I’m not an incredibly mystical-thinking person. I don’t look for meaning in places it doesn’t really exist, and I try not to give magical attributes to every circumstance. But life seems to be working in weird ways for me recently.
First was the episode with the mammogram. The bad news/good news thing.
Next was our trip. There we were, splashing in warm Caribbean waters and soaking up more sun than should be legally allowed in February, when the call came: my husband’s father had passed away. It happened to be the same day as my oldest daughter’s 18th birthday, so as we were preparing to celebrate the life of one family member, we were mourning the loss of another.
I’ve tried to figure out how to make sense of all these events coming one on top of the other. More than that, I’ve tried to figure out how to make sense of all the emotional upheaval that they cause for me. In years past I would have cried my eyes out to a girlfriend, maybe had too much wine to drink, then spent days with an emotional (and maybe physical) hang-over wondering why I felt so terrible.
I try to approach things somewhat differently now. I can’t afford to allow my emotions to control me, to be in charge of my decisions, or to direct my actions.
The ancient Greeks had a philosophy known as Stoicism. As with many things from our ancient relatives, we’ve twisted the meaning of this word into something that we can use to suit our own purposes (see my previous post on Turning the Other Cheek). For the Greeks, Stoicism was a philosophy that sought equilibrium and taught that harmony was achieved by bringing one’s self into balance with the universe. Thus, if the universe presents something joyful, you don’t allow the joy to become too great, and if the universe presents something sad, you don’t allow the sadness to become too great. Today, of course, if we call someone “stoic” we mean that they express no emotion at all. The Greek stoic expressed a full range of emotions, but they were tempered to keep him or her in balance with the universe. Tilting too far one way or the other meant falling out of balance.
The great enjoyment I had on my trip, celebrating with my family and enjoying their company was tempered by the realization that life is a cycle, and at some point that cycle draws to a close – at least in this dimension. It is this dichotomy of joy and sadness, of pleasure that bumps up against discomfort, that the ancient Stoics sought to embrace and find peace with.
I find a great deal of peace with this system of thought as well. My own personal struggles with emotional overload seem less daunting, less threatening when I view the ups and downs that life hands me with an eye for balancing myself with the universe. My sadness is still present, but so is my pleasure, and I find comfort in them both because they are real, they are part of me, and they remind me that life is about the experiencing.
I don’t have this down to a science yet. I don’t know that I ever will. But for now, it’s working, and it feels right. And it beats the heck out of the bi-polar swings through mania and depression that I’ve endured in the past.
We’ll bid our final farewells to my father-in-law on the 16th, and we’ll prepare to move forward with one less loved one in our presence. For now, we are busy preparing the final service, looking out for my mother-in-law, and taking a few extra moments each day to tell those we love how important they are to us.