“Stoicism and Mental Health,” pages 159-167
Despite new alternatives offered by modern psychology, self-command remains necessary. Consider how to manage the fear of death. Some people try to ignore it, and avoid the subject of death as much as possible. Other people choose to obsess about the brevity of life and the unavoidability of death, in the hope that death will lose its sting through familiarity. (This approach was taken to extremes by a Cambridge Fellow who kept his coffin in his rooms.) Another popular approach is to convince yourself that death is really new life.
These three alternatives all hold disadvantages. Ignoring the reality of death will only work so long, until the all too real death of loved ones ends the blissful ignorance – and ends it more painfully than for someone who is better prepared. A monomaniacal focus on death, as on any subject, is profitless, particularly as we cannot act to avoid death (though we can and do act to postpone it). We need varied interests to be mentally healthy. [Russell sounds this theme in The Conquest of Happiness.] Concentrating on death is a sort of slavery to force majeure. [Recall how Russell, in Chapter 10, differentiates US “industrial” agriculture with European traditional agriculture on the basis of control over nature.] Meditation on death cannot eliminate the fear of death: if it could, then one wouldn’t have to keep meditating on death. And belief in an afterlife doesn’t seem to make most such believers any less anxious to avoid sickness, or more likely to be bold in battle. Religious ideas can influence conscious thought, but have more difficulty altering behavior as a whole. The fact that religious people sometimes show anger with non-believers is one sign that their own faith is not bottomless.
Children should not get the impression that death is a taboo topic, because that will only make it more of a subject of concentration. [Russell makes the same point elsewhere about sex, and he mentions the connection between proper sex education and death education in this chapter of In Praise of Idleness.] Nonetheless, we should nudge children away from a concentration on death, as we should nudge them away from a pornography fixation: both obsessions come at a cost in terms of overall development. We should not delude ourselves into believing that intellectual appeals will suffice to inculcate beneficial attitudes towards death.
While we should not lie about the inevitability of death, we should make it clear to children that death in all likelihood lies far in the future for them, and that it is not mysterious. “It should be brought into the same category with the wearing out of toys [p. 162].”
If someone close to a child – a brother, say – passes away, then the situation is somewhat different. [Russell lost a sister when he was quite young, though after both of his parents perished – RBR.] Parents must not try to hide their sorrow from the child, though they should try to moderate it. The topic should neither be avoided nor highlighted, and new amusements and attachments should be introduced, but not in a heavy-handed fashion.
A strong attachment in a child to one and only one person bespeaks a problem, that the child feels safe only under that person’s protection. If this person were to die, the child will be scarred forever, afraid that any attachment will result in immense pain, and needing excessive attention and reassurance from partners. A child’s affections need to be diversified to provide insurance against such an outcome, to guarantee that any loss does not prove devastating.
As children move into adolescence, they require more than the sort of underplayed truth-telling that is appropriate for younger children. Older people need to take part in a wide variety of ideas and actions, and should not be diverted by thoughts of death, either of their own demise or the deaths of others. “When [an adult] does think of death, it is best to think with a certain stoicism, deliberately and calmly, not attempting to minimise its importance, but feeling a certain pride in rising above it [p. 164].” A similar mindset should be applied to any fear, where acknowledging the fear, and thinking through the actual consequences should the feared event arise, help to lessen the fear. Look at how common it is for people to overcome the fear of death in battle. This approach, recognizing that there are general interests that extend beyond your own life, and beyond the lives of your loved ones, is generally appropriate.
The broad and sincere interests of adults develop from the generous, zestful attitudes of youths, attitudes that become the foundations for life and work. Teachers and fathers can help nurture the requisite broad generosity in adolescents, who are primed for the message. Mothers (and female teachers), in the present environment, themselves lack the broad, impersonal interests that allow them to appropriately inspire the young in this direction.
Risky situations can be dealt with either by trying to avoid them, or by accepting them and acting appropriately when negative consequences ensue. Eventually, unless fear is to dominate your life, you must resort to the second approach, as not all risks are avoidable. The forthright handling of misfortune – which is what stoicism consists of – is currently undervalued. Those educators who attempt to instill it are at risk themselves of becoming sadistic: the taking of pleasure in thrashing young people is commonplace.
Stoicism is helpful in dealing with the fear of death, but also with the fear of impoverishment, the fear of pain, and so on. These fears really should be controlled, but we must not let ourselves succumb to the trap of ignoring opportunities to mitigate or eliminate negative consequences directly. The view, which still persists to a degree, that anesthesia should not be used to reduce the pain of childbirth, is unreasonable, and reflects an origin in “unconscious sadism [p. 165].” Nonetheless, the anesthetically reduced pain of childbirth has been accompanied by a decreased willingness in rich women to tolerate the the pain that does remain. We need to manage this potential tradeoff between protecting against dangers and meeting actual danger with fortitude, and to do so in a way that gives little scope for cruelty.
Showing too little sympathy for the troubles of small children is a severe error, but excessive sympathy also is to be avoided. “A child that invariably receives sympathy will continue to cry over every tiny mishap; the ordinary self-control of the average adult is only achieved through knowledge that no sympathy will be won by making a fuss [p. 166].” Children can handle and even appreciate a demanding adult caregiver if they understand that the adult loves them.
In theory, then, an enlightened love is what is needed for teachers. [This point echoes Russell’s contention in his 1926 book, Education and the Good Life.] But we must guard against allowing the inevitable visceral factors of fatigue and impatience among teachers to become an excuse for cruelty, doled out under the guise of serving the long-term interests of children.
Russell closes this chapter by reiterating its main points. Tell children the truth, even painful truths, in an unemotional manner (except when a tragedy requires some acknowledgement of sorrow), though there is no need to obtrude painful truths before the knowledge is needed. Adults should model a cheerful fortitude. Children should be made aware of the broad interests that exist in this world, and see that there is much to be said for embracing larger purposes than one’s own direct well-being. Misfortunes should be met with the knowledge that there still are reasons to continue on, and potential misfortunes should not be objects of intense concentration, even in the name of protecting against them. Guardians of the young must be continually wary to ensure that their necessary application of discipline is not about their own sadistic pleasures, but rather, aimed at developing the capacities of the young. The best discipline for the young is that which is self-imposed, and derives from the hope of achieving some valuable but difficult goal. “Such ambition is usually suggested by some person in the environment; thus even self-discipline depends, in the end, upon an educational stimulus [p. 167].”