Stoicism as the Art of Learning How to Feel Without Fear Reflections on Seneca’s hardest lesson of all: how to stop being afraid to suffer.

A few days after an old-fashioned, sunshiny day at a friend’s farm, I learn—with that squeeze of the heart that is becoming all too familiar—that someone who works with her husband has symptoms that might be COVID-19. I do a quick, panicked review: Neither of us sneezed or coughed, but we did go inside to let her new puppy cool down. We sat a little closer than six feet. We will not know the employee’s test results for four more days.

Feeling like a kid who just shattered the neighbor lady’s window with a baseball, I take a deep breath and confess the exposure to my husband and the handful of people we have seen—outdoors—in the past three days. I apologize, hard, for the hour my friend and I spent inside to cool the puppy. Have apologies ever felt so trivial and so immense at once, with the slightest well-intended carelessness carrying the chance of killing one’s favorite people?

Googling (by now a nervous habit), I find that the CDC has added more symptoms to the checklist: congestion or a runny nose (thus including, in one swoop, anyone in the midwest in ragweed season), nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. I already know about the lost breath, the blood clots and inflammations, the aftermath of fatigue and depression and who knows what else. I watched my mother spend a summer in the ICU with Legionnaire’s disease; she lived another two decades, but with scarred lungs and quirky new health problems.

Chilled (also a symptom) by dread, I reach for Seneca to steady myself.

 

The life story of the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca swings between peril and deliverance. Born in Córdoba, Spain, more than 2,000 years ago, he comes to Rome an outsider but works his way so near the center of power that he is perceived a threat. Sentenced to death, he is reprieved, sentenced to death again but sent into exile instead, brought back to tutor young Nero, suspected of a plot to assassinate his former pupil, sentenced once more to death. Through it all, Seneca remains calm, refusing to infuse his life with dread. When his friends weep and rage over the order that he must commit suicide, he teases, “Where are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come?”

Where are mine?

I dread illness, infirmity, death—who does not? We were not born to suffer. Or maybe we were, but we are determined to dry up this vale of tears. Were we braver in years past? There was a time when suffering adversity, pain, and self-denial was thought to build character, stiffen the backbone, deepen the soul. As a young woman, I was warned to be wary of the guy with the red Miata convertible and the trust fund because he had not suffered, and thus traded arrogance for forbearance.

A word we barely use anymore.

Unsure of our own resilience, we let fear drive us toward fads, painkillers, tax shelters, deluxe insurance packages. I scoff, but I am just as craven.

We of the modern, enlightened world do not urge suffering upon one another. In fact, we will do virtually anything we can to avoid it. So much good work has been done to soften life’s stings and arrows that we have decided they should be obliterated altogether. And because that is not possible—our bodies are vulnerable, our hearts even more so, and the planet’s natural disasters only increasing—we live in dread. Unsure of our own resilience, we let fear drive us toward fads, painkillers, tax shelters, deluxe insurance packages. I scoff, but I am just as craven. Tormented by the uncertainty that has lately invaded every realm of life, my brain flashes to dread at least once a day: illness, joblessness, isolation, the loss of someone I love….

Seneca would shake his head in pity. Or rather, he would not, because he does not believe in pity; he sees it as no help. Instead, he would shoo me toward wisdom.

 

To Seneca, fear is the greatest enemy, and it is not to be trifled with, because “he who indulges in empty fears earns himself real fears.” Our dread of suffering is far more dangerous than suffering itself, and all our ploys gain us nothing: “You rush hither and thither with the idea of dislodging a firmly seated weight, and the very dashing about just adds to the trouble it causes you.”

I wince: He is speaking directly to me. Since childhood, I have allowed myself to fret in the superstitious belief that if I worried hard enough, what I feared would not happen. Seneca agrees, but blithely, pointing out that what we fear seldom comes to pass, so why waste the energy? A sword reaches the throat and stops there. A fire opens a passage of escape. A test comes back negative. Yet we insist on working ourselves into a tizzy every time, because our minds are “tormented by inconstancy”; we bounce from hopes and plans to hand-wringing despair. Throw in a bit of paranoia for the pandemic, and you can see why we inch toward normalcy, then fly back to solitary safety.

The sensible response to contagion is to take all precautions (and mask up if the puppy needs to cool down). Once you have done what you can, I hear Seneca saying, let the hysteria fall away. He gives Lucilius step-by-step instructions: “First of all, consider whether your proofs of future trouble are sure. For it is more often the case that we are troubled by our apprehensions, and that we are mocked by that mocker, rumour.” From the threads of possibility it dangles, we spin our own worst-case scenario.

