Every time I read a chapter from Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic, I feel a bit smarter. I feel a bit lighter and more connected with the secrets of the universe. I love reading Seneca’s letters because they are easily accessible. You can pick a passage, get in and out of in 15 minutes, but it will leave you thinking all day.
Letter 28 is one of those. In a concise and pithy three pages, Seneca tells how why you cannot run away from your troubles, and how doing so actually makes you a more fragile person. He had this figured out 2000 years ago!
He starts the letter ( to his friend Lucilius) by telling him:
“Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.”
He then goes on to quote Socrates:
“Why do you wonder why your globe-trotting does you no good, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels”
It’s great. He’s basically telling his friend: Dude, you need to look in the mirror.
I feel we’ve all done or thought something like this. “This cold weather is making me depressed. I’ve had it. I need to move to California or someplace warm. That will get rid of my troubles”. Or “I’m done with this place. The women/men here are all losers.”
It’s usually not true. The change should begin within.
Okay, so maybe you think this not so earth shattering. You may have even thought this yourself – but what he goes on to say, really made me sit back and say “wow!”.
“You rush here and there, to rid yourself of the burden that rests upon you, though it becomes more troublesome by reason of your very restlessness, just as in a ship the cargo when stationary makes no trouble, but when it shifts to this side or that, it causes the vessel to heel more quickly in the direction where it has settled. Anything you do tells against you, and you hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man.”
Awesome. Your running around actually makes things worse for you! Fragile! But he goes on to say if you work on yourself, you become antifragile.
“That trouble once removed, all change of scene will become a pleasure; though you may be driven to the uttermost ends of the earth, in whatever corner of a savage land you may find yourself, that place, however forbidding, will be to you a hospitable abode. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.”
I’m not sure what kind of therapy and self-help they had in ancient times, but in today’s world that could mean reading self-development books, talking things out with friends and family, getting therapy, or attending a 12-step program.
The key is that mental health is truly one of the building blocks of a successful and happy life, how ever you define it. We’ve known it for thousands of years.