Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Photo by Antonello Nusca/Gamma-Rapho/Getty
‘When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values.’
From The Woman Destroyed (1967) by Simone de Beauvoir
It’s a common misconception that to be a Stoic is to be in possession of a stiff upper lip, to be free from the tumultuous waves of one’s emotions. But what this interpretation of Stoicism gets wrong is that our emotions, even the most painful ones, need not be our enemies if we can learn to think of them as our guides. This might seem obviously false, or like the words of a person who has never encountered real suffering. But it was during one of the worst crises of my life that I found my way to Stoicism and, through Stoicism, to something that’s as close to acceptance as I think it’s possible to find on this plane of existence.
In September of 2013, my husband suddenly developed the strangest of illnesses. Describing him as sick seems almost farcical as there weren’t fevers or tumours or anything really that we could point to and say: ‘This – this is what is wrong.’ But there was weakness and fatigue. And above all, there was confusion. It took a couple of months, but eventually he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis: a rare autoimmune disease that we were told normally afflicts women under 40 and men over 60, neither of which he was, and that, all things considered, was relatively minor, and that we could likely expect to go spontaneously into remission over the next five to 10 years. However, the prognosis turned out to be as off the mark as his chances of developing the disease in the first place. Two days before Thanksgiving, his body began to fail him. The man who had once carried me over a threshold no longer had the strength in his neck to lift his own head off a pillow. I called 911 over his objections and he was brought, protesting, to the hospital where he was ultimately admitted to the intensive-care unit. From there, he continued to decline.
I walked in on Thanksgiving morning as the nurses were moving him to change the sheets on his bed. What I witnessed will stay with me for the rest of my life: the man I love, the father of the one- and five-year-olds I had left at home, went into total respiratory failure. His entire body turned as purple as an eggplant, and I stood by while an emergency intubation was performed to save his life. For just under a month, he persisted with tubes and machines performing all of his bodily functions. He had few moments of lucidity, most of them in fear, but none more fearful than when I signed the consent form over his objections to have a tracheotomy placed because, I was told, it had ceased to be safe for him to remain intubated the way he was.
That tracheotomy, however, would prove to be what killed him. I would be what proved to kill him. Because, after the crisis was over, after he started to walk again, and after he came home from rehab to have what would prove to be one last Christmas with his children, he asphyxiated in his sleep – a mucus plug, caused by the damage done to his trachea – killed him just as we had begun to plan for a second chance at life.
I got through the wake and the funeral on an unholy combination of Xanax, vodka and sheer force of will. The first free moment I had afterwards, though, I headed to what has long been my happy place: the Mabel Smith Douglass Library on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus. I had gotten it into my head that I could find the comfort I desperately needed, if only I could read the Phaedo and convince myself of the immortality of the soul. I can’t say the attempt was successful. And I’m still sorry for the poor librarian who had to make sense of my desperate tears at not finding Plato where he was supposed to be. But when she got me to where the books had been moved, it was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that I took off the shelf, and that has made all the difference since.
The book’s pages contain such simple wisdom that it can seem almost silly to say that I needed to see it written down, but Aurelius’ injunction to ‘fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you’ was the battle cry I needed. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that what I found within the pages of the Meditations rescued me from the despair that was threatening to devour me. Suddenly widowed, with two small children I felt utterly unequipped to vouchsafe through the journey toward adulthood, there was footing to be found in Aurelius’ instruction ‘not to be overwhelmed by what you imagine, but just do what you can and should’. I still had no idea how I would handle my children’s graduations, or puberty, or afford braces, let alone college, but it was a reminder that I didn’t need to solve those problems now.
Aurelius reminded me that where I was wasn’t just where I was but when – and that there was no advantage to be found in unsticking myself from time. I’d be lying if I said I learned to stop panicking immediately or instantly. But I learned to repeat to myself the instruction to ‘never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.’ And I learned to take stock of the tools I had and how they could be used to solve the problems of the present rather than catastrophising the unknowns of the future.
But the passage that made the biggest difference – the passage I return to year after year, as deathiversaries or new milestones threaten to drown me in waves of grief – is a reminder that the narrative we construct around what happens to us is, ultimately, up to us. No matter how terrible what happened was, it is still our choice whether to understand our story as one of crippling defeat or a miraculous victory against the odds – even if all we do is get back up and learn to stand again.
I won’t and can’t say that the death of my husband at just 33 years old is not a misfortune. Nor would I or could I say that I don’t think it’s an injustice for my two children to live almost the entirety of their lives without their father. But we have endured and prevailed, and that, I’ve learned to see, is a great good fortune I can celebrate.
Losing a loved one is, as Aurelius says, something that could happen to anyone. But not everyone remains unharmed by it. We mourn, we are not unaware of what we’ve lost. But what we’ve gained is the perspective that ‘true good fortune is what you make for yourself’. We hold tighter to each other, to the truth that life is fleeting, and that each moment of joy that finds its way to us is a gift to be treasured. And, perhaps most importantly, we learn that, while we don’t get to decide when we get shipwrecked, we do get to decide what we rebuild out of the debris.