If we were able to experience hardship without these bitter filters, Seneca says, it would make us not only courageous but compassionate, alive to the plight of others and willing to help them. That is the definition of wisdom, he says: the attempt to pull strength, goodness, and nobility from our collective suffering.

Unfortunately, these days the worst case often comes to pass. That atmosphere of catastrophe feeds wild speculation—Americans put in concentration camps for quarantine; COVID-19 a plot by the elite to tag the rest of us with vaccinations that have tracking chips…

Seneca understands the weird amplification effect of rumor: “Truth has its own definite boundaries, but that which arises from uncertainty”—and when have we had more uncertainty?—“is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind.” That irresponsible license gives panic unprecedented power. Fear draws conclusions all by itself, and they are not only groundless but witless, and so dire that in reaction, we shut down altogether, refusing to hear the facts or take any precautions at all.

Part of what tips us toward hysteria or rigidity is the way we perceive suffering. Is it a cruel, random trick of the gods? A punishment, deserved or undeserved? If we were able to experience hardship without these bitter filters, Seneca says, it would make us not only courageous but compassionate, alive to the plight of others and willing to help them. That is the definition of wisdom, he says: the attempt to pull strength, goodness, and nobility from our collective suffering.

 

The very meaning of the word “suffer” is to bear; suffering requires patience. My haste to search the internet, avoid, fix, or rush the answer can get in the way—not because it is wrong to look for information and relief, but because the inevitability of suffering must be accepted before it can be eased.

It was for good reason that ancient Romans chose dogs to stand at their deathbed and accompany them to the afterlife. Dogs could be counted on not to run away. A faithful dog abides—another word out of fashion—and refuses to leave the dying person’s side. How many human beings have fled a spouse or parent’s pain-wracked sickbed, unable to muster the same loyalty? Those who do find the courage stay in miserable agitation, flying around the room trying to make something, anything, better. Some chipped ice? Another blanket? Isn’t it time for more morphine? It feels wrong, passive and cold, to simply accept the suffering of someone we love—even if that is the surest way to bring them peace.

And our own suffering? Just how are we supposed to extract wisdom from destitution or abject loneliness, unjust imprisonment or a devastating coronavirus? With courage, Seneca replies. “For the soul renders lighter any burden that it endures with stubborn defiance.” We must square our shoulders and meet adversity head-on.

His tone is soldierly, even macho, but I think of my friend Mev, who died of a brain tumor at 32; Jo, whose husband was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Linda, whose son suffers with mental illness … All three reached courage by accepting at the outset that the future could bring the worst. There is humility in this acceptance, and even Seneca—who rose to gleaming worldly power, then fell, then rose again, then fell again—knows that virtue’s value. I envision a dangerous gleam in his eye as he watches happy idiots who “fondly imagine that their luck will last forever, and fondly imagine that their gains are bound to increase.” His life did not allow him to be sanguine. Ignoring the positive thinking urged by motivational speakers even in his day, he urges us toward a “steadiness of heart” that is purposeful and “cannot be dislodged from its position.”

His advice sounds simplistic, the stuff of cliché and needlepoint pillows. But when have I ever pulled it off?

 

“Chill. No guilt,” one of my friends responds to my panicked disclosure of proximity to contagion. She could just as easily get sick from some unmasked idiot in Home Depot, she points out; better from a friend who cares. Then she quotes Hagrid’s assurance when Voldemort returns: “What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.”

Seneca would like that. No drama or fury, no panic, no passive fatalism. Fortune’s vagaries taught him that courage, resolve, and contentment come only when we reach “an even and calm way of living,” anchored by purpose so we are not blown about like gnats in a hurricane. Stability makes us steadfast, releasing us from the tyranny of our fickle emotions.

He makes it sound like rowing across a still, glassy lake at dawn. But dispassion is hard-won; it must be tested by storms. “If you have nothing to stir you up and rouse you to action,” he warns, and you “recline in unshaken comfort, it is not tranquility. It is merely a flat calm.” That is no better than its opposite, becoming “excited and disquieted” simply because you are “frightened at uncertainties, just as if they were certain.”

Yep. This is my routine state, only heightened by the pandemic. But Seneca is confident that such angst can be allayed. Because our passions are so closely linked to our beliefs, he says, they can be swapped for reason. “Indeed, nature herself demands their removal,” he adds, imagining an exasperated nature asking, “‘What is all this? I brought you into the world without longing, without fear, without religious anxiety, without treachery and these other plagues; leave the way you came in.’”

Here, I want to argue back. We also come into the world self-absorbed and heedless of consequences, both traits that play better in a newborn than they do later. And I do not trust attempts to strip away emotion; they are tricks of patriarchy. After all those years western culture spent pretending that cold logic was superior, neuroscience has finally proven that feeling guides our moral decisions, animates our personality, makes our memories stick. Seneca is hurling the baby from the bathwater.

