READING FROM SENECA’S LETTERS: LETTER CVII
Written by: Michael Lucana
This article is part of a semi-regular series in which I read from Seneca’s Letters and explain how they relate to my own life experiences. You can read the letter in question here. As for myself, I am reading from the translation found in the Penguin Classics edition of “Letters from a Stoic.”
If I had to be honest, I would say that I don’t think I’ve ever had a romantic relationship that didn’t end disastrously in one way or another. I don’t say that to garner sympathy either. I say it as a fact. And whether I’ve been the one ending that relationship or had it ended for me by the other person, in the past, I’ve never been able to just walk it off. I am only human after all. I have to process what’s happened, find my footing again.
And sometimes, like most people, I have had a hard time getting back into the swing of things, of moving on. In the past, I would recede into myself, play things over in my head, really let the gut punch of the breakup sink in, in short, I would mope. Usually someone would see me in this sorry state and say to me, “Hey, you’re not the first person in the world that this has happened to! You just need to keep on moving forward!”
“Ok, thanks. I didn’t realize it was that simple. I will get right on that,” would usually be my sarcastic response in my mind.
But the funny thing is, there was quite a bit of truth to what was being said to me. And furthermore, despite how I may have fetishized my heartbreak in the past, however I may have said, “No one has ever felt what I’ve felt,” it really isn’t anything that hasn’t been experienced, and been overcome, by countless people before me.
The Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65), writes to a friend who sounds like he’s going through something similar to what I’ve experienced before. Seneca starts off by congratulating his friend because he no longer has to waste his time on a relationship that sounds like it wasn’t doing anybody any good anyway. The relationship in question seems to be more platonic than romantic, but to be honest, I think the same advice applies. That’s the thing about dysfunctional relationships ending, no matter how you look at it, most of the time, everybody involved is better off, whether they realize it at that moment or not.
But Seneca goes further, he also reminds his friend that to be alive, to have any sorts of relationships with people is the same as stepping out onto a puddle or a muddy street. And if one complains about getting dirty, well what else can one expect? After all, Seneca says, “life’s no soft affair,” and there are worse things that can happen, “at one place you will part from a companion, at another bury one…these are the kinds of things you’ll come up against all along this rugged journey.”
So this is something I just have to deal with right? Relationships end, people die, I will eventually die too. It’s just part of being human. But what practical advice, if any, does Seneca offer that I can put to use to help smooth my acceptance of these facts of life?
I’ve written about the art of negative visualization before. It is a Stoic meditative exercise in which a practitioner not only visualizes the worst outcome for a given situation, but also visualizes how they will behave in accordance with Stoic virtues when that worst-case scenario actually occurs. Seneca recommends this exact technique in this letter as well, he says, “Everyone faces up more bravely to a thing for which he has long prepared himself, sufferings, even, being withstood if they have been trained for in advance.”
At the start of any past romantic relationship I’ve been in, my first thought hasn’t ever been to look forward to the worst possible way that it will end. Of course that doesn’t mean that I haven’t considered that the relationship could possibly end. But as soon as my imagination started considering under what circumstances that could happen, I would immediately set those thoughts aside. Why? because they’re negative, nobody wants to be around negative thoughts. That’s normal right?
But for Seneca, it is the unfamiliarity of a thing which makes it scary, and that is the reason why, for some people, even well into adulthood, the most recent breakup can feel just as jarring as breaking up when you’re a teenager. If we don’t train ourselves at the outset for something, if we don’t practice how we will respond to it, when and if it does happen, it’s like we might as well be “complete beginners,” overwhelmed and feeling as if the whole world is lost.
EMBRACING YOUR FATE
Ok fine, breakups are one thing, but what about griefs that cut deeper, like the death of a loved one? Or what if I know deep down that this love was meant to be? How can I come to grips with this fundamental sense of unfairness?
I think Seneca senses this possible objection, because he goes on to remind his friend yet again, that all of these griefs are, “conditions of our existence which we cannot change.” This is our fate, “the taxes arising from our mortal state, part of the package deal of being a human being, taking the bad and the good as they come. And in the same way that that he advises that we should work to maintain our mental composure when calamity strikes, he also says, “let us receive our orders readily and cheerfully, and not desert the ranks along the march…”
This line always stings when I read it, because, honestly, I don’t want to embrace these facts of being a mortal, but at the same time I can’t deny that there are going to be times when I really don’t have control over aspects of my fate. So what can I do? I can make sure that I maintain control over the only thing I really own, myself. I can look forward to the bumps along the way, not hide my face and look at the ground, or waste my time thinking about what could have been. I can embrace my fate.
Yes, breakups are difficult, life is difficult, but there are more difficult ways to lose those you love, more painful ways. Some may have had it worse and some may have had it better, but every single person, no matter who they are, is equally walking the same hazardous road. That road definitely has it’s down but it also has it’s ups, no way around that, and whether you were the one that did the heartbreaking, or were the one that had your heart broken, all you can do now is accept things as they are and keep moving forward. To want otherwise would be, for Seneca, to “see […] nothing right in the way the universe is ordered,” and for me at least, to do that would also be to deny all the good things that happened in between the bad.
If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.