Learning to Suffer Nobly by Victoria Neilson

Several friends of mine also have children. They are normal, healthy children, seemingly perfect and without any defects. My friends laugh and play with their children every day, posting beautiful photos on social networks, filled with joy and happiness.

There were times that I’d go to bed wishing that tomorrow my child would miraculously be healed by a divine intervention. Wishful thinking such as this only led to that heavy disappointment and dread when I woke up, finding my child still crippled.

I suffered quietly.

Dr. Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” compared suffering to gas in a chamber:

If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

My suffering is nothing compared to what Dr. Frankl had to go through: a long period of living in concentration camps, treated like an animal, suffering through hunger, diseases and emotional abuses. All I must endure is to look after a child with Cerebral Palsy. Still, my suffering fills me up, makes me teary and afraid of the world. Why has such misfortune happened to me?

Discovering Stoicism seemed accidental at the time, but later it became apparent that I was destined to find it. It wasn’t because I believed in destinies, but because I wanted to live. I can still hear the sympathetic voice of my last mental health therapist: “Please don’t hesitate to call me anytime if you need to.” Anytime? I thought bitterly.

It wasn’t like she was of much help during her 9-5 work hours, how on earth could she help at three in the morning, when I needed help the most? I was on the verge of committing suicide; I needed someone, or something, that could help me 24/7. I was breastfeeding; I refused to take antidepressant drugs; I started reading self-help books and listening to Ted talks, then one day I heard this:

This is no misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune. – The Meditations, book 2 – 49.

Sometimes I’d look back at that woman, crying without tears at night while clicking madly on a laptop, looking for the most painless ways to commit suicide. That was the very person I call “my past self”, and it was clear that I was consumed by anger, fear and, eventually, despair.

Fear and Anger

Fear and anger often came together. In the early days, I was constantly tormented by the fear of unknowns: “Why isn’t my child moving as much as her peers? Why doesn’t she crawl yet? Will she ever walk or talk?” These questions bothered me in every waking moment.

The “social” unknowns would surface at the same time: “What would other parents think of me? ‘Oh, that poor woman, stuck with that crippled child. Does her child have a disease? Could her child infect mine? I’d better stay away from them, we belong to different worlds.’”

The fearful thoughts would then lead to waves of anger: “Why has this happened to me?” I would ask, “I’ve been a good person, I never stole nor killed, and I’ve always treated people nicely. Why not those who cheat and scam? Why do they have normally developing children? How unfair! What have I done to have such injuries inflicted upon me? Who on earth would do this to me? God? but I don’t believe in gods! Who and where can I avenge such injustice?”

At that moment, often an emptiness would seize me: no one inflicted any injuries on me. I was trapped in an invisible cage with the only thing I could punch – myself.

“In the third place, the soul does violence to itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or by pain.” – The Meditations, book 2 – 16.

Marcus Aurelius has been the strict mentor in my life. Whenever I listened to the audiobook copy of The Meditations during countless drives to my child’s therapy visits, I’d feel his stern presence. “Do not act randomly, Victoria” I’d talk to myself in Marcus’ words: “I know you were thinking of suicide again last night, but what would that achieve? Your husband will have to quit his job to look after your child, and your child would have less of a chance to experience life. What happened to your duty as a mother and a wife? Do you still possess the ability to reason? Why then, would you not use it, before you decide to take the easy way out?”

Oftentimes I’d think of Marcus Aurelius’ humble writings: he saw himself as nothing more than frankincense on an altar that’d eventually burn out, his name would be forgotten, and his city would be buried. No, dear philosopher king, your writings survived the grinding gears of history, and is helping many people centuries later. The Meditations was the handbrake on my car of life, working its best while the car was speeding down a steep hill.

However, to work out a proper strategy that’d put my life back on track took much more that The Meditations. To deal with the suicidal thoughts driven by anger and fear, I spent a long time understanding the Stoic judgement and assent.

