Reflections From the Son of a Stoic on the Possibility of Loving Every Moment of Your Life
“Let us train the mind to desire what the situation demands.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
My paternal Grandfather’s first name was Seneca. He was named after the Roman stoic philosopher. To my knowledge he never uttered a word about philosophy. I still think that stoicism runs in my family.
My Father’s mother was a Quaker minister. Quakers have such a solid history of pacifism that membership is legal grounds for obtaining exemption from US Military conscription as a Conscientious Objector, (CO). With such a status Quaker men can respond to being drafted by being assured of non-combatant military roles or exemption from military service by providing alternative civilian humanitarian service. My father chose to enlist in the US Army and serve in the infantry. He got into the Army in time to watch the glow of Japanese bombs as they exploded over Pearl Harbor. He didn’t get out until after he saw a strange glow in the distance from the island of Okinawa, which he would later learn was caused by an atomic bomb exploding over Hiroshima.
My father was the humble silent type and devoted to his wife and children and to his siblings. I went through my phases of resenting his silence. Why didn’t he tell me that he loved me? Much of my interest in Men’s issues sprung from trying to figure this out.
I went to the Massachusetts Men’s Gathering one year and participated in a workshop what I initially thought had one of the stupidest concepts ever. The leader asked us to think of a part of our father’s body that we identified with and share why. We were to do this so he could then take a group photo of us representing that body part to form a composite man.
Give me a break!
I wanted to identify with my Father’s mouth and not open it until the workshop was over.
This suddenly triggered a memory of my mouth poised to enact my early childhood bed time ritual of kissing my Father’s cheek, but having my Father turn away, the stubble of his whiskers scratching my lips. I remembered the awkward dismount from his lap, just before my sister leaped to take my place. My sister’s turn still involved my Father turning his cheek towards her lips.
In the workshop I wiped away the moisture before I posed for my part as cheek, in the composite photo. Later I told my Mother that I regretted that I never had the chance to tell my Father this story and how I had come to forgive him by appreciating that he had unconsciously enacted the traditional male values of his time, by banishing me from his lap, without realizing what he was doing. My Mother responded that he was very aware of what he was doing. He had explained to my Mother that I need training in suppressing soft feelings to avoid being bullied by other boys and that training included the end of bedtime kisses. I am grateful for that training. I was never much good in a fight, but good enough.
When my father told me on the phone that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was scheduled for surgery I was 36 years old. At the time I was so sick that I had trouble getting out of bed. I had been plagued by a reoccurring illness that delivered great fatigue and high fever. “Fever of Unknown Origin” was the best diagnosis anybody could come up. I couldn’t tell my Father that I wouldn’t be rushing to his bedside, because I could barely make it out of bed to get to the bathroom. That last thing I wanted to do was burden him with worry about me, with what he was going through. His last words to me were “Cancer, these things happen.”
It wasn’t fatigue that stopped me from responding with, “I love you Dad,” “Good luck” just fell from my lips easier. I planned to attempt my first, “I love you Dad,” when both he and I were feeling better.
My Sister made it to see my Father after his surgery. She told me that he had expressed to her from his hospital bed, that the reason why he hasn’t in the habit of telling his children how he felt about them was because he had developed a stoic philosophy. This was the first time that I ever heard of my Father talk about philosophy.
My brother made it to my Father’s bedside as well. It was he who gave me the update as to how dad was doing post surgery. I didn’t like to think about how my Father was going to react to having a colostomy bag, but I didn’t doubt that he would deal with it without complaint.
My brother’s update was, “We lost Dad.” I was about to blurt out “ Well go find him!” but quickly knew that my my Mother and Brother must be doing everything possible to locate him. I knew that my Father must be mentally ill through some complication of the surgery. In his right mind my Father would never run away from his troubles or his family’s. It took a few more seconds for it to sink in that my brother was telling me that my Father was lost because he was dead. He didn’t run any where, a blood clot found him.
The funeral arrangements were for a closed casket. The plan was for no private viewing for the family. We wanted to remember Dad the way he looked when he was alive.
My Mother, Brother, Sister, Brother-in-law and I went to the funeral home the night before the funeral to set up a display of photographs and artifacts from my Father’s life. We had planned to sit for awhile to remember the man and support each other with our grief. I went to an adjacent room in the funeral home to grab a couple of chairs. I found instead my Father looking up at me with a grin bigger than I had ever seen when he was alive.
There had been a miscommunication.
At first I was angry that the funeral home would expose me to my Dad giving me his warmest greeting ever, when his body was ice cold dead. After sobs that I didn’t know my body was capable of I became grateful that somebody had finally got through to my Father, that it was okay now for him to express his true feelings about me. I didn’t care if it was a mortician’s handiwork.
Seneca and substance abuse recovery
I used Seneca’s quote a lot when working with men who were struggling with substance abuse disorders. Substance abuse can lead to all sorts of difficult to horrific situations. When substance abuse is your go-to option for coping with difficult situations, it can be a hard cycle to escape and not be sucked back in to. To make matters worse, many men have difficulty feeling very good. For some men, feeling good without drugs can be very uncomfortable.
As well as the saying played when counseling men, I don’t think I ever got the essence of what Seneca was on to. It is a good thing for a man to train to be bullet proof. Men have long honored putting selfish desires aside to risk their comfort and very lives to provide for and protect others. Preparation to be good at this is not easy. In some situations what a man desires most is to put his own short term interests aside to courageously contribute to a greater good. However there are many situations where men put up with bullshit, that they would rather not be putting up with silent to quiet to very loud resentment.
Putting Stoicism into action
A great strategy for desire training is to think about some situation that sucks that can’t be avoided and imagine “doing what a man’s gotta do” in a way that transforms “this sucks” into “I’m loving this.” I’m not talking about, “ it could be worse” kind of thinking. I’m not talking about radical acceptance. I’m talking “loving your fate.”
- Onerous household chores can be transformed into mindfulness meditative practice and cross fit gym workouts, no membership fee required.
- Waiting can be transformed into meditation time, day dreaming time, beauty awareness time.
Is there any form of shit happening where the shit cannot be fertilizer for personal growth?
Where this kind of thinking can really get heavy is thinking that it is possible to have nothing in your life suck at all, including the death of loved ones and yourself. To believe it is possible to embrace every aspect of being human, can be a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. I think that is well worth thinking about and well worth talking about.
I couldn’t have this conversation with my Grandfather. I was a baby when he died. I was able to have it with my Father, I just wan’t mature enough. The Good Men Project is helping me have this conversation with both of them now and with my very much alive sons. I never heard, “I love you son,” from my Father. I blew my opportunities to tell him that. Today I am loving that history. All of it.