Last week our journey into happiness and philosophy took us into the question of why bad things happen to good people. We learned that these bad things are a chance for us to overcome adversity and become stronger.
Which is all well and good, but doesn’t necessarily help us deal with the sense of loss or disappointment that can often accompany the bad things that happen to us.
For advice on that front, we’ll return to the Stoic philosopher Seneca.
Loss and Disappointment
Seneca addresses the issue of loss and disappointment in two separate works: On Tranquility and Of Consolation.
Within these works he addresses two approaches to dealing with loss. The first is intended to make disappointment and loss hurt less when it happens, while the second helps us deal with it after the fact.
In On Tranquility, Seneca says that thinking about negative outcomes “softens the shock of disasters” and that loss and disappointment “bear heavily on thoughtless men whose view is limited to the agreeable.”
Essentially Seneca is saying that we need to think about the bad things that could happen to us before they happen.
In Of Consolation, he says that “When, therefore, misfortune befalls us, we cannot help collapsing all the more completely, because we are struck as it were unawares.” Unexpected loss hurts more than loss that we have contemplated before.
In order to guard ourselves against being overly harmed by loss and disappointment, then, Seneca suggests that we should set aside time to think through the negative outcomes that could befall us. After all, “a blow which has long been foreseen falls much less heavily upon us.”
We should think through things that could go wrong. We should consider what it would be like to lose possessions or relationships that we currently have. We should think about what failure would feel like.
This is difficult for most people to do. Seneca recognizes this and suggests an easier approach, based on the idea that “What one hath suffered may befall us all.”
Here, Seneca suggests looking at the negative things that are happening to those around you. This approach is similar to the “there but for the grace of God go I” thought process. The luck that is holding all of these negatives at bay could end at any time, and so we must be prepared to deal with that.
Seneca tells us that “by looking forward to the coming of our sorrows we take the sting out of them when they come.”
Of course, none of this helps if you have already been blindsided by loss or disappointment.
Seneca writes that grieving and disappointment are natural reactions to suffering a loss. He also suggests that you need to find a way to deal with it, because crying about it won’t fix anything.
“If fate can be overcome by tears, let us bring tears to bear upon it: let every day be passed in mourning, every night be spent in sorrow instead of sleep. . . . But if the dead cannot be brought back to life, however much we may beat our breasts, if destiny remains fixed and immovable forever, not to be changed by any sorrow, however great, and death does not loose his hold of anything that he once has taken away, then let our futile grief be brought to an end.”
There is no benefit to continuing to mourn indefinitely, so we need to find a way to move on. Seneca compares this to piloting a ship through a storm. The fact that you have been blindsided is unfortunate, but you cannot give in to the storm. You need to grab the rudder and steer your way through to the other side.
Find a productive use of your time. Take action. Work on projects. Exercise. Play games. Spend time with friends and family. “Whenever you are engaged in other pursuits your mind will be relieved from its burden.”
You need a sense of forward progress in some area or aspect of your life in order to help you move forward from your disappointment.
Learning to Deal
First, brace yourself for loss and disappointment by spending some time thinking about it beforehand. This will take the sting out of the bad things that may befall you and comes with the added benefit of making you grateful that they haven’t occurred yet.
After you’ve been hit with something bad, feel your grief for a little while and then start finding a sense of forward progress in at least one area of your life.
If we can follow this advice we can minimize the sting of disappointment and recover to our happy lives more quickly.
Join the Conversation!
Do you have methods you use to deal with disappointment? Have you ever tried Seneca’s tips? Let us know in the comments!