The University of Chicago Seminary Co-op bookstore is full of buried treasure. Almost literally.
Housing far more than theological texts, it’s known as “the real” bookstore on campus, because it’s decently priced, has everything, and is far more hip than the actual bookstore with all its overpriced sweatshirts and U of C branded mugs.
From the sidewalk, it looks like a slightly worn-down house. But once you walk through the door, you quickly wind down a narrow stairwell into a labyrinth of musky bookshelves.
The mild disorder of the place contributes to the charm. If the bookstore was a person, it would be that lovable but eccentric professor who can’t find his reading glasses because they’re on his head.
Just about every book you could want is there, and while there is some organizing principle to the place, you get the sense that no one has known what it is for a few decades. Needless to say, when you enter the bookstore, you do so knowing your path will be a meandering one.
I showed up to the bookstore for the first time in the Fall of 2009. I was searching for a few final books for one of my classes, when a very small, white book called On the Shortness of Life by Seneca caught my eye.
And because I can always convince myself that impulses buying books is somehow more okay than other impulse buys, I added the little white book to my purchase, put it on my shelf when I got home, and forgot about it for the next four months.
A Snowy New Year’s Day with Seneca
My first New Year’s Day in Chicago was wonderfully cold and gray. It was my first real winter and I was relishing it.
In the spirit of new beginnings, I had grabbed my tiny tome from Seneca as I left apartment and went for a walk around campus. No one was out and I had the entire place, it seemed, to myself. And thanks to a light dusting of snow over night, everything was especially hushed and tranquil. Just me, the snow-covered gargoyles, and Seneca.
I sad sown on a bench and started reading. And I ended up reading the whole book in a sitting (it’s not very long, don’t get too impressed).
And when I got up, it did in fact hit me that life was short. And that I ought to remember to remember to make the most of it.
It’s a cliche sentiment, of course. The kind of thing every old person likes to remind that especially iPhone-absorbed young person in their life. But like most cliches, it’s only trite when it’s intellectualized and abstract.
When it’s embodied and experienced—as it was for me with my little white book that New Years morning, surrounded by snow and gothic arches—it becomes meaningful, even profound.
Nearly every New Year’s since, I’ve re-read On the Shortness of Life. It’s become a little ritual that reminds me to be mindful of the limited and precious time that we have here, and hopefully, to always strive to make the most of it.
I know, it still sounds trite. But then again, so does I Love You.
Over the years, as I’ve read other bits and pieces of stoic philosophy, I’ve realized that my little New Year’s ritual is what the Stoics would call a Momento Mori—literally, a reminder of death, and typically translated as remember that you must die.
The Stoics were very concerned with the question of how to die well. And what they argued was that, to a large extent, the best way to ensure a good death was to live well. But they also realized—somewhat paradoxically—that to live well, we had to remember that life was short and that we would inevitably die one day. Remembering death seems to focus life.
As a practical strategy for reminding themselves of their mortality, they often kept a small object that represented death (traditionally a skull) near them as often as possible, on their desk while they worked, for example. After re-discovering the Stoics in the 1500s, many Renaissance thinkers and artists adopted the skull on the desk custom of momento mori, which is why so many Renaissance era portraits have seemingly random skulls littered about.
While it sounds morbid on first blush, almost everyone I know of who has implemented some form of the momento mori practice finds it surprisingly energizing and encouraging. And while I don’t personally keep a human skull sitting on the corner of my desk, I do spend a little time with Mr. Lucius Annaeus Seneca every New Years’s. And he always reminds me that my time is short.
Suffering is Inevitable
Whenever Amy sits down in my office, she always starts off by describing her week as “Oh, pretty good…” But within a few minutes, it’s usually apparent that pretty good is not the most accurate description of her week. In fact, it’s usually closer to pretty bad.
And it’s usually pretty bad because her husband has a serious drinking problem. Sometimes Amy comes home from work and her husband has only had a few drinks. These are the good days for Amy. When her husband’s only a little buzzed, he’s a bit annoying and obnoxious, but also thoughtful and kind, which is how she describes the man she married.
But some days Amy comes home and her husband is flat out drunk. When this is the case, he’s demeaning, sarcastic, and often cruel. This is the man she routinely describes wanting to leave forever. The one who puts her down and tells her she’s worthless.
For a variety of reasons—and despite the advice of nearly everyone else in her life—Amy has decided to remain in her marriage for now and not to leave. She’s holding out hope that her husband can change and that she’ll get back the man she married. At least on a more regular basis.
Amy wants to find a way to “manage her stress” as best she can given her constraints of a cruel alcoholic husband and not being ready to leave him yet.
This is a tricky question for a therapist. Often, therapists’ bread and butter involves helping people to more accurately assess and act on (mis)perceived difficulties in their lives:
- Really, everyone in your life hates you and thinks you’re no fun to be around?
- There’s no way for you to relax in the evenings and let your mind unwind before bed?
- Are you sure you won’t be able to handle another panic attack?
