I’ve had a hard time paying attention to current events lately. Here’s my struggle: How do I stay abreast of all that’s going on in the world without getting emotionally swamped by it? There is so much suffering. And I’m suffering over the suffering.
Earlier this summer, I read a passage from a book called, The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, that provides daily meditations from the perspective of Stoicism, a school of thought that flourished in Greek and Roman antiquity. The passage, based on a quote by slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, advises not to allow someone else’s tragedy to take you away from your “reasoned choice,” or what you choose the event will mean to you.
At first, I rejected the notion. How can I not feel heartsick for people in Afghanistan, or those who’ve experienced police brutality, or those who’ve lost loved ones and livelihoods to Covid, earthquakes, fires and storms, or animal species getting wiped out because of pollution and global warming, just to name a few things? If we are all connected, how can I turn away?
If I understand it correctly, stoic philosophy encourages me not to get emotionally involved with anything. That’s what the word stoic means– a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. That’s the part I disagree with. To be clear, the Stoics were all men. And as far as I know, men have been conditioned since the dawn of time to stifle emotion. A feminine perspective would encourage a free flow of emotion, it would welcome the tears I shed when watching a TV news story.
I also need to acknowledge a sort of survivor’s guilt. There’s a part of me that feels bad about experiencing joy when so many others are in pain. How can I dance when someone else has lost use of their legs? It just doesn’t seem fair.
Of course, we know that fairness is not what life is about. It is about learning soul lessons, and each of us will have the experiences we need to have in order to learn them. Suffering is optional. Judgement about whether someone else suffers more or less than I do is useless.
I think I’m beginning to understand what the Stoics were trying to teach. It’s the practice of non-attachment from Buddhism or Aparigraha from yogic philosophy. It is about being the observer because nothing, whether we deem it good or bad, is permanent. It’s okay to feel, but attaching to sadness or horror does nothing to change a situation. Change comes naturally. Non-attachment is not indifference, it’s just not suffering the suffering.
Energetically this makes so much sense. If I want to support healing, I should not be adding more energy to the injury.
So, what do I do? First, rather than suppressing my emotions, I can use them to warn me when I am getting attached. I can then focus my attention on helping when possible. Because there is so much need, I’ll have to make choices and trust that others will assist where they are able.
Aside from that, I must let go. Because when I disengage from others’ suffering, I am in the energetic place to do what I do best: hold space for healing.