in Prose

Can you be Stoic about love?

I’m reading Happy1Derren Brown at the moment, and I saw Mythos 2Alice Fraserlast weekend, and my ex and I broke up three months ago.3citation, unfortunately, not needed And I am looking for reassurance that there is a way of thinking about this doesn’t make the hard days awful.

There isn’t, by the way. If you take anything from this essay let it be these four things:

  • buttholes are brown
  • buttholes are supposed to be brown
  • we’re all going to die
  • to love in a way that doesn’t hurt is fantastically impossible

Stoicism stands in direct opposition to the Romantic tradition in which we still deeply dwell. In Happy, the first key Stoic principle that is identified is this:

If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgement of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

If you can accept it, then it is empowering in the extreme. I think it could be perceived as victim-blame-y; a gentle indictment that perhaps the shitty way the world treats you might not be so bad if only you didn’t react so strongly to it. This approach could only be imagined by someone who’s never been persecuted for being their authentic, essential self before.

It also seems to demand a certain distance from the world: not to feel so strongly, not to pour ourselves into things. This is not the feast for the senses offered by contemporary capitalism, and it is overwhelmingly not the image of love that is presented by most mainstream media.

Love is all consuming. Love is everything; you are my sun and my stars; the moon of my life; you are my one and only; you to me are everything. What great and terrible expectations we heap on the objects of our affection! What great and terrible expectations we must by extension heap on ourselves; convinced that we must be sun and moon; one and only; everything. We are but poor shuffling shapes of ash and bone, lit by the electricity of the universe, and yet must contain the infinite. We must be, on our two sides, opposing4I think this sounds significantly better in french: nous devons être, de nos deux côtés, opposés : outside, limited in our dimensions; inside, unlimited and all-containing.

Nobody could love someone who could perceive time, who could see you as you were, as you would be. Be honest, do you love the person you were at school? Will you love the person you’ll mutate into? Could you love them both, knowing they were somehow the same, somehow facets of a creature that trailed through this fourth dimension like a snake?

Ick. No, I don’t think so.

I don’t have much connection to the end of my self that I can see from here. I can see he’s got the same teeth, and the same awkwardness, but he’s got a different brain and he looks at the world all weird. The story he’s telling himself about himself is different to the one I’m telling myself about him, and the one I’m telling myself about myself.

Mythos is very much about the stories we tell ourselves, because they’re the only roots we’ve got. We internalise them until they become an identity, but they’re not really real. This resonates particularly I think with Alice Fraser, a comedian whose Jewish grandfather was called Adolf at about the same time as Adolf was becoming a really unpopular name. So he changed it, and now she’s less sure of where she came from.

Stoicism is a drive to control the stories that we tell ourselves. It’s not easy, which is frustrating. It does help with certain things. I’ve noticed that being reflective about my thoughts – what Terry Pratchett called Second Thoughts –

First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full Of Sky

has helped me be kinder to myself and spend less money on things I just want, in the moment. That’s not to deny myself pleasure, but instead reflect on whether the desire will still be there in ten minutes. Love is not love, after all, which alters when it alteration finds. If I really want that ice cream, that new phone, that attractive person whose eyes are the sky, then I’ll still want them when I get home. Two times out of three, I find they’re forgotten before I’ve got two paces further.

That doesn’t solve the problem of pain though. Perhaps I’m not Stoic-ing hard enough, but there is no story I can tell myself that is true – or at least approximates the reality I believe in – that doesn’t hurt.

Well-meaning people will say, “Yes, but the pain will fade,” and to those well meaning people I say “you are right, but this is not the time to be right, this is the time to be kind, and if you would rather be right than be kind then you are welcome but don’t do it here.”

The trouble with being thoughtful about the love you want is that you have chosen to risk destroying yourself. And sometimes, despite your boldness, that is what happens.

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