- You’re sure your wife hates you and wished she’d never married you?
But what happens when there is very little misperception and reality itself is simply painful? And what happens when you’re stuck in that reality?
Questions like these are a tragic but important reminder for a therapist that, more often than we’d like to admit, the difficulties in peoples’ lives are structural and environmental and not merely in their heads. There’s no way for Amy to talk her way out of feeling upset when her husband drunkenly berates her. No amount of insight into how her own experiences with an alcoholic father growing up lead her to marry an alcoholic herself will change her husband’s behavior.
In cases like this, it’s tempting but dangerous to suggest strategies like re-framing things (at least he’s not physically abusive), visualizing the positive (when I get home today, he will be sober, he will be sober, he will be sober…), or being extra careful to avoid triggering language or placing any demands on him.
These recommendations would be detrimental in the long run for Amy. If Amy starts to do all sorts of things aimed at her making the situation better, it’s likely that in some way she will start to internalize the belief that this is her problem. When, of course, this is unequivocally is not her problem.
In the end, one of my most useful recommendation to Amy was a strategy inspired by the Stoic practice of Momento Mori.
Remember that the basic idea behind the momento mori is this: Because death and our own mortality is scary, we will by nature tend to avoid thinking about it. That’s our default. The problem with acting according to this default all the time is that it can lead us to unconsciously avoid things in our life that would be good for us but also uncomfortable because they cause us to reflect on our death. Because we distract ourselves from death, we end up living a live that is subtly but significantly less full.
I see a similar process going on with many of my clients in therapy. Just like we’re all at least a little uncomfortable with the idea of our own death, we’re also uncomfortable with suffering, big or small. Whether it’s a headache or test anxiety, our default response is to avoid things that cause us suffering.
But like death, suffering is inevitable. And while we do well to avoid some suffering, an automatic habit of avoiding suffering at any time has dangerous downsides. Specifically, it often leads us to miss out on the many wonderful things in life that are inextricably tied to or result directly from suffering.
- Becoming fluent in a native language requires the the emotional suffering of embarrassment as we speak incorrectly while learning.
- Performing well in the fourth quarter of your basketball games requires the enduring the suffering of extra wind sprints at practice.
- Overcoming panic attacks requires the willingness to experience the suffering of anxiety without running away from it.
And just like the habit of intentionally reminding ourselves of our own mortality is useful in helping us live a more focused and purposeful life, I believe the habit of intentionally reminding ourselves that we will suffer helps us to live a richer and ultimately less painful life.
The Momento Contendere—Latin for remember that you must suffer—is my technique for intentionally anticipating and reminding ourselves that we will suffer.
The long-term benefit of the Momento Contendere is that reminding ourselves that suffering is inevitable helps us avoid the trap of unconsciously avoiding things that might cause us to suffer. As a result, we are more able to go after things in our life that are meaningful but difficult because they require some amount of suffering on our part.
The short-term benefit of the Momento Contendere—and more pertinent to Amy’s case—is that it helps us respond less intensely to a painful situation.
Most of us understand intuitively that a bad experience can feel much worse when we’re surprised or blind-sided by it. The loss of a loved one is always difficult, but the emotional pain we experience when someone close to us dies suddenly and unexpectedly is typically much more intense. Put more generically, surprise tends to amplify or strengthen our emotional responses, both positively and negatively.
What I realized while working with Amy was that she had gotten into a habit of either avoiding thinking about her husband and how he might be when she got home at all, or she would fantasize about how he might be completely sober. As a result, whenever she came home and her husband was drunk (which was often), she would experience surprise and disappointment on top of the already high levels of fear, sadness, and anger that came from the way he treated her.
My counterintuitive stoic recommendation to Amy was that she spend a few minutes every evening on her commute home practicing the Momento Contendere—imagining that her husband was drunk, what he would look like, what he might say to her, how she might feel in response, etc. The more detailed and specific the better.
As you might think, Amy was hesitant at first. Won’t I just be adding more negativity onto an already negative situation?
My response was that it was possible, but another possibility might be that even though it was inevitable that she would feel badly if her husband was drunk, her overall level of emotionality might be meaningfully lessened it she didn’t also experience surprise and disappointment at the same time.
So we set up an experiment to test our competing theories: For one week she would try the Momento Contendere for 5 minutes each day on her way home from work, and notice how she felt when she got home. The following week, she would go back to her usual routine of avoiding thinking about her husband or trying to imagine positive outcomes. Then, when we met again in two weeks, we’d compare the results.
Much to Amy’s surprise, she reported back that the Momento Contendere lead to a modest but significant decrease in the amount of overall distress she experience that week. Scientific precision it was not, but our little experiment made the point for Amy that confronting rather than avoiding her suffering in the short term lead to less suffering in the long term.
Amy still suffers tremendously on a daily basis because her husband remains an alcoholic and she remains with him. And while Amy is still hopeful that he will change, she no longer expects him to. And so she suffers a little less.