You’ve been in a romantic relationship for a few years but now you’re hurt since your loved one has announced that they no longer want to be in a relationship with you. The obvious result is feeling your heart ache, an emptiness in your soul, and your shoulders feel heavy. What once was, what you might’ve taken for granted, is now gone and you realize how much that person meant to you. So how would a Stoic Sage handle a situation like this? What kind of sage advice would they give?
Some sage advice has already been offered by Marcus Aurelius,
How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.Meditations XI, 18 (Hays translation)
Marcus Aurelius is suggesting that if something painful happens to you, whether it’s too cold outside or someone broke your heart, it’s best not to increase the damage by grieving endlessly. Endlessly grieving over the end of a relationship isn’t going to bring it back, it’s taking you away from productive goals, and it’s causing you more harm than the initial sting of the breakup.
I would like to point out that grieving isn’t bad in itself. It is important to grieve when you lose a loved one. But there is a point where grief is helpful to moving on and when it is harmful to moving on. At some point you’re going to have to move on. A Stoic is supposed to accept the situation as it is, learn from previous mistakes, and move forward on their voyage to a life of virtue. Many of us will endure hardship, some more than others, and we have to learn to accept our past and present and then emotionally prepare for even more difficult situations that could present themselves.
The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium lost all of his wealth in a shipwreck. But Zeno saw his shipwreck not as a loss but as an opportunity. Diogenes Laertius wrote:
[Zeno] is reported to have said, “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.” A different version of the story is that he was staying at Athens when he heard his ship was wrecked and said, “It is well done of thee, Fortune, thus to drive me to philosophy.”Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book VII
So the idea here is that Zeno was able to see a loss as a gain. His shipwreck allowed him to explore philosophy and eventually create the philosophy known as Stoicism. The Stoics believed that we should judge all external events as irrelevant to our eudaimonic happiness. When adverse situations like breakups or job loss rear their ugly head, it’s time to look towards the beauty of other opportunities that can emerge from their loss. Now that you’re single, you can write that poem you always wanted to write. Now that you got laid off, you can use the opportunity to find a different job that offers a different experience and new skillsets.
One more thing to note is that the Stoics believed that we’re social beings and we thrive on being social. So if you’ve experienced a breakup, be social. Hang out with an old friend you might’ve stopped hanging out with when you started your romantic relationship. Go online and see how others cope with breakups. There’s plenty of Stoic groups on Reddit and Facebook that have other fellow Stoics suffering from breakups. Make new friends.
I hope I gave some sage advice (I am no sage!) on how Stoicism can help you with something as complex as a breakup. The Stoics knew that anger and grief can only add to the pain of loss. Part of getting over loss is acceptance with what fate has handed you. Stoics like Zeno knew that if you look at the positive that results from a negative, it helps neutralize the negative experience. Also being social helps. Talk to old friends, meet new friends, and see how others moved on.