[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please consider that the column has become very popular and there now is a backlog of submitted questions, it may take me some time to get to yours. Apologies.]
A. writes: “It’s been almost a year since my girlfriend broke up with me, We were not together for long (about two months), but we had a special connection, one I was not able to find with another woman since. So although I know that there is nothing really to do about it — the past is gone and out of my control — I still often find myself missing her and feeling sadness. The thought that maybe there were things I could have done otherwise and therefore she wouldn’t have broken up with me only adds to that. I tried to move on and find another partner, but I can tell you it’s not that easy for me. I often find myself making comparisons between a woman I intend to date and this past girlfriend. So, is there any relevant Stoic advice for me?”
You gave yourself a partial answer already, when you wrote that you are aware that the past is gone and is out of your control. Seneca puts it most aptly:
“What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy? … Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all — the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXVIII. On the Healing Power of the Mind, 14)
Which allows me to briefly discuss a common objection to Stoicism: yes, it is all well and good that I know something at a rational level, but it is an altogether different thing to internalize that same notion. In your case, you understand perfectly well that, from a Stoic perspective, you shouldn’t dwell on a relationship that is now gone forever. And yet, your feelings of sadness and regret keep haunting you. So what’s the point of Stoicism, then?
I have gone through similar situations myself, of course (though that was before I embraced Stoicism), and even today my mind occasionally wonders toward the thought of partners I was once with, and loved, and who are now strangers to me (or, sometimes, friends, if we kept in touch).
This discrepancy between cognitive understanding of something and the recalcitrance of our emotions to let go of that thing is why Stoicism is 90% practice, not just theory. As Epictetus puts it: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)
But how, exactly, does one practice Stoicism? Epictetus again:
“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face — the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship — that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Discourses I, 4.20)
Specifically, in a lot of cases, including those like yours, I suggest a combination of the following:
- Pick a small set of quotes from the Stoics, such as the ones above, that resonate with your specific situation and read them every day, pausing to reflect for a few minutes on their meaning as it applies to you.
- Be mindful of your own thoughts. When they begin to drift toward sad memories of your past relationship, redirect them. Focus on the here and now (hic et nunc, as the Romans said), as your life is happening as we speak, not in the past. Seneca, as it turns out, addresses your problem specifically, generalizing to the case of all desires we wish to avoid: “Just as he who tries to be rid of an old love must avoid every reminder of the person once held dear (for nothing grows again so easily as love), similarly, he who would lay aside his desire for all the things which he used to crave so passionately, must turn away both eyes and ears from the objects which he has abandoned. The emotions soon return to the attack.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXIX. On Rest and Restlessness, 3)
- Keep a philosophical diary, use it to allow yourself to express your feelings, but also to write about them in a detached way, in order to help yourself gaining some distance from them.
- From time to time do a “view from above” meditation, to regain perspective on things. After all, you have been with this woman for only two months, which not only is an infinitesimal fraction of the span of the universe, but in fact a tiny portion of your own life. “How short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.32)
- As a variant of this meditation, think of how many other people have suffered something similar, or in fact worse, loosing their companions after years or decades of happy life together. Indeed, Epictetus — with his usual bluntness — reminds us of just how differently we react when we are told of others’ misfortunes, even those of a far greater magnitude than the one we are considering: “When somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others.” (Enchiridion 26)
But there is also a positive aspect to the Stoic advice. While regret and sadness for actions you can no longer redress is a waste of time and emotional energy, carefully and dispassionately reflecting on what happened in order to learn from it is a very good use of your time. You do not say in your letter, but how, exactly, did things unfold? I take it that she left you. Why? Did it have something to do with your actions and behavior? If so, think carefully about how you may avoid repeating those mistakes in the future. If there was no rhyme or reason to her decision, then reflect on the fickleness of Fortuna: one day you are at the top, the following one you feel miserable. Your only defense against that is to cultivate an attitude of equanimity, in love as anything else: appreciate what you have when you have it, let it go when the universe takes it back.
Finally, think about why you convinced yourself that you can’t find another person. Maybe use your philosophical diary to address this topic, as if you were writing a letter to a close friend in a similar predicament. It can’t be that the problem is that your ex girlfriend was so unique that it is impossible for you to find another woman worthy of your love. (If you are inclined to think so, and if you allow me a bit of levity, check out this song by Australian comedian Tim Minchin — it will help put things in perspective.) Ask yourself honestly, probe into your own motivations, maybe with the help of a friend. And then get back out there. There are plenty of wonderful people in the world, and life is better (in the sense of a preferred indifferent, of course!) when we are with one of them.