“It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgement that they form about the things.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5

With help from The Enchiridion and Seneca’s On Anger, I was able to examine the two negative feelings: both fear and anger were manifested passions, therefore not according to nature and should be, and can be, eradicated through good reasoning. However, where did fear and anger come from? In most cases, I believe they are from an impulse, a sense of threat, and that is natural.

Now, to make plain how passions begin or grow or get carried away: there’s the initial involuntary movement—a preparation for the passion, as it were, and a kind of threatening signal; there’s a second movement accompanied by an expression of will not stubbornly resolved, to the effect that “I should be avenged, since I’ve been harmed” or “this man should be punished, since he’ s committed a crime.” The third movement’s already out of control, it desires vengeance not if it’s appropriate but come what may, having overthrown reason. – Seneca, On Anger 2.4.1-2.

I started to pay attention on my feelings: the goal was to stop and think when I felt that initial threat. The type of brain injury my child suffered from was a damage to the white matter in her brain. As a result, she had a noticeable delay in responses. We’d put toys in front of her and had to wait for half a minute to get a response. This often frustrated me. “Why is this so infuriating?” I started to ask myself whenever I felt my blood starting to rush. “Is it not because you were worried that your child would be left to the last to choose a toy in a group? Where would this lead to? If a war happens, she’d never be quick enough to get her share of ration?”

“Draw a circle around what is happening now, stop the pulling of the strings. Take away the thought: ‘I’m hurt!’ and make the most rational decision for this moment.” I’d hear Marcus’ imaginary voice again. It is true that future uncertainties threatened me, but how can I do anything about something that hasn’t yet happened? What can I do now?

These days, we know of brain plasticity, and I know my child will speed up her movements if she does enough of the same thing. The real question is: how can I motivate her to reach faster? Her therapists gave clear instructions: movements requiring hands won’t happen properly if the child’s body isn’t supported. So instead of getting angry with my child for not moving fast enough, I should sit her appropriately, and try to get her to reach out for something that’d interest her. We knew she liked watching children singing and dancing, so we often set her in front of a tablet that played videos of children dancing, then we’d pause the video, she’d protest and reach out to start the video again. Whenever she succeeded, we’d all laugh and cheer together.

How can bringing up a disabled child be a bad thing if it brings such laughter and joy?

When my child was an eighteen-month-old, I decided to take her to a local play group. My child had only just learned to crawl, and her movements were very slow. I put her down on a mat, and a mother beside immediately asked me her age. I answered, the mum stared at me without a word, and my endless social fears immediately surfaced. “Don’t be afraid, Victoria.” I thought to myself. “describe to yourself the impressions here.”

We sat awkwardly in silence for a few minutes, while I thought to myself: “I’m here at a playgroup, there are many parents and children around, it’s rather noisy, and I’m trying to show my child how to interact with others.” So, I started to talk to the mum: “Your daughter’s sweater is beautiful.”

“Oh!” she seemed surprised, “thank you!”

Have courage, I said to myself. “My child’s name is A…” I smiled at her, “she had a brain injury due to lack of oxygen at birth.” I might as well spill the beans. “What’s your child’s name?”

She looked at me again, her eyes softened. “oh, her name is O…” she answered, “I’m sorry about what happened to your child.”

I looked into her brown eyes and saw nothing but a reflection of myself. Why was I afraid that others would judge me? Wasn’t it because I would have also judged if I had been them? To make matters worse, I was still judging poorly. Did I not turn my eyes away from those parents with mentally retarded or autistic children, even months after I had accepted my own child’s disability? Did I not stare at that woman working in the local supermarket, thinking, oh there’s something wrong with her and I’m scared?

All these things (envy, ungratefulness, etc.) happen to them (people) by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me … – The Meditations, Book 2 – 1.

How can I possibly be angry with anyone that is ignorant like myself?

Despair

Despair, to me, was an emotion that often came well after fear and anger. It was a feeling of hopelessness. Hope, being the only thing left in Pandora’s jar, is the driving force of life for many. When I first started to learn and practice Stoicism, I quickly stopped hoping for miracles, but I still often caught myself thinking: “hopefully our efforts won’t be wasted, and hopefully my child will walk and talk someday.”

