A Stoic’s Guide to Suffering Well

Notes from Seneca on how to handle the trials of life.

Spencer Sekulin
Oct 6 · 10 min read
Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” — Helen Keller

If you’re going through pain, if you’re suffering in some way, know this: you’re not alone, and however much this may hurt, it is part of life’s tapestry.

All of us will suffer in life. Pain is inevitable, and to feel it is only to be human and alive.

Our objective in life should not be to escape pain and suffering, for that is to try to flee from the inevitable — the pain of loss, of ill health, of uncertainty, of rejection, of failure.

No, our objective instead, as was echoed by the philosophers of old, should be to learn to bear these trials well. With dignity. With strength. With wisdom. With courage.

I have suffered. You have suffered. Since suffering and pain are inherent to life, how can we learn to suffer well, so that we may live well?

We can learn from those who came before us, whose words have remained true for thousands of years.

One of those people is Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65), a Roman philosopher whose teachings have yet to go stale.

In a letter written to his dear friend Lucilius, who was suffering from a persistent illness, he speaks words applicable to all of us, wrought from his own experiences and observations from his own chronic illness, of life in an era where cruelty, death, war, and disease were almost unavoidable.

What he shared were the things that consoled him during those days of suffering. They were written to help his friend, but we, too, can find respite in them.

Overall, although pain is inevitable, how we suffer is a matter of choice.

Choose Selflessness Over Selfishness

Sometimes, in our suffering, we are tempted to think only of ourselves — especially when it comes to escaping pain. But what if part of enduring suffering is not about you?

When his illness brought him to a point of almost complete emaciation and death, Seneca wrote this:

“On many an occasion I felt an urge to cut my life short there and then, and was only held back by the thought of my father, who had been the kindest of fathers to me and was then in his old age. Having in mind not how bravely I was capable of dying but how far from bravely he was capable of bearing the loss, I commanded myself to live. There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.” — Seneca

Sometimes, it can make all the difference when we have someone else to suffer for, and a reason to carry on that is beyond ourselves.

Someone to live for.

Choose Good Thinking Over Weak Thinking

“Comforting thoughts contribute to a person’s cure; anything which raises his spirits benefits him physically as well. It was my stoic studies that really saved me. For the fact that I was able to leave my bed and was restored to health I give the credit to philosophy. I owe her my life.” — Seneca

Good thoughts, and things that feed our thoughts, be it books, or studies, or music — as we think, so we are. Marcus Aurelius, another great stoic philosopher, put it well when he said that our thinking determines our lives, and our minds take on the colour of our thoughts.

We can think ourselves into further weakness, or we can think ourselves into greater strength.

Which will it be?

Choose Friendship Over Solitude

“But my friends also made a considerable contribution to my return to health. I found a great deal of relief in their cheering remarks . . . There is nothing, my good Lucilius, quite like the devotion of one’s friends . . .” — Seneca

Your friends, and family for that matter, can make a massive difference in your times of pain. Therefore, do not push them away. Embrace, love, and cherish those who love you.

They can save your life, and you, theirs.

Choose Grace Over Complaining

Complaining of our suffering, past or present, is a vampire of energy and is detrimental to our health. In my experience, complaining amounts to nothing at all, and only steals away the present moment and its capacity for joy and healing.

“A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is. And complaining away about one’s sufferings after they are over is something I think should be banned. Even if all this is true, it is past history. What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then?” — Seneca

We can convince ourselves into misery by complaining. Or, we can choose to act better than that, and craft a lighter mood from better thinking.

Indeed, you are as happy, or as miserable, as you convince yourself you are. You can face your trials with complaint, or you can do so with grace. Which will make you stronger?

Choose Courage

“In the same way as the enemy can do far more damage to your army if it is in full retreat, every trouble that may come our way presses harder on the one who has turned tail and is giving ground.” — Seneca

Whatever we go through, we suffer inordinately more in the long-run when we try to run from it. Even when the adversity is severe, though the temptation to run may be high, we must have courage.

And you have the courage within you.

“Call to mind things which you have done that have been upright or courageous; run over in your mind the finest parts that you have played.” — Seneca

When we suffer, we must not belittle ourselves by thinking we lack the courage to face it or the strength to bear it. One of the best things you can do, when all is dark, is to recall that you are strong.

Because you are.

Choose Heroism Over Self-Pity

“‘But my illness has taken me away from my duties and won’t allow me to achieve anything,’” one may say. But what do we accomplish by such self-pitying remarks?” — Seneca

Self-pity weakens us further to the trials we face. Sometimes it’s very hard not to feel pity. It is tempting, and has a comfort to it of the sort that releases us from some responsibility, but in the end, self-pity accomplishes nothing. Kaye Ramos put it well when she wrote that pitying yourself won’t take you anywhere.

When most people would let their circumstances make them pity themselves, Seneca calls on his friend to do the opposite.

