by David Fideler
Stoicism helps us to understand and respond to grief—even the grief caused by war. Contrary to popular belief, the Roman Stoic philosophers never believed anyone should bottle up or repress their emotions. In fact, as proto-psychologists, they studied the different kinds of emotions and how they come into being, including grief.
The most important emotion for the Stoics was love or affection, which we can even sense in the love that animals have for their offspring. Reporting on Stoic ideas, Cicero (106 BC–43 BC) wrote that when we see the great effort that animals spend on caring for their offspring, “we seem to be hearing the voice of nature itself.” This is true for humans also. As he explains further, “It is also clear that we’ve been impelled by nature herself to love those to whom we have given birth. From this impulse arises a common attraction that unites human beings as such; based on our common humanity, we feel kinship with others” (my emphasis). Ultimately, he suggests that this kind of innate love and sense of kinship gives rise to human society.
For the Stoics, human beings are not just united by love; we are joined by rationality. Because all human beings contain a spark of reason inside, we are brothers and sisters of one another—a cosmopolis or “world community”—which carries with it ethical responsibilities for others.
While not a Stoic writer, the Persian poet Sa‘dī (1213–1291) expressed the idea of human kinship beautifully in his famous lines:
All human beings
are the members
of one body—
every person is a glint,
shining from a single gem.
When the world causes pain for one member,
how could the other members
ever rest in peace?
If you lack grief
for another one’s sorrow,
why call yourself
a human being?
The Roman philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65) was the most humane and psychologically knowledgeable Stoic to write about the emotions. Not only did he write an entire book about anger or rage, but he also wrote five shorter works on grief and how to soften its blow.
For Seneca, grief is a normal human feeling—something instinctual—that we experience when we lose a loved one. When such a loss occurs, he tells us, we should let our tears flow and not try to hold them back. But, on the other hand, we should show some moderation in grieving: he thought it’s better to weep than wail. Most importantly, Seneca had a brilliant strategy for helping to overcome feelings of grief over time. If you lose a loved one, he said, focus on how grateful you are for the wonderful times you had together. In this way, we can replace grief with happy memories over time.
While this approach can work quite well when we lose a loved one, other types of loss can inspire grief, like the constant flood of stories and imagery we’ve had to endure from Russia’s brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. In a case like this, we feel grief because of the rational and loving bonds we feel with other human beings: it’s an assault on our common humanity, which can’t help but sadden us.
Another powerful source of this grief is that, with the Russian invasion, we lost the sense of a world we once knew. One morning, we all awoke to find ourselves living in a totally new world, like in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A few days later, Russia found itself financially isolated from most of the world. The ruble plunged in value, Russian banks collapsed in Europe, and its stock market closed for weeks. Russia imprisoned thousands of protestors. Oil and natural gas prices soared. In just a few days, the entire political landscape of Europe had changed, with a renewed emphasis on NATO and mutual defense. Then, one day, we woke up to discover that a building by Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant had been attacked and was burning. More recently, a maternity hospital was bombed, killing a pregnant mother and her unborn baby. With events like these, the relatively stable world of the past had vanished.
As psychologist and grief specialist John Frederick Wilson explains, “Most people associate grief with losing someone they love, but in reality people can grieve for all sorts of reasons. In essence, knowing what to expect and feeling secure and stable is important for our survival—so when a loss occurs in our lives, our world shifts and is turned upside down. . . . Life is split into two halves—before the loss and after the loss. We grieve for the loss of the safe and familiar and it feels as though things will never be the same again.”
As Seneca noted, when we lose a loved one, we can mitigate our grief with gratitude for the good times we had together, with happy memories from the past. But with the grief of the Ukraine war, it’s a different situation because our collective world has been turned upside down by an attack on our common humanity—and we have no idea how long that attack will last.
Given this situation and the unpredictability of a stable future, I’ve found the best approach is to feel gratitude for the basic things I have in the present moment: a beautiful and loving family, a comfortable home with a roof over my head, food on the table, and a heating system that still works. (Our city, Sarajevo, is supplied entirely by Russian natural gas, which the Russian government has previously shut off.) Sadly, the ravaged people in Ukraine are not as lucky as we. But we in Sarajevo sprang back from a brutal war nearly three decades ago, and perhaps they can too. In the meantime, we can only hope for wise diplomacy and reach out to help those in need.
David Fideler is an American writer and philosopher who lives in Sarajevo with his wife and son. He is the author of Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living published by W. W. Norton.