind of thing interesting, like knowing somebody’s astrological sign. However, in terms of providing the basis for a way to live life, how could such conclusions have any validity or worth? Were the renters and homeowners in question alike in all respects (even most) with regard to happiness except for their status as renters or homeowners, such that the difference in this one aspect could be the cause in a cause and effect relationship? The article also made note of “hedonistic adaptation,” which Stoics routinely recognize as a reason not to pursue pleasure per se as a route to happiness because it invariably cloys or simply wears out. Probably the article was short on details about happiness so as not to preempt the book, which should lure readers searching for happiness in their lives. They might find a couple of mildly interesting observations, and then forget all about them when confronting failure or hardship, those things that life generally has in store that tend to undermine happiness.

What is happiness? Maybe the psychologist-author defines it front and center in her guide to happiness. For Stoics, it is tranquility, which is freedom from negative and excessive emotion– or rendered poetically by John Keats in Hyperion: “To bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!” If one exalts in and strives for giddy highs and devastating lows and thinks that such a pendulum existence is desirable, then Stoicism is not the answer. The longer I live, and it has been quite a while now, the more I value emotional calm: I value it in others, I like the way it feels, and I work at obtaining it, although it does not come naturally to me. Tranquility does not depend on renting or home owning, but does come (or comes in some degree greater than it would otherwise) through keeping the following ideas in mind, all of which are discussed and, at times, reduced to handy aphorisms, in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, Essay and Letters, translated by Moses Hadas. I set them out to remind myself.

Strive for mental self-sufficiency.
You have to be able to abide yourself, to comfort yourself, and to use your own powers of rational thought. The inner world is as valid as the external world. Read, study, exploit your talents and realize that when it comes to accolades, few are enough, one is enough, none is enough. There is no absolute good goal; many things are valid and complete ends in themselves. One quick glance at life and it is easily apparent that anyone who looks for happiness from external events is destined to be unhappy much of the time. Such a life is a version of lottery game.

Apply Reason to Emotion
Reason is the one attribute that sets humans apart from the other animals; they have their special talents, and we have ours, reason. First, use reason over emotion and understand that your feelings are not all-important, worth indulging, or determinative for yourself or others. Second, use reason to prevent yourself from thinking pointlessly, which is thinking about situations over which you have no control—those include all of the past, a lot of the present, and much of the future. If you think you can act with effect, then do so, and when you know that you can’t, stop occupying your mind with it; there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking.
Also, reason, formed from experience and logic, establishes that things can always be worse, what can happen to anybody can happen to you, and that death is life’s neighbor; thus, realizing those things, you are at once prepared and appreciative for each peaceful moment or in finding the consolation in a difficult time. In the category of things that we cannot control and should not waste our energies thinking about to the detriment of our tranquility includes the suffering of others—it achieves nothing for the others or for ourselves, as we must all ultimately comfort ourselves. As Arthur tells Bedevere at Camelot’s demise in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: “Comfort thyself, what comfort is in me, the old order changes and gives way to new and fortune fulfills itself in many ways” (my paraphrase).

Understand what we are dealing with
Adversity besets us all and creates us in large part, for better or worse. I don’t have a lot of respect for or usually like much people who have not known adversity; how would anyone know what they are capable of, what they are truly like, when everything is nice and easy. We are at the mercy of fortune and all we have is on loan from fortune; our best efforts are worth doing, but will only take us so far. Reason will remind us that such is the lot of humanity and we share in common pain and suffering. If the moment at hand brings an opportunity for tranquility, take it; if not try to find the consolation in it. As Seneca said, “All life is bondage. Man must therefore, habituate himself to his condition, complain of it as little as possible, and grasp whatever of value is within his reach. No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation it.”