Fortune’s vagaries taught him that courage, resolve, and contentment come only when we reach “an even and calm way of living,” anchored by purpose so we are not blown about like gnats in a hurricane.

Does he really expect us to adhere so literally to his instructions, though? This man who lives in the gray areas, conducting delicate negotiations with colossal, power-mad egos? This playwright whose dramas are marked by fierce passions? Would he have us abandon even the happiest moments of lust, elation, and inspiration?

I look more carefully at what he means by “passions.” In Brill’s Companion to Seneca, Aldo Setaioli notes that for the Stoics, passion is “a violent impulse insensitive to reason.” Working backward, then, what Seneca objects to is the troubling sort of emotion that vies with reason for control of our minds. Of course reason must be strengthened and shored up to counter it.

In the same volume, Margaret Graver notes Seneca’s concession that “with some things, the beginnings are in our power, but after that they carry us on by their own force, not allowing a return.” Once we are caught up in strong emotion, our brains hijacked by its force, reason has no chance. The only solution is to catch those strong emotions before they are able to accelerate. This is why Seneca insists on avoiding the turbulence altogether.

There are times I would rather ride the wave. But I do see the risk of drowning.

 

Rare disasters terrify us, Seneca notes (and surely a global pandemic would qualify?). We are frightened by anything we do not understand, anything we see as an anomaly. “Yet why do we find anything unusual?” he asks. “Because we grasp nature with our eyes, not our reason, and we do not consider what she can do but what she has done.” COVID-19 is his perfect example: We had every reason to expect its emergence and failed to prepare. “So we are punished for this carelessness when terrified as if by something new.”

And what of the physical suffering that can follow? “Nor am I so mad as to crave illness,” he writes, quick to disavow masochism. “It is quite contrary to nature to torture one’s body.” Sickly as a child, he is plagued through adulthood by asthma, which the physicians of the day call “practicing how to die.” He finds it perfectly acceptable to prevent suffering, ease suffering with remedies, and take precautions against its return. But he is also an astute psychologist, and he knows that life is the sum of all we pay attention to, and whatever we lavish our attention on will grow.

“A man is as wretched as he has convinced himself that he is,” Seneca says, adding, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” This is truer of me than any horoscope, yet my hackles rise. I have just finished watching the evening news, seeing people put on ventilators in crowded ICUs, hearing how many die very real deaths because those in power could not imagine the danger.

We speak of fate versus free will, but for Seneca, the two are braided. We see the world as random, our fate up to us; he sees the world as organized by natural law.

Citizens of the United States no longer share a world view. The Stoics did. Their goal was conforming to a natural order that contemporary American culture is no longer sure exists. (And if it does, we are far more interested in subverting it.)

We speak of fate versus free will, but for Seneca, the two are braided. We see the world as random, our fate up to us; he sees the world as organized by natural law. We speak of impulse as a little willful burst of self-gratification; he sees impulse as a struggle to conform to nature, the way a baby struggles to walk on two chubby legs. Only by obeying nature’s laws can we find happiness, he insists. Nature is the world realizing itself as it ought to be, pure and undistorted, orderly, and harmonious. When we ignore these laws and make everything conditional on our own pleasure, our constant jockeying for maximum gratification itself becomes a form of suffering.

And so we pout because we might not have enough Charmin or masks are hot or Zoom is exhausting. This country, my historian husband mutters, would never have survived the Blitz.

 

What about the suffering of others, the collective suffering that seems to be humanity’s inheritance? Compassion pulls us into empathy; our brain actually lights up along the same pathways when a loved one suffers. Are we to force a detachment that will cloud this mirror?

Seneca defines pity, misericordia, as distress at the undeserved sufferings of others—and suggests clementia, mercy, as the better response. Pity suffuses us with emotion, he says, placing us in the same chaos as the one who is suffering. If we control our emotions, we will be of far more help than someone who is verklempt, ranting, or weeping or wringing his hands in sympathy. The wise man “will bring relief to another’s tears, he will not add his own.”

This seems a bit chilly; I have received sweet comfort from the simple knowledge that another human being could fathom my pain. The etymological root of “compassion” is the Latin compatri, “to suffer with,” and often there is nothing we can do but feel.

What Seneca abhors, though, is the sort of vicarious suffering that is only a camouflaged fear for oneself, a dread of meeting the same fate. “Although but one person is overwhelmed by the disaster,” he writes, “the rest are overwhelmed by fear, and the possibility that they may suffer makes them as downcast as the actual sufferer.” How much time did I spend worrying about the poor employee who very well might have COVID-19? Virtually none. My attention went instantly to myself and those I love.