We can be heroic even when we are brought to our knees.

“If you meet sickness in a sensible manner, do you really think you are achieving nothing? You will be demonstrating that even if one cannot always beat it one can always bear an illness. There is room for heroism, I assure you, in bed as anywhere else. War and the battle-front are not the only spheres in which proof is to be had of a spirited and fearless character: a person’s bravery is no less evident under the bed-clothes.” — Seneca

When we meet our trials, be it an illness or a layoff or a rejection or a loss, with courage and not pitying bemoaning, we can not only inspire others, but also ourselves.

“If its threats or importunities leave you quite unmoved, you are setting others a signal example. How much scope there would be for renown if whenever we were sick we had an audience of spectators! Be your own spectator anyway, your own applauding audience.” — Seneca

Choose Acceptance Over Avoidance

“My own advice to you — and not only in the present illness but in your whole life as well — is this: refuse to let the thought of death bother you. Nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear.” — Seneca

That is one of life’s hardest and most rewarding tasks: to cease to dread death itself. Even in suffering, be it an illness or an economic winter, these very things, when we accept death and see it as it is, can help us live better.

“Illness has actually given many people a new lease on life; the experience of being near to death has been their preservation. You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive. That end still awaits you when you have been cured.” — Seneca

Death is inevitable.

Most people let death torment them, especially when they are suffering — be it financial, physical, social, or other kinds of affliction. Most of our fears seem to have their roots in our terror of that final requirement of living: to give our lives back to that which made us.

How, then, shall we face death?

“The one requirement is that we cease to dread death. And so we shall as soon as we have learnt to distinguish the good things and the bad things in this world. Then and then only shall we stop being weary of living as well as scared of dying.” — Seneca

The student of life faces things differently than one who merely seeks to get through the day, the month, or the year. The student of life, as Jim Rohn encouraged us to do, gets from the day. When we understand the world, when we become involved in actually living, we see things so much differently . . .

“For a life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui: the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure. Truth will never pall on someone who explores the world of nature, wearied as a person will be by the spurious things.” — Seneca

How can one ever be tired of life if all of it is a matter of study and wonder?

There is so much to see, so much to enjoy and savor, that even in pain and suffering, even in times when normal people would feel fed up with living, that the person who sees life as a study, who pulls from it all that it can teach, can still find purpose, still see beauty, still taste wonder, and still feel that life is worth living.

And it is that same sort of character that faces death well, for she has lived well.

“Even if death is on the way with a summons for him, though it come all too early, though it cut him off in the prime of life, he has experienced every reward that the very longest life can offer, having gained extensive knowledge of the world we live in, having learnt that time adds nothing to the finer things in life. Whereas any life must needs seem short to people who measure it in terms of pleasures which through their empty nature are incapable of completeness.” — Seneca

One fears death less when it is not some ghost they try to ignore, but something they see as part of life’s progression.

One who lives well, and knows she lives well, fears death less as a product of feeling less cheated of opportunity.

When we live well, even through our suffering, is it not like we’ve had a feast, dishes sweet and sour, and how can we bemoan as much the end of life’s feast when we’ve had our fill and sit back contented and grateful?

Even if the feast ends early. Even if it ends suddenly. Even if it seems unfair.

Acceptance, tempered by an attitude towards living that enables a steady, mature perception of mortality.

Whereas the person who never truly partakes of life leaves behind a full table, who wasted it on the empty pursuits and pleasures that give no return, and faces the end with a stomach still yearning to taste the wonders life had to offer.

Students Of Life, Not Victims

Near the end of his letter to his friend, Seneca surmises the truth of a life well-lived, being not in the length, but in the breadth, and in the sort of person living it:

“As Posidonius said, in a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes.”

Let us be students of life, not mere creatures being tossed this way and that. Even in our suffering, even in times of darkness, we may pull out of life more in those fiery moments than people blind to their own personal power may pull out over the course of their lives.

In pain, we can triumph. In suffering, we can still find joy. There is learning, and perhaps even something to be fascinated by, in all things.

A Final Note — On Joy and Overcoming

Let us not lose sight of truth when we are in pain.

In my experience, one of Seneca’s lessons that pulled me through times where I wanted to give up entirely, was simply this. I will leave it with you, unabridged, in parting:

‘There is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant; when some trouble or other comes to an end the natural thing is to be glad.’

“There are two things, then, the recollecting of trouble in the past as well as the fear of the troubles to come, that I have to root out: that the first is no longer of any concern to me and the second has yet to be so. And when a man is in the grip of difficulties he should say:

“There may be pleasure in the memory of even these events one day.” — Virgil, The Aeneid

“Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet calls or silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won forever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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Spencer Sekulin

Written by

Writer | Creator | Work In Progress | Contributor for The Startup, Mind Cafe, and more. Let’s learn and grow together. https://spencersekulin.net

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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