Sunday, 29 April 2012

Pull Yourself Together

Imagine that Jill is in a bit of a "state".  She has failed her driving test when so much depended on passing: her independence, her job prospects, her status with her peers and her self-esteem.  She is inconsolable.  After assuring her that she's sure to pass next time her parents say, "Come on now, pull yourself together."

Imagine that Tim has been badly injured in a training accident and he is no longer fit for active service.  He turns his face to the wall.  He is bereft.  Tim's friends will be moving on without him.  Not only is he no longer fit, he no longer fits in. He refuses a visit from his girlfriend.  The doctor tells him he is lucky because it could have been worse and says, "So come on man, pull yourself together."

Imagine Sylvia.  She has been widowed days before her Golden Wedding Anniversary.  It was not exactly unexpected, as Fred's illness had taken a sudden turn for the worse.  He had rallied before.  This time he did not.  Friends and family have been very supportive but have begun to seem a little anxious about her.  Sylvia notices their concern and tells herself that she has no choice but to carry on without Fred.  "I must pull myself together," she says.

What is it that Jill and Tim and Sylvia must do in order to pull themselves together?

In cartoons a body (often a cat) can be exploded and then put together again.  A puppet with the strings loosened can be made to dance with all the parts separate.  But what has to happen in real life for people to be able to "Pull themselves together"?

The stoic view is : 
to accept what has happened 
to withdraw emotional energy and thoughts from the past  
to use one's reason in order to live in the present (as Jill's parents reasoned about her trying again)  
to be thankful that the worst has not happened (as Tim's doctor said)
when the worst has happened, to be resolute in carrying on (as Sylvia told herself).

Seneca claimed that reason is our best weapon against grief because:

 "..unless reason puts an end to our tears fortune will not do so".

William Irvine in "A Guide to the Good Life, the ancient art of stoic joy" describes Seneca telling Marcia, who is grieving the loss of her son, to think how much worse it would have been if her son had never lived, and so she should be happy for his life.

The stoics also used diversion of thought, or thought experiments, as an aid to equilibrium.  They used "negative visualisation" to imagine the worst happening, so that when things were bad they were prepared.  They would practice giving attention to all aspects of the present, what we now call 'mindfulness', to keep their thoughts away from sadness or worry.  They would use the trick of imagining themselves in the time before they knew the person who had died, to save themselves from grief in the present time.    

Montaigne might have used all of these techniques when he tried to cope with the loss of his dearest friend La Boetie and of several children, and when he faced his own death.  He also gave us the idea of "a back shop all our own"; a place in our minds that was entirely sufficient in itself with no thought of family or friends:

"..and so when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new to us to do without them".

Cicero, though, for all his wisdom and courage, grieved so fiercely the loss of his daughter that nowadays we might say he "went to pieces".  He could not, for a while, "pull himself together".  He was distraught.

What do we do, then to "pull ourselves together"?

I see the process as a gradual gathering to ourselves of all our strengths of mind, body and spirit.  How do we go about it?

First we might draw strength from the support of friends until we find our own strengths again.

We might then find the strength to accept what has happened without allowing thoughts of, "Why me?" or "What did I do wrong in order to deserve this?" or "Who is to blame for this?" or "I cannot bear this".  The very randomness of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or of meeting the wrong person, or of being stricken by illness is sometimes hard to accept.  But guilt or blame or despair will only hold us back from recovery.  

We might try to console ourselves, whether through memories, through prayer, through philosophy, by reading or by thinking of comforting words people have said.

We might gather our wits together in order to see what needs to be done in order to carry on.  Planning for the next step is using our reason to support our emotions and gives us release from a feeling of helplessness.

We might try to cultivate a stoic attitude and to develop "ataraxia", a tranquil mind, free from upset.  I guess this takes time and courage and self-control.  We should not expect this to come without practice, or to happen immediately after a shock.

We might try to "view life through the eye of eternity" as Spinoza said, and accept that we are but short-lived specks of humanity, and we might tell ourselves, "This too will pass."

We might try to take a perspective that we are not the first person, and will not be the last person, to whom this has happened. What has happened to us is not a unique tragedy.

We might practice "mindfulness", looking at the world around us and listening to the sounds of "normal life", noticing that ordinary life still has a place for us.  We might then take time to smell and taste our food and to appreciate clean clothes and fresh air.
We might determine to keep up normal routines, in order to keep ourselves busy and to keep up a pride in ourselves.

We might walk if we can, or exercise as many muscles as we can to preserve our physical capacity.

At first when we do these things we might take no pleasure in them but the discipline of exercising mind, body and spirit is the beginning of the process of "pulling ourselves together".  We must also discipline ourselves to take an interest in other people and their welfare.  It might be a chore to write a letter, or make a telephone call, when one is exhausted by the effort of just living, but it is part of gathering up the fragments of life and reassembling them.

When we pull ourselves together are we the same as before?

No.  Because we have been through this experience we are stronger, wiser and capable of doing it all again. 

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