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Seneca on Grief and the Key to Resilience in the Face of Loss: An Extraordinary Letter to His Mother

“All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.”

Seneca on Grief and the Key to Resilience in the Face of Loss: An Extraordinary Letter to His Mother

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion observed in her classic meditation on loss. Abraham Lincoln, in his moving letter of consolation to a grief-stricken young woman, wrote of how time transmutes grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.” But what, exactly, is the mechanism of that transmutation and how do we master it before it masters us when grief descends in one of its unforeseeable guises?

Long before Didion, before Lincoln, another titan of thought — the great Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca — addressed this in what might be the crowning achievement in the canon of consolation letters, folding into his missive an elegant summation of Stoicism’s core tenets of resilience.

In the year 41, Seneca was sentenced to exile on the Mediterranean island of Corsica for an alleged affair with the emperor’s sister. Sometime in the next eighteen months, he penned one of his most extraordinary works — a letter of consolation to his mother, Helvia.

Helvia was a woman whose life had been marked by unimaginable loss — her own mother had died while giving birth to her, and she outlived her husband, her beloved uncle, and three of her grandchildren. Twenty days after one the grandchildren — Seneca’s own son — died in her arms, Helvia received news that Seneca had been taken away to Corsica, doomed to life in exile. This final misfortune, Seneca suggests, sent the lifelong tower of losses toppling over and crushing the old woman with grief, prompting him in turn to write Consolation to Helvia, included in his Dialogues and Letters (public library).

Although the piece belongs in the ancient genre of consolatio dating back to the fifth century B.C. — a literary tradition of essay-like letters written to comfort bereaved loved ones — what makes Seneca’s missive unusual is the very paradox that lends it its power: The person whose misfortune is being grieved is also the consoler of the griever.

seneca
Seneca

Seneca writes:

Dearest mother,

I have often had the urge to console you and often restrained it. Many things have encouraged me to venture to do so. First, I thought I would be laying aside all my troubles when I had at least wiped away your tears, even if I could not stop them coming. Then, I did not doubt that I would have more power to raise you up if I had first risen myself… Staunching my own cut with my hand I was doing my best to crawl forward to bind up your wounds.

But what kept Seneca from intervening in his mother’s grief was, above all, the awareness that grief should be grieved rather than immediately treated as a problem to be solved and done away with. He writes:

I realized that your grief should not be intruded upon while it was fresh and agonizing, in case the consolations themselves should rouse and inflame it: for an illness too nothing is more harmful than premature treatment. So I was waiting until your grief of itself should lose its force and, being softened by time to endure remedies, it would allow itself to be touched and handled.

[…]

[Now] I shall offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife.

Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, a remarkable Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss

In consonance with his strategy for inoculating oneself against misfortune, Seneca considers the benefits of such a raw confrontation of sorrow:

Let those people go on weeping and wailing whose self-indulgent minds have been weakened by long prosperity, let them collapse at the threat of the most trivial injuries; but let those who have spent all their years suffering disasters endure the worst afflictions with a brave and resolute staunchness.
Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.

In a sentiment of uncompromising Stoicism, he adds:

All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.

Observing the particular difficulty of his situation — being both his mother’s consoler and the subject of her grief — Seneca finds amplified the general difficulty of finding adequate words in the face of loss:

A man lifting his head from the very funeral pyre must need some novel vocabulary not drawn from ordinary everyday condolence to comfort his own dear ones. But every great and overpowering grief must take away the capacity to choose words, since it often stifles the voice itself.

Instead of mere words, Seneca proceeds to produce a rhetorical masterpiece, bringing the essence of Stoic philosophy to life with equal parts logic and literary flair. He writes:

I decided to conquer your grief not to cheat it. But I shall do this, I think, first of all if I show that I am suffering nothing for which I could be called wretched, let alone make my relations wretched; then if I turn to you and show that your fortune, which is wholly dependent on mine, is also not painful.

