“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”
Seneca, Roman Philosopher
The first, and most important part of closure after a tragedy is the proper perspective on our short life on this earth. This perspective is informed by an honest assessment of the world in which we live and a philosophical approach to actually living well, rather than merely dreaming of living well. Commonly mistaken as making efforts to reduce positive emotions in order to avoid pain, the ancient Stoic philosophers were much more interested in persevering through difficulties in order to properly appreciate life as it unfolds before us. The key in understanding the perspective of the Stoics lies in their interpretation of the role of expectations in our response to all events, both positive and negative, controllable and uncontrollable.
“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything that happens in life!”
Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Stoic
Modern neuroscience has both evolutionary theory and real world data supporting an idea that the Stoics understood well: Our emotional responses to negative surprises are much more intense, and lasting, than our emotional responses to positive surprises. This asymmetry is believed to have evolved as the best way to deal with the very dangerous threats in the world inhabited by our ancestors. However, the best way to survive is not a guarantee that we will enjoy our survival. We need a way to enjoy the positive events in our lives while minimizing the pain of the negative events, all the while remaining attentive to the actions we can take to avoid the avoidable threats.
Photo credit: www.changedforlife.org
Here we must make a clear distinction between those negative events, which can be avoided through our action, and those events, which are beyond our control. This distinction is not exclusive to the Stoics, and shows up in various conceptualizations of fate across many cultures in history. Westerners are familiar with the Serenity Prayer, which does not ask God to intervene to change events to our liking, but rather asks God to help us to accept the events beyond our control and for the courage to engage the challenges within our control.
So as the Stoics, the Fatalists, and even modern Christians struggle to remind ourselves not to be disturbed by those events beyond our control, we develop an emotional toughness that gives us resistance to many of life’s injuries. This toughness serves to lessen the need for closure as well as promote the spirit of personal responsibility in managing our own path to healing.
So how can we best deal with the inevitable losses, which we will all experience? Expect to lose everything tomorrow and enjoy the gift of loved ones today. Our sense of ‘possession’ is prevalent as we strive to acquire the wealth and relationships that we expect to hold and enjoy for many years to come. But those years will have an end, maybe tomorrow, and the only practice that can prepare us for the day of loss is to deny ourselves the sense of possession today. To truly live in the moment can be a difficult practice. This is true because we know that if we do live to see tomorrow, we will have worldly needs for food, shelter, and healthcare. The great difficulty lies in finding the wisdom to strike the balance between working and investing to acquire the worldly needs, and enjoying the simple and profound relationships of our loved ones. This difficulty only increases if we succumb to the temptation to compete for economic or social status.
Lastly, our acceptance of those events beyond our control does not commit us to a passive response to all events. The pursuit of Virtue carries a commitment to take action against injustice to the extent that we can influence events. Here, closure of wounds incurred in virtuous battles draws its healing power from the very strengths that inspired our participation in a noble cause.
In a historically short span of time, everything we hold dear will be torn from us through death. The greatest challenge is not how to increase our time and possessions in this brief experience, but how to best spend our time in pursuits of momentary joys and virtuous actions.
Pete Williams is a Professor of Economics at the University of North Alabama. His research interests include labor economics, sports economics, and the economics of education. His reading interests vary from science and philosophy to the fun projects in the DIY and Maker world.