099 - On Mourning The Dead - Moral Letters for Modern Times
I had occasion to advise a student who had lost his young wife to cancer. He was looking for condolences but had rendered himself inconsolable, Deuteros, impervious to every wise word and helping hand. There is a point beyond which showing patience and understanding no longer demonstrates compassion but rather turns into indulgence that reflects well on neither the recipient nor the giver. Thus it was that I told my student the following.
I have been urging you and your fellow students to be mindful at all times, which implies two conditions: that you first be aware of the course of your thoughts, and that you then direct your thoughts to the present moment. Do not lose yourself for fear of what the future holds and do not dwell on past regrets. This is but the advice to the novice, who has little control over their mind. You are in need of stronger medicine, and because I trust you are ready for a deeper lesson, I will pull back the curtain and expand this thought.
We remind ourselves to live in the moment because most people do not manage to live at all. Whether consumed by anger and resentment over their bad luck or impelled by urges they feel strongly but scarcely understand, by casting about in their thoughts they are cast adrift in rivers of discontent. You are in such a sea of sadness right now that you do not see it is made of your own false tears. “False tears,” you say “do you dare question that my grief is genuine?”
No doubt you had true cause for grief. The loss of your beloved spouse so unexpectedly created a great shock. But in giving such free reign to your grief you have now made a habit of grieving. What, did you think only pleasures could be made into vices? No, people are just as easily given to turning their worst torments into guilty pleasures.
Whether a sweet indulgence or a personal torture, the root of the vice is the same: surrendering reason to the free flow of emotions, giving up control and giving in to the torrent. This is not true passion, merely the loss of reason. You should take no solace in the loss of your reason, for now you have not only lost your wife, but possession of your very mind as well.
If you had your wits about you as much as you had your tear-stained handkerchief, you would see more clearly that it is better for your tears to fall quietly and naturally while you are composed. Just as you should not add to your present troubles by worrying about future troubles, or disturb your present peace by recalling to mind past battles, so you should not amplify your grief by adding to it with lavish displays of sorrow.
Look at you! Weeping and wailing and moping about, as if you are the only person who has ever suffered a loss. Do you think for a moment that you honor you spouse with your carrying on? Would she be proud of your displays or turn away in embarrassment? You like to ride your motorcycle to and from class every day through our crowded city streets. Let’s say it was you who was carried off early by a sudden encounter with a city bus. Would you wish for your wife to spend a year in sackcloth and ashes before shutting herself into a nunnery for the rest of her life? Shall her life end because yours ended? You do your spouse a disservice and demonstrate only selfishness when you dwell without end on what you have lost rather than what you have had.
You wife has gone to the fate that awaits us all. Did you think that she was immortal and that death did not have her on the list? Or perhaps it is that you cannot get beyond the thought that her life could have been longer? Certainly it could have been, but do you go so far as to say that it should have been longer? Remember, her life could also have been shorter, and it could have been more painful. All over the world, children die of starvation, preventable illness, and war. The cancer wards are filled with infants, but you in your grief rail against the world for striking down an adult in her prime.
Everyone who has ever lived has suffered loss. Some succumb completely and take their own lives. This is the ultimate tragedy for it compounds the ill fate of the world and creates unnecessary suffering rather than alleviating it, which is our highest calling. Countless more find ways every day to live with their loss. Every type of person can do it, whether young and old, whether ignorant or learned, and has done it, and in every type of situation.
Consider that some 150,000 people die every day. Imagine if this led to hundreds of thousands more people removing themselves from life of their own volition, forcing their semi-animated bodies through the day with sad face and drooping shoulders. The earth would soon be filled with zombies. And yet, somehow this does not happen. Even as thousands are newly thrust into grief this very day, as many more find their way back into the warmth and light of the living. Though it seems impossible to you now, you will survive your wife’s death and you will survive your grieving.
Not only will you survive, but your memories will survive as well. You can begin to relieve your sorrow by calling to mind the good times you shared with your wife. What you had together, Fortune cannot take from your memories: the challenges, triumphs, laughter, tears, and so many silly moments that only you two shared. If you are forced to bury your happy remembrances, then truly you have buried more than your wife.
To be able to remember your wife with the proper spirit, and truly honor her memory, it is time to leave off mourning and rejoin the living.