Vale of Tears

Resisting the Stoic Approach



Resisting the Stoic Approach

You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend.
Shakespeare: Hamlet III, ii, 352

Those brought up in the school of the stiff upper lip find it hard to realise just how much they need at least one person in whom they can truly confide for the sake of their emotional well-being. If their very vocabulary for expressing grief and loss is under-developed, there is still time to learn it!

Many years ago I spent a week with a man, whose son, shortly after graduating as a policeman, had taken his own life. Had he experienced intimidation in that particular Police Force? Or too many pressures on the job? I will never know, because his father, unable to come to terms with what had happened, quite simply “petrified.”

Night after night he would sit in front of the television screen, immured in pain, permitting nobody to mention the subject. On the face of it, the man’s attitude appeared stoical. In reality, it represented a complete refusal to face the reality of a loss that had left him emotionally unable to receive either human or divine comfort. It is the worst example I have ever witnessed of the grief process becoming stuck fast.

Do you perhaps fear, subconsciously, that if you were to allow yourselves to slow down, you would experience all over again the original shock and trauma? Is it in order to protect yourselves against this anticipated onslaught that you keep your diary packed, and your grief, for the most part, unattended to?

Or do you feel excessively elated much of the time, even if others sense that something about your euphoria does not ring true? More perhaps than you realize, you are in danger of sinking into a severe “downer”.

Unaware of how vulnerable you are, you rush into new ventures, or exotic vacations. Because you take unreal expectations and unresolved emotions with you, however, the consequences are unpredictable. Refreshing and restoring as holidays so often are, there is no guarantee that they will bring you any magic change of fortune, let alone of disposition.

I understand entirely why some feel it wiser to change their holiday patterns altogether in the aftermath of a bereavement in order to avoid being overwhelmed by past memories. It is important to create new memories, but, unless the Lord intervenes and removes our grief at one fell swoop, most of us will experience the truth Marcel Proust discovered when he observed, “We are healed of our suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

Sedatives and other medications may have a role to play in helping us to obtain sufficient sleep, and to keep depressive thoughts under control. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that the overuse of any substance to numb feelings can perpetuate dependency and prolong the grief process. Subconsciously it can cause us to dread the emotional devastation we imagine we would be left to face without the “chemical safety net.”

No wonder than that some of us adopt a stoical refuge and bury ourselves in our work, or in hobbies that involve accumulating vast amounts of information, or spending much time and money on technologies or possessions, but with no specific end or outlet in mind.

Although this assuages the soul in the short term, it is right to check such matters carefully with the Lord to make sure they are in line with His purposes – especially if they do nothing to help others or to advance His kingdom.

Many of us feel the pull to return to places where we have experienced some particular grief or pain. Excessive looking back makes grief hard to bear, but such visits can serve a useful purpose, especially if they are combined with some specific act of separation – writing a note and leaving it there, for example, or pouring out our hurt until grief turns to confidence that He has heard our cry and is “on our case.”

Once again, it is as well to be aware that there may be many layers of guilt and trauma wrapped up in our grief. I heard one day of a man who visited the cemetery every week for five long years to visit the grave of a young child who, as I later found out, he had never enjoyed a good relationship with.

“The grief is one thing,” he ruefully admitted, “but the guilt makes it ten times worse.” It makes me wonder if perhaps the man I referred to earlier had unresolved issues with his own son that could never now be put right. How the Lord longs to set us free from labouring under such a burden. He sends His Spirit to free our spirits, and to break every yoke.

When grief inclines us to adopt stoic attitudes, we must take care not to become “resisters to change.” As surely as it is appropriate for sailors to drop anchor in a storm,6 there are times when we must resist our desire to preserve the status quo lest we put the brakes on all new ideas.

Unless what is being proposed is fundamentally wrong (as opposed to merely threatening) there is every chance that we will be delighted with the outcome of these changes – not least because what appears new and untested now many in time become part of the “comfort” fabric of our lives.

May the Lord likewise help us to respond with kindness when we find ourselves opposed by resistors, so that He may have the chance to bring about His very best.

Reflect and Pray

Lord, wherever stoicism has inclined me to denial
or false bravado,
enlarge my heart
to receive Your perspective.

I resolve here and now
to be open to all You have for me –
as individuals, families, fellowships and organisations.

In Jesus name, Amen.