My child is three years old now. She still can’t walk independently, and her speech is still at the level of “mama” and “dada”. There were times when the feeling of despair would touch me like a cold hand, sending shivers down the spine. “All my efforts are wasted! It doesn’t matter how hard I try, she will never improve!” I was filled with miseries. “What’s the point of continue living like this? My child is doomed to be alone for the rest of her life. She will never be able look after herself, without me, she will die.”

Epictetus’ famous control dichotomy is very well talked about among those who study Stoicism, yet it is the most easily forgotten when it comes to actions. During the day, I must remind myself many times that whether my child learns to walk, or talk, is completely out of my control; what’s within my control is what to do to best help her. However, at times the future simply looks too bleak.

The future? I started questioning again. Has there been a case that the future is definitively doomed?

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was my answer. I don’t know if Camus was a Stoic, but his essay on Sisyphus sure reminded me of how much the Stoics emphasize “the present”. King Sisyphus was in a situation that can precisely be described as having an eternity of hopeless future. He was condemned by the gods to roll a big rock up a mountain, only to watch it rolling back down, and he had to start the process again. However, Camus concluded that “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I realised that while hope has driven many to achieve great things, too much emphasis on it in some situations can only lead me to fear, and then despair. In one of Seneca’s letters, he wrote:

In the writings of our own Hecaton I find it said that limiting one’s desires is beneficial also as a remedy for fear. “You will cease to fear,” he says, “if you cease to hope.” “The two feelings are very different,” you say. “How is it that they occur together?” But so it is, dear Lucilius: although they seem opposed, they are connected. Just as the prisoner and the guard are bound to each other by the same chain, so these two that are so different nonetheless go along together: where hope goes, fear follows. Nor do I find it surprising that it should be so. Both belong to the mind that is in suspense, that is worried by its expectation of what is to come. The principal cause of both is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present but direct our thoughts toward things far in the future. Thus foresight, which is the greatest good belonging to the human condition, has become an evil. Animals in the wild flee the dangers they see and are tranquil once they have escaped; we, though, are tormented both by what is to come and by what has been. Often, our goods do us harm: memory recalls the stab of fear; foresight anticipates it. No one is made wretched merely by the present. – Seneca, Letters 5.7-9

The passage urged us to focus on the present and put less effort in reminding ourselves of the painful past or fearing for the future. After all, the past can’t be changed for me, and the future is yet to be determined. We have but this moment to experience and to make the right judgements. Why hoping so much for the future while I can make myself good right now by practising virtues? Why worrying about if my child would be alone in the future, while I could give her lots of happy company today?

Besides, does lonesomeness always make one unhappy? What happened to “retreating to my inner citadel that is free of violent passions?” (Marcus’ voice again) Yes, my child will die, regardless of me being alive. While I’m alive, it is my duty to look after and care for her. I can influence how much she will be able to look after herself by teaching her, tutoring her, but ultimately, it is up to her how she chooses to live her life after I’m gone. One thing for sure: the way I act will influence her forever, and if I can show her how to be happy in one’s own thoughts, she may be less tormented by being alone when it happens.

No wonder even Sisyphus can be happy, but only if he chooses to enjoy every moment of hard work.

My life is like sailing a boat for the first time in a stormy ocean, constantly getting knocked around by waves. Even though I may be destined to crash in the end, at least I can choose to do my best to turn the rudder while sailing.

What about my suffering, the very thing that connects myself and Dr. Frankl, and every other human that suffered throughout history? Well, it is true I cannot escape it, but I can at least learn to suffer nobly.

 

Victoria Neilson was a full-time professional Mechanical Engineer until her child was found to have a disability. She is now a part-time PhD student in Biomechanics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and a full-time mother to a lovely three-year old.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

13 thoughts on “Learning to Suffer Nobly by Victoria Neilson”

  1. Oh woah! Thank you all for your kind words and well constructed replies. I’m deeply touched. =) I’m glad that you find this essay useful.

