This is difficult to admit publicly, and I’d prefer not to, but I know that preference is born out of shame. And shame has use! Seneca reminds us that,
“[You should not] give up hope: even long-term invalids can be cured if you take a stand against intemperance, and if you force them repeatedly to do things and put up with things against their will. I don’t have much confidence … except for the fact that he still blushes for his wrongdoing. We must nurture that sense of shame: once it has solidified in his mind, there will be some room for hope.” (Letter 25.1-2)
I messed up: over the past year I’ve disregarded philosophy, quit making progress, stagnated and regressed. I lost my job due to poor attendance; and I’ve still been abstinent from heroin (celebrating three years clean this past June), but I did let my naivete get the best of me and began casually drinking early in the year. I quit this spring, after recognizing it getting out of hand; but, as I was depressed and stagnant, I let thoughts of easy escape consume me and drank a couple times since (excessively). Everything culminated last week: I drank nearly to black out, destroyed my kitchen and my wife threw me out.
We’ve spoken often since, and the separation will be amicable; and the preceding events were just what finally tipped a boat that only needed a light breeze to capsize her. Truth be told, in all this mess, she outgrew me: she progressed while I regressed. I see it so clearly now, but before I was blinded by my own distress. I wasn’t able to love her properly, because I couldn’t see past my own suffering.
While this hurts now, I know this reaction is grief. Seneca speaks often of grief in his Consolations, and while those are based around exile and death, they can be perfectly extrapolated to help one during times of romantic heart break. For example, in his Consolations to Marcia he tells her,
“Still, Marcia, suppose that you have been robbed of more than any other person has ever lost—I am not trying to mollify you, nor am I making light of your misfortune: if fate can be overcome by weeping, let us resort to weeping; let every day be spent in grieving, let sleepless misery consume the night; let our hands pummel our bruised breasts, let our very faces come under attack, and let sorrow, to advance its cause, employ every kind of cruelty. But if no breast-beating can bring back the dead, if fate, unchanging and fixed for eternity, is not altered by any distress, and death keeps whatever it has taken, let there be an end to a grief that is just being wasted. So let us keep control of ourselves and not allow that force to drive us off course. It is shameful when a ship’s helmsman has the rudder wrested from his grasp by the waves, when he abandons the sails as they flap wildly, and leaves his vessel at the mercy of the storm; but even in a shipwreck, praise is due to a helmsman who is overwhelmed by the sea as he is still clinging to the rudder and struggling.” (6.1-3)
I may be a poor helmsman, but I believe this shame, as previously mentioned, has use! In the past week I’ve tackled one of the biggest hurdles in my external life. For three years I’ve been unable to progress professionally due to legal troubles that I refused (out of fear) to take care of, and yesterday I was officially discharged from one court case, and Monday I will be turning myself in on the second. Furthermore, I’ve updated my resume, got in contact with the Career Services department at my alma mater, contacted those in my professional network, and began the job hunt. I feel very optimistic, yet reserved, about the future.
I want to talk about love here, because it’s been on my mind a lot this past week. The Stoics believed love to be an essential element of human nature. Marcus Aurelius believed that the perfect Stoic would be “at once completely free of passion [negative emotions] and full of love.” (Med. 1.9) He also famously spoke passionately to his friends and loved ones, as can be seen in his letters to his rhetoric teacher Fronto,
“Goodbye, breath of my life. How should I not burn with love for you when you have written such things to me? What am I to do? I cannot desist. This time last year it was my lot, at this very place, to be burning with a desire to see my mother. This year it is you who have kindled this desire in me. My lady sends her greetings.” (Letter 1, Hard)
I may have been unable to properly love my wife as a husband should, but moving forward I plan to love her as a friend, as family, as the woman who brought my son into existence. But not just her, I want to love all those whom I’ve neglected, my parents, my family, my friends, and all of humanity as a good man ought to: unconditionally.
I believe I’ve learned a lot throughout this mess: about myself, my relationships, and about the lessons adversity can teach. I neglected philosophy, I stopped trying to better myself, and this is the result. Years of progress, and I let my guard down. Never again.
If you veer off the path, get back on it. Even the Emperor knew he wasn’t a sage, but he knew what he had to do:
“Do not give up in disgust or impatience if you do not act on the right principles, consolidated into a habit, in all that you do. No: if you have taken a fall, come back again, and be glad if most of your actions are on the right side of humanity. And love what you return to.
And do not think of philosophy as your instructor, but as the sponge and egg white that relieve ophthalmia—as a soothing ointment, a warm lotion. Not showing off your obedience to the logos, but resting in it. Remember: philosophy requires only what your nature already demands. What you’ve been after is something else again—something unnatural.
—But what could be preferable?
That’s exactly how pleasure traps us, isn’t it? Wouldn’t magnanimity be preferable? Or freedom? Honesty? Prudence? Piety? And is there anything preferable to thought itself—to logic, to understanding? Think of their surefootedness. Their fluent stillness.” (Med, 5.9)