First I shall deal with the fact, which your love is longing to hear, that I am suffering no affliction. I shall make it clear, if I can, that those very circumstances which you think are crushing me can be borne; but if you cannot believe that, at least I shall be more pleased with myself for being happy in conditions which normally make men wretched. There is no need to believe others about me: I am telling you firmly that I am not wretched, so that you won’t be agitated by uncertainty. To reassure you further, I shall add that I cannot even be made wretched.

We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.

Art by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy

Echoing his animating ethos of deliberate preparation for the worst of times, he adds:

Fortune … falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.

Seneca makes a sobering case for the most powerful self-protective mechanism in life — the discipline of not taking anything for granted:

No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.

For this reason, Seneca points out, he has always regarded with skepticism the common goals after which people lust in life — money, fame, public favor — goals he has found to be “empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colours, with nothing inside to match their appearance.” But the converse, he argues, is equally true — the things people most commonly dread are as unworthy of dread to the wise person as the things they most desire are of wise desire. The very concept of exile, he assures his mother, seems so terrifying only because it has been filtered through the dread-lens of popular opinion.

With the logic of Stoicism, he goes on to comfort his mother by lifting this veil of common delusion. Urging her to “[put] aside this judgement of the majority who are carried away by the surface appearance of things,” he dismantles the alleged misfortune of all the elements of exile — displacement, poverty, public disgrace — to reveal that a person with interior stability of spirit and discipline of mind can remain happy under even the direst of circumstances. (Nearly two millennia later, Bruce Lee would incorporate this concept into his famous water metaphor for resilience and Viktor Frankl would echo it in his timeless assertion that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”)

Seneca then comes full-circle to his opening argument that grief is better confronted than resisted:

It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death

Seneca points unwaveringly to philosophy and the liberal arts as the most powerful tools of consolation in facing the universal human experience of loss — tools just as mighty today as they were in his day. Commending his mother for having already reaped the rewards of liberal studies despite the meager educational opportunities for women at the time, he writes:

I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will withdraw all your melancholy. Even if you had never been familiar with them you would have need of them now. But, so far as the old-fashioned strictness of my father allowed, you have had some acquaintance with the liberal arts, even if you have not mastered them. If only my father, best of men, had been less devoted to ancestral tradition and had been willing that you be steeped in the teaching of philosophy and not just gain a smattering of it: you would not now have to acquire your defence against Fortune but just bring it forth. He was less inclined to let you pursue your studies because of those women who use books not to acquire wisdom but as the furniture of luxury. Yet thanks to your vigorously inquiring mind you absorbed a lot considering the time you had available: the foundations of all formal studies have been laid. Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.

He concludes by addressing the inevitability of his mother’s sorrowful thoughts returning to his own exile, deliberately reframeing his misfortune for her:

This is how you must think of me — happy and cheerful as if in the best of circumstances. For they are best, since my mind, without any preoccupation, is free for its own tasks, now delighting in more trivial studies, now in its eagerness for the truth rising up to ponder its own nature and that of the universe. It seeks to know first about lands and their location, then the nature of the encompassing sea and its tidal ebb and flow. Then it studies all the awesome expanse which lies between heaven and earth — this nearer space turbulent with thunder, lightning, gales of wind, and falling rain, snow and hail. Finally, having scoured the lower areas it bursts through to the heights and enjoys the noblest sight of divine things and, mindful of its own immortality, it ranges over all that has been and will be throughout all ages.

The full letter was later included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of On the Shortness of Life (public library) — Seneca’s timeless 2,000-year-old treatise on busyness and the art of living wide rather than long. Complement it with these unusual children’s books about navigating grief, a Zen teacher on how to live through loss, and more masterworks of consolation from such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, and Albert Einstein, then revisit the great Stoics philosophers’ wisdom on character, fortitude, and self-control.

BP

Einstein’s Remarkable Letter to a Grief-Stricken Father Who Had Just Lost His Son

A poignant perspective on “the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”

To outlive one’s children is arguably the most unbearable of human miseries. Even the most empathic among us can never fully imagine the incomprehensible anguish of a parent who has survived the loss of a dear life that had only begun to blossom.

