The Stoic Traveler

"Wherever I go, it will be well with me."

17 April 2007

Groan with Friends

L.A.S. s.d. C.L.:

It seems that events always cast into confusion our best laid plans. Events, though, can be made to serve a purpose.
I do not by any stretch intend to say that the Divine Order caused the recent horror in Virginia simply to provide me with teaching material. That would be foolish on more levels than I can count. Instead, I am going to attempt to tackle one of the harder elements of Stoic ethics: grief and loss.
Dealing with loss is at once the hardest and most rewarding aspect of Stoic practice; it is also the point that probably generates the most antipathy towards Stoicism in the modern world, which is so obsessed with maudlin display.
Recall an assertion made earlier in these public epistles: of the things that are, some are in my power, some are not. The things not in my power include reputation, honors, property. In a word, anything that is not my own action. Things in my power include conceptions, conceits, aversions. In short, my own actions are in my power. (Epictetus, Encheiridion, 1.1)
This would seem to suggest that my response to the events in Virginia is also within my power. I choose, therefore, whether to feel grief, whether to share in the mass grief.
Stoic practice has one aim: to train me to keep my will in conformance with nature. That is, I am training myself to accept what happens so that I may say "wherever I go, whatever happens, it will be well with me" and mean it.
This is not to say that I should ignore what I feel. As I have said, Stoic philosophy is about nature and keeping in accordance with nature. Sadness over the loss of a loved one is natural. But to wish that our loved ones live for ever is not in accordance with nature; it is foolish and brings undue pain.
What of the loss of a friend's loved ones? Or the death of another with whom we had no connection?
In that case, I examine that sadness. Did I have closeness with the deceased? If so, then I do feel. If not, then for the sake of my friend I will groan with him, but I will not force myself to groan at my core, to feel what I do not naturally feel. I will not upset my inner equanimity for the sake of a stranger, or even a friend. There is no flaw in going through the motions, but not feeling the pain.
That pain, which stems from others unconnected to me, is not natural to me. It has no place in my being.
This element of seeming inhumanity often gives Stoic practice a bad reputation. We are cold for not displaying emotions not our own, for letting our own emotions pass by without display or histrionics. But we can endure the pain and loss of life, feel them and know they are nothing to us. Wherever I go, whatever happens, it is well with me.

Cura ut valeas.

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