It’s Okay to Cry (It’s Only Natural)
There have been some hard lessons and stern meditations so far in A Year of War and Peace. Epictetus, recall, counseled us to consider our children’s death everytime we kiss them goodnight. Marcus Aurelius agrees because death is nothing to worry about in the first place. Yikes! Imagine walking into the room with Natasha, Princess Marya and Nikolushka today, noting their tears, and then casually dispensing with some of that stoic wisdom. Seems a bit inappropriate.
Seneca, ever the softie, in his consolation of Polybius, offers us more comforting words for those in mourning. “If we could gain anything by sorrow,” Seneca writes, “I should not refuse to bestow upon your misfortunes whatever tears my own have left at my disposal: I would force some drops to flow from these eyes, exhausted as they are with weeping over my own domestic afflictions, were it likely to be of any service to you.”
Seneca’s point, I think, is that we should comfort and join in mourning — up to a point — those who grieve even though death, just as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius point out, is truly nothing to lose ourselves in grief over. And so the more sensitive among us may feel free today to shed a tear alongside our friends as we await the impending death of Prince Andrei.
It is a sad chapter, expertly rendered by Tolstoy. His ability to convert mere text into a lived experience for the reader by simple description is truly astounding. There is nothing false here. We have the subtle thoughts and delicate deportment of those confronting the death of a loved one. There is confusion, regret, frustration, anger. Most of all, though, we have the tears. Princess Marya, no matter how hard she tries, cannot help but cry. So too with little Nikolushka.
We must indulge these tears for a bit. Let us join Seneca as he joined Polybius. It’s only natural. Tears are the automatic reaction of the body to the death of a loved one. No amount of philosophical study can stop them. Should our friends lose themselves in prolonged grief, however, then it’d be time to bring Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius back into the conversation.
For by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome. The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into a perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.
Seneca, Letter XI