Big Ideas

Recently I’ve gone back to read a book which my brother bought for me a while ago. The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton.

Each chapter focuses on the works of a different philosopher – Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – and showing how they can be of practical use in certain aspects of our lives. So there are philosophical consolations for Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money, Inadequacy, Difficulties, A Broken Heart, as well as the one which really struck me, Frustration which is all about Seneca.

Seneca was a philosopher from Ancient Rome who took stoicism to heroic (almost lunatic) levels. Although he had once been a favourite advisor to Nero, Seneca was (falsely) implicated in an assassination attempt on the emperor and was ordered to take his own life. So, after consoling his friends and family and following two fruitless initial attempts, he asked to be placed in a vapour-bath, “where he suffocated to death slowly, in torment but with equanimity” (p. 77).

A Senecan definition of frustration would maintain that “at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.” (p. 80)

I don’t know about you but to me that seems like the perfect description of being handed a diagnosis with any chronic illness. I can certainly see a lot of myself in there!

But our frustration doesn’t end with our diagnosis, it’s all the other little indignities and unforeseen diversions which MS can pile on us. The walking sticks and the wheelchairs. The bladder-retraining programmes. The endless planning for once-simple trips and the many “sorry I can’t go, I’m too tired”s. The cog-fog. It’s no wonder we can get frustrated.

Reading the chapter about Seneca, I can recognise the value in his stoical way of life. Anger is a kind of madness – “There is no swifter way to insanity” (p. 82) – resulting from an unrealistically optimistic view of the world.

However, I don’t think that Stoicism is simply passive, fatalistic acceptance. We don’t simply have to resign ourselves to “our lot”. And this is a passage which really struck me:

We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them (p. 109 – my emphasis)

I’m not entirely sure I completely go along with the idea that, “That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure” (p. 111), but there’s a lot in this way of thinking which I think is incredibly helpful (maybe blindingly obvious in the cold light of day but helpful nonetheless).

Our brick wall, our unyielding reality, is the fact that we have a chronic, disabling illness with an uncertain prognosis. As soon as we can begin to accept that, then we can focus on living to the best of our potential – seeking help when it’s required, advocating for our condition.

All very highfalutin and I can hear my family members choking in disbelief – I am NOWHERE near this level-headed in real-life. But as a man who has a fairly hair-trigger relationship with outbursts of frustration, I’m constantly trying to be better.

If I continue to simply bang my head on the brick wall of MS it won’t do anyone any good.1

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