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Sunday, May 24, 2015

62 A.D.: Seneca's view of life helped him cope with asthma

I am in love with Seneca the Younger.  He was an asthmatic with allergies just like me, only he suffered with the disease over 2,000 years ago.  His descriptions of the disease were simply amazing, yet more impressive was the way he learned to cope, and the way he wrote about how asthma made him a better person simply for having experienced it.   

And even more amazing is the methods that he developed to conquer his asthma. He wrote that you cannot dwell on the past and say things like, "Oh why me?" You cannot say things like, "No one had ever been in such a bad state." You cannot say things like, "The torments and hardships I endured." These thoughts should be banned, he wrote, because they are of little use. Dewlling on what ailed you in the past does you no good. (1)

Likewise, he wrote that you cannot worry about an asthma attack that will strike you in the future either, because that will do you no good.  What you need to do is try to make the best of your life right now.  You need to clear your mind of such evil thoughts.

In his 78th letter to his friend Lucius he wrote that those who suffer through the battle of an asthma attack are like the boxer who suffers even during the trials of training. He wrote that a boxer does this for wealth and fame. He wrote, "Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wealth or garland, not in trumpet calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamaiton of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for every once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated." (1)

He wrote this over 2,000 years before I wrote my post The Seven Benefits of having Asthma and Seven Ways Asthma has Benefited my Life. I wrote pretty much what Seneca wrote to his friend Lucius, only I wrote it before I ever even discovered who Seneca was.
To manage his asthma he didn't rely on witchcraft, or magic, or prayer, nor did he rely on remedies based on some poppycock superstitions or false logic. The way he learned to cope with his disease was by eating well, staying in shape, and by having many friends, diverting your mind so you don't think about the pains in your life. He generally wrote about the importance of relaxing and soothing your mind to remedy pain or dyspnea or any physical ailment. Today we refer to this as relaxation exercises.

He wrote that to think about the misery you put up with in the past, or to fear the future is senseless and will only increase your anxiety and make your disease and your life even worse; that fear and anxiety will only bring on an attack of "gasping for breath" or catarrh. (1)

He said, "'I am suffering from pain,' you may say.  'Well, does it stop your suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion" (1)

He continued, "Plus there are men who have suffered greater sufferings than you have and survived.  In this way you should consider yourself fortunate.  You could have something worse, like "having your arms stretched on a rack or burnt alive... There have been men who have undergone these experiences and never uttered a groan... Surely pain is something you will want to smile at after this." (10

"But my illness has taken me away from my duties and won't allow me to achieve anything," he wrote as another example of a common complaint of the suffering. (1)

He said:
"It is your body, not your mind as well, that is in the grip of ill health.  Hence it may slow the feet of a runner and make the hands of a smith or cobbler less efficient, but if your mind is by habit of an active turn you may still give instruction and advice, listen and learn, inquire and remember.  Besides, if you meet sickness in a sensible manner, do you really think you are achieving nothing?  You will be demonstrating that even when one cannot always beat it one can always bear an illness.  There is room for heroism, I assure you, in bed as anywhere else.  War and the battle-front are not the only spheres in which proof is to be had of a spirited and fearless character:  a person's bravery is no less evident under the bed-clothes. There is something it lies open to you to achieve, and that is making the fight with illness a good one.  If its threats or importunities leave you quite unmoved, you are sending others a signal example.  How much scope there would be for renown if whenever we were sick we had an audience of spectators!  Be your own spectator anyway, your own applauding audience." (1)
In essence, he is saying that you are alive and therefore you have a gift to offer to the world if you see it and if you use it.  Your job is to bring yourself up, rise up, and make something of what you have left in life.  Use what is not ailing you: your brain, your ability to speak or listen, your ability to read and write and to communicate ideas. 

The benefits I wrote about are perspective on life and an appreciation for every breath, a sense of vulnerability in that you know that you will not live forever and that you must get what you can out of life, and give what you can give while you are here.  You know that you might die tomorrow, so you live forever today.  You touch as many people as you can.  You read instead of doing things that might trigger your asthma. You write and communicate what you learn.  And, in this way, you are in effect making a difference in the world with the faculties you have left.

He said:
"Moreover, even if death is on the way with a summons for him, though it comes all too early, though it cut him off in the prime of his life, he has experienced every reward that the very longest life can offer, having gained extensive knowledge of the world we live in, having learnt that time adds nothing to the finer things in life.  Whereas any life must needs seem short to people who measure it in terms of pleasure which through their empty nature are incapable of completeness." (1)
We must never let the things that ail us set us back.  We must continue on and give what we can in this life.
  1. Campbell, Robin, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, "Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, " Penguin, 1969, letter LXXVII.
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