At some point over the last few days, I felt a sadness coming over me knowing that my ex’s birthday was today and I found it strange that although he is among those who have caused me so much sorrow that there is still a small sliver of me feeling sadness at not wishing him a happy birthday. And then came the familiar sting of self-inflicted injury as though I’d cut myself but the cuts were internal, the judgment I have over myself for feeling anything other than indifference.
I’m quite adept at cutting myself deeply in the absence of an abuser. I live with an anxiety now that is baffling and bewildering to almost everyone that knows about it because they feel I should just stop being anxious as if one can simply choose not to be, and I frequently find myself cutting deeply over fears that I am being or will be judged or rejected because I am anxious. Epictetus said in his Discourses (1), “When I see an anxious person, I ask what they want? For I’d a person wasn’t wanting something out of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?”
What do I have to be anxious about now, some might ask? It isn’t as though I’m being sleep deprived or threatened with abandonment for not being good enough at something. I’m not being physically abused or being coerced into obedience. What am I lacking in control?
In my life, there is very little I do not have control over… But I cannot control or erase the physical damage done to my body, including my brain, from the decades of abuse I’ve experienced. Abuse over time will change the size of the hippocampus, shrinking it to allow the amygdala, one of whose main jobs is to assess threat and help one survive, to grow in order to be able to process and meet the needs of the individual and the threats to their wellbeing.
That damage is done. It’s there. It’s present. It may heal to some degree but the structure of my brain is altered and with that alteration comes anxiety and hypervigilance. I have a superpower that developed to allow me to notice the danger before there was any definite, court-admissible threat, and act in self-preservation without questioning or planning… And now as there is no immediate threat, my superpower is anxiously waiting for a supervillain to fight. What does this have to do with stoicism?
“Don’t return to philosophy as a task-master, but as patients seek out relief in a treatment of sore eyes, or a dressing for a burn, or from an ointment. Regarding it this way, you’ll obey reason without putting it on display and rest easy in its care.” (2)
I am a patient in need of the healing of a brain injury wrought out of decades of abuse, unable to control that healing, unable to erase the decades of pain that caused it, and unable to simply choose not to experience the natural symptoms of that injury. Bruises and broken bones can be mended and treated with ointments and splints. An amputation can be healed but then also fit with a prosthetic to allow one to live a full life. How does one mend a change in the structure of the brain?
It is out of my control completely and stoicism is the active practice of letting go of the past and what is out of my control. Stoicism is the tincture to apply to that internal injury, to the overly active amygdala that we are so happy worked so hard to keep me alive but that now needs a rest, and to that hippocampus that needs to be strengthened again. It is the way to rest easy and find healing for wounds most will never see or understand.
Once, philosophy lived in the same space as psychology, theology, and spirituality, a space that was reserved for the soul weary to rest, seek answers, and find peace, hope, and faith until each facet sought to differentiate itself from the others, but ultimately, aren’t they all still seeking the same thing but simply approaching the problems from different viewpoints?
What is it that you need healing from?
What invisible wound are you nursing?
What do you need to eliminate from your life to be able to pursue healing and what are the deep questions you need to ask yourself?
Where does the tincture need to be applied in your life?
(1) Epictetus, W H D Rouse, & Carter, E. (1910). The moral discourses. Dent.
(2) Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York, Modern Library, 2003.
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