    I’m very happy to share more information and experiences I gained from the disability circle if anyone is interested. =) Years ago when I was still a front-row nerd in Engineering school, I often sat near a classmate who was in a wheelchair. Due to my ignorance and lack of patience, I didn’t often have long chats with him because he moved and spoke slowly. I was always puzzled as to how he handled all the stressful course work and still had a life (I saw him at engineering drinking events a few times), especially the drop-out rate of engineering school was mighty high (25-30%) in those days! Years later, I was really surprised to find the same classmate a department manager for a well-known engineering firm! Not only had he achieved a huge amount of career success, he seems to also be in possession of something many spend a life time looking for: the kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on chances. Indeed, everything is merely an impression, what one man sees as a disadvantage may very well be another man’s blessing. =)

    These days, due to my daughter’s situation, I got to know many admirable individuals from the disability circle. They are the real-life examples of Marcus Aurelius’ “There’s no misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune.” =)

    One thing that has changed since the essay was written is my attitude towards metal therapists. Bobby H here brought up a good point on clinical depression and expert advice should be taken seriously. When I wrote the essay, I was rather ignorant of the fact that I was referred to free women maternal health therapists the moment that my child’s home-care nurse detected signs of depression from me. These healthcare professionals were looking after my child and I tirelessly with no personal gains, because of our state owned medical system. This is not common compared to many other places in the world. While it was my choice to not take medication (largely to do with breastfeeding and the no-yet-dead personal ego of going back to work asap attitude), it is important that professional advice should be considered seriously, especially when the doctor is clearly trying to help. =)

  2. It’s also useful to remember that as valuable as Stoicism is, it’s not a substitute for clinically diagnosed depression, and other mental health illnesses, where sometimes a physical problem like brain chemistry needs to be addressed through a physical remedy like medicine.

  3. This is an admirable and genuine application of Stoic philosophy as a means to improve, not only one’s own perspective on life, but also the quality of other people’s lives (in this case, your daughter) by changing the way we accept events that are out of our control and by managing how we react to them. Thank you very much for sharing your family’s life experience, you’re a role model!

  4. Thank you, Victoria, for acting and explaining your virtue. Both serve as lessons to others, helping us with our own small struggles.

  5. Great essay. Well written and honest in recounting the pain and vulnerability. Love the use and application of quotes that chart the expansion of consciousness and emotional health that you experience. I can see this really being of help to others feeling alone and uncentered in a similar anguish. Thanks.

    1. Victoria I am sitting at work and crying. You have wrote such a masterpiece on despair and rising up to it. Thank you so much and all my blessings to you and your loved ones.

  6. Thank you Victoria for this very inspiring and courageous piece that speaks from the soul. Experiences of life and the suffering we are all destined to endure are inevitable but, as Viktor Frankl would say, it is how we bear this suffering in a meaningful way that makes us uniquely human. Stoicism has helped me to find meaning in the suffering of loved ones and myself, and instead of living with misplaced hope and misdirected faith I have learnt to accept that things are the way they are. Keep sailing. You won’t crash in the end.
    Best wishes,
    Alison

  7. Thank-you Victoria. I cannot exaggerate the impact of your words on me. Whilst I’m still struggling to find the happiness of Sysiphus’ struggle his rock seems a bit lighter today.

  8. Thank you, Victoria for this candid and clear sharing. Your thoughts and conclusions speak well to depression. Overwhelming pain, pain that goes beyond our current abilities to manage poses a most serious challenge emotionally. I have often found Stoicism helpful but only when mind has the upper hand, it doesn’t always. In the meantime to endeavor to suffer nobly in the potentially unresolvable, or uninvited, or overwhelming is a hand extended; one I’ll reach for with the perspective you offer here as guide. Thank you, again.

  9. Ms. Neilson – This is a deeply moving, and very inspiring piece. If you can use stoicism to handle such difficulty and heartache, how much more should all the rest of us be able to use it – and use it well – to overcome the very minor difficulties we encounter between dawn and dusk. You have both my sympathy for your daughter’s plight, and my deepest admiration for your stoic toughness in handling it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.