If we control our emotions, we will be of far more help than someone who is verklempt, ranting, or weeping or wringing his hands in sympathy. The wise man “will bring relief to another’s tears, he will not add his own.”

Modern researchers have shown that a friend’s success will lift our spirits. Seneca focuses on the dark corollary: “Every man is troubled in spirit by evils that come suddenly upon his neighbor.” This is not a calm, rational resolve to improve conditions for those who suffer; instead, it is an inward-turning, selfish fear that does no one a bit of good. “It is a bad sort of existence,” he warns, “that is spent in apprehension.”

We know that. We wait (most of us) with a child’s eagerness, counting the days until a vaccine is available, and we can stop living in apprehension. Besides, dreading the future only heightens the illusion that we can control it, and deep down, we know Seneca is right. No matter how careful we are, “true suffering only comes from Fortune.” He pictures her as a gladiator moving through the crowd, oblivious to nudges and shouts, studying each face as she searches for someone brave enough to face her challenge.

He is romanticizing, a bit—a perennial temptation when we try to rationalize suffering. But he turns practical when he explores the dimension of time and how living in the past or the future only throws acid on our wounds. “Passions that look forward and are very solicitous for the future arouse fear,” he explains, and “fear and craving for the future eat away at the mind.”

This is an admonition he repeats often: “The mind that is anxious about future events is miserable.” “What is greater madness than to be tortured by the future and not to save your strength for the actual suffering, but to invite and bring on wretchedness?” “The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes today.” And finally, irritably, “Will you not understand that no man should be tormented by the future? The man who has been told that he will have to endure torture fifty years from now is not disturbed thereby, unless he has leaped over the intervening years.”

A wallow in the past is just as misguided, he adds, because neither the past nor the future can be felt. “Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records,” Seneca notes. “Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all—the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.”

Hope destroys tranquility and produces our greatest enemy, fear. Thus hope and fear are tied together, and they “march in unison like a prisoner and the guard he is handcuffed to.”

He casts hope aside just as briskly, because it is so often untethered from reality and therefore futile. “Things we dread sink into nothing,” he writes, “and that things we hope for mock us.” Hope destroys tranquility and produces our greatest enemy, fear. Thus hope and fear are tied together, and they “march in unison like a prisoner and the guard he is handcuffed to.” Both require us to project our thoughts far into the future: If I am infected, my husband is, and how will we take care of each other, and if we both wind up in the hospital, who will take care of the dog, and if… Foresight is a blessing when it prompts sensible preparations, but it becomes a curse when it takes over the present, causing us to spend most of our time worrying and very little of it living.

 

When Seneca’s third death sentence shows no sign of lifting, he slashes veins in his arm. They bleed too slowly, so he tries poison, and when that fails to take effect, he climbs into a warm bath and quietly bleeds to death.

The image horrifies me. I want him to rise, splashing, from that tub, bandage his arm, and flee. But that is my issue. Confronted by imminent death, I try to cheat it. Confronted by even a remote possibility of some future suffering, I freeze or turn fatalistic. Faced with unavoidable misery, I feign indifference or rush through it.

“He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a man who is alive,” remarks Seneca. This, I understand. My life has been on hold, or felt that way, for months, and even now I am resisting any real effort to imagine an entirely different, constantly distanced life. That would feel like fear, although Seneca might just call it practical. Stress cannot be a permanent excuse for failing to live fully.

Still, he cannot deny what Judah Halevi will later cast in poetry: “T’is a fearful thing/to love/what death can touch.” And death can touch every part of life. Friends and loved ones can die, but so can dreams, habits, pleasures, freedoms.

Wisdom is Seneca’s best answer to those necessary losses. Absorb each small death into the flow of life, he urges. Then, when you reach your actual deathbed, you will be at peace, because you have already done much of your dying. “It is not the last drop that empties the water-clock,” he writes, “but all that which has previously flowed out.”

Absorb each small death into the flow of life, he urges. Then, when you reach your actual deathbed, you will be at peace, because you have already done much of your dying.

In a culture that fancies itself (with less and less justification) fiercely self-reliant, the temptation is to clang on as much armor as possible and fight to stay lucky. The battle makes us ever more anxious, and pouring out our angst in the sort of confessional sharing we have perfected for social media does little to lighten its weight.

Chill, Seneca tells us. Suffering will come to all of us in one form or another, and it will come in its own time. Until then, we must take our precautions steadily, without collapsing into fatalism or caving to hysteria. Only then will dread pry its claws off our heart.

Whatever does come our way will be wiped clean of fear, and we can meet it calmly.

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