Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1867, etching and aquatint on paper.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote,
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, If I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?"
—But it’s nicer here …
So you were born to feel “nice"? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
—But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts. Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?
It’s a beautiful passage, and a good introduction to the Stoic philosophy that follows. For an emperor, too, it seems very sound counsel. But for anyone under the pall of depression, it’s some of the stupidest advice ever written.
And some of the most pernicious. Marcus Aurelius, presumably, is addressing merely the lazy, not those who are weighed down by their brains and bodies and accidents of life and chemistry. And yet, this still seems to be the going line on these things: Get up! Pull yourself together! Look at nature! Take a walk! When the very prospect of showering seems beyond comprehension, though, these are so many abstractions, and the exhortations yet another despair. It’s one more reason to feel bad.
Bad—what an inadequate word.
You don’t love yourself enough—well, no. We live in a time that tells you to live lavishly because you’re worth it. But what about those moments when you’re not worth it? Or can’t conceive of a world where you ever will be worth it? Self-care is so often conflated with self-indulgence that either can become unthinkable. And self-respect? That’s an idea for a world with a past, and a future, and more of a present than the pervasive misery of isolation. And yet, the body and the mind help us forget these things.
One day, in a very low moment, I went to the bookstore and looked at the section of self-help books marked “Happiness." It was a vast collection, spanning some four shelves: cute books filled with cartoons and happy suggestions. Earnest books about changing your outlook. Practical books that laid out day-by-day plans and encouraged you to write positive messages in the margin. The words danced before my eyes and I felt more alone than ever. I wanted the book that didn’t tell me I was beautiful; I wanted the one that told me to keep makeup wipes by the bed for those days I couldn’t manage to wash my face. I didn’t want to read Emily Dickinson; I wanted to be told to keep my pills close at hand, and to have a set of clean, smooth sheets to put on the bed. I did not want to be told it would pass; I wanted to be told to throw all my mess in an extra-large tote bag and stow it out of my sightlines. I wanted the perverse mindfulness of the eye of the storm.
Later, I knew, there would be walks. There would be poems and cheerful aphorisms. There would be the beauty of nature, the ability to remember what happiness feels like. There would be helping people. There would be looking forward to things. And there would be puppies, literally—I had plans to visit a friend with a puppy later that day. But in the midst of it, these things are present only as a vacuum.
I didn’t buy a book that day. Instead I went home, and I put the new sheets on the bed, because the soft coolness against your cheek, at least, does not make things worse. And by the next day I had forgotten what the emptiness was like, and I wondered why I had not simply taken the Stoic’s advice and gone to work.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
by Sadie Stein