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

senecaSeneca

“No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours.”

“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 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…

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