In February of 1950, a devastated and disconsolate New York father who had lost his eleven-year-old son to polio several months earlier turned to none other than Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) for pain-salving perspective. Their touching correspondence is included in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the slim, wonderful collection that gave us Einstein’s encouraging words on gender and science to a young girl who wanted to become a scientist.

Albert Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

The grief-stricken father writes:

Dear Dr. Einstein,

Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world.

With heart-rending and utterly disarming despair, the grieving father goes on to wonder whether some evidence of immortality may be found in the principle of energy conservation in science, then adds:

I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child … has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?

May I have a word from you? I need help badly.

Sincerely yours,
R.M.

Sixteen years after his sublime letter to the bereaved Queen of Belgium, which stands among history’s greatest letters of consolation, the physicist — himself the father of two boys — takes the time to respond to the grieving stranger. With great sensitivity to his pain, Einstein reminds the anguished father that science cannot provide the assurance of immortality he so longs for, at least not in a literal sense — such claims belong to the realm of religion. Unwilling to call on unreason and illusory comfort even from the depth of sympathy, Einstein instead offers a beautiful and benevolent perspective on the oneness of the universe, reminiscent of the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore’s ideas about the interdependence of existence. (Einstein and Tagore had bridged science and spirituality in their landmark conversation twenty year earlier.)

Fourteen years after answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, Einstein writes on February 12, 1950:

Dear Mr. M.,

A human being is part of the whole world, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes,
sincerely yours,
Albert Einstein

Complement the thoroughly wonderful Dear Professor Einstein with the legendary physicist on widening our circles of compassion, his timeless message to posterity, his answer to a woman who had lost sight of why we’re alive, and his letter of advice to his own son, then revisit Joan Didion on grief, a Zen master’s advice on navigating loss, and these uncommon children’s books that help kids mourn.

BP

Abraham Lincoln on Living with Loss: His Magnificent Letter of Consolation to a Grief-stricken Young Woman

On trusting that time will transmute the unbearable pain of grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.”

Abraham Lincoln on Living with Loss: His Magnificent Letter of Consolation to a Grief-stricken Young Woman

One of the noblest leaders in Western civilization, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) led a difficult life punctuated by tragedy — his mother’s death when he was only nine, the death of two sons in his lifetime, and his own assassination at the dawn of his second term as president, slain by a Confederate fundamentalist shortly after a speech announcing Lincoln’s intention to advance African Americans’ right to vote.

In February of 1862, just as Lincoln was making major progress on the abolition of slavery, his beloved eleven-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever — a plague-like bacterial infection the vaccine for which was still decades away. Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave then employed as chief designer for Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe and close to the family, would later recall watching the president stand “in silent, awe-stricken wonder” at the foot of the enormous rosewood bed where the boy lay lifeless, Lincoln’s “genius and greatness weeping over love’s idol lost.”

That December, just after the Emancipation Proclamation for which Lincoln had fought so hard was finally issued, loss struck again when one of his dearest friends, William McCullough, was killed during a night charge in Mississippi.

abrahamlincoln

A vital characteristic of a great spiritual, civic, or political leader is the ability — or is it the unrelenting willingness? — to transcend one’s own experience, even at its most acute, and rise from the depths of personal pain in the service of another’s welfare. That’s precisely what Lincoln did for his country, and what he did in his magnificent letter of consolation to Fanny McCullough, William’s daughter. Later included in the altogether indispensable Library of America anthology Lincoln: Speeches and Writings (public library), the letter is a masterwork of sympathetic solace on par with Einstein’s moving letter to the bereaved queen of Belgium.

Drawing on his own lifelong dance with love and loss, 53-year-old Lincoln writes to the bereaved young woman on December 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

Complement with Meghan O’Rourke on the messiness of mourning and learning to live with loss and Cry, Heart, But Never Break, an uncommonly tender Danish illustrated meditation on loss and life, then revisit a great Zen teacher’s advice on navigating grief.

BP

Just-Like-That Mind: A Great Zen Teacher on Navigating Loss and Grief

“Name and form are made by thinking. Water does not say, ‘I am water.’ Steam does not say, ‘I am steam.’”

Just-Like-That Mind: A Great Zen Teacher on Navigating Loss and Grief

“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne observed as he contemplated death and the art of living in the sixteenth century. And yet despite all that we celebrate as progress, we’ve remained just as unable to make sense of this inevitable cycle of life and death without grave existential terror. The more we learn about the universe, the more we see that chaos, flux, and impermanence are its ruling orders, and yet we continue to yearn for permanence and immortality in our own lives. The mismatch between the knowledge and the longing is perhaps the most anguishing of all human experiences. We live with it daily, this background awareness of our finitude and the mortality of those we love, but it is brought into sharp relief in moments of loss, when grief sinks its insatiate teeth into the flesh of being.

How to reconcile an acceptance of mortality with the unswallowable pain of grief is what the great Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa (August 1, 1927–November 30, 2004) explores in one of the many small doses of potent wisdom found in Only Don’t Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library) — the trove of enlightenment that gave us Soen-sa on the four types of anger and its paradoxical constructive side.

In August of 1977, shortly after explaining death and the life-force to a child, Soen-sa received a letter from a man named Sheldon, whose father had just died the day before. As Sheldon grapples with the universal and universally gutting experience of loss and grief, central to which is the paralyzing perplexity of how a self so beloved and so known can simply disappear into the unknown, he turns to the great teacher for insight and consolation. Soen-sa writes back:

Zen is the great work of life and death. What is life? What is death? When you attain this, then everything is clear, everything is complete, and everything is freedom.

Several years after Bruce Lee used water in his famous metaphor for resilience, Soen-sa turns to the liquid of life to illustrate Zen’s orientation to death:

Let’s say we have a glass of water. Now its temperature is about 60 degrees. If you reduce the temperature to 20 degrees, it becomes ice. If you raise the temperature above 212 degrees, it will become steam. As the temperature changes, H20 in the form of water appears and disappears, but H20 does not appears and does not disappear. Ice, water, and steam are only its form. Name and form change, but H20 does not change. If you understand the temperature, then you understand the form. Your true self is like this.

Soen-sa examines the paradox of the “true self” — an experience we have that feels so solid and concrete, yet remains utterly elusive as soon as we try to pinpoint its source. Our ideas about the self, he argues, are based mostly on attachments to the form of the body, generated in the mind. He writes:

Steam, ice, and water are all H20; but if you are attached to water, and the water becomes ice, then you say the water disappeared. So it is dead! Raise the temperature; the water is born again! Raise the temperature again; the water disappears and becomes steam, and the water is dead again!

[…]

But name and form are made by thinking. Water does not say, “I am water.” Steam does not say, “I am steam.” If you cut off all thinking, are you and the water the same or different? Same and different are made by your thinking. How can you answer? There is no form, no emptiness — no words.

Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea
Painting by Oliver Jeffers from his series Measuring Land and Sea

Exactly half a century after the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki cautioned that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow” in his foundational text on Zen Buddhism, Soen-sa considers the main obstacle to our ability to contact this formlessness of being:

If you cut off all thinking, you will see everything just as it is. Without thinking, water is water; ice is ice; steam is steam. No ideas hinder you. Then your correct relationship to H20 in any form appears by itself. We call this “just-like-this”… Just-like-this mind is clear mind. Clear mind has no I-my-me. Without I-my-me you can perceive your correct relationship to H20 and use it freely without desire for yourself. You will not suffer when water disappears and becomes ice or steam.

Your father’s original face has no death and no life… You must recognize that all things are in your own mind. Just this is finding your true self. Great love, great compassion, and the great bodhisattva [enlightenment] way come from this attainment.

Complement this particular portion of the immensely insightful Only Don’t Know with Oliver Sacks on death, destiny, and the radiance of a life fully lived and these unusual children’s books about making sense of loss, then revisit Soen-sa on the three principles of Zen mind.

BP

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