An illustration of a stone hand reaching a human hand under a starry sky against a beach backdrop

‘More stars than grains of sand’: how reading the Stoics helped me through a family crisis

When Alzheimer's and heart disease hit her family in the midst of the pandemic, Octavia Bright turned to ancient philosophy for hope and inspiration.

Octavia Bright

As Tier 4 bled into another national lockdown, I thought of something my dad used to say whenever things got tough: there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on earth. Meaning, you and your troubles are really pretty insignificant.

It might sound dismissive, but it’s actually a liberating perspective to make oneself and one’s pain the right size. My dad now has late-stage Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home and, because of Covid, we have been separated since March last year. The arrival of the pandemic suddenly reframed the long limbo of his illness as a newly collective limbo of lockdowns, separation and isolation. My family and I went from feeling like a lone star to part of a confused and grieving constellation.

Last year was a hard slog full of tragedy, and as I limped towards its finish line I thought I’d surely seen the worst of it. But just as we went into Tier 4, my mother was diagnosed with serious heart disease. We learned she needed urgent bypass surgery but that she would have to wait because the NHS was already overwhelmed.

Essentially, true strength is feeling your feelings and doing it anyway

I found myself turning to the Stoics, and I’m sure one of the reasons I haven’t gone completely to pieces is because I’ve come to view the last year through the lens of their Ancient Greek philosophy. Reading and writing have always offered me solace in times of difficulty, and it’s a natural impulse to seek out words that might help me make sense of the world and my experience within it.

In this winter of discontent, I’ve discovered that above all else, I need a little philosophical support. The Stoics believed that resilience is not a finite resource but something one can cultivate and build, a helpful principle when in the midst of a long stretch of emotional hardship that shows little sign of easing up. “Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure”, writes Marcus Aurelius – recognising your own fortitude is a comforting practice.

There’s a misconception that the Stoics were all about repressing feelings and gritting one’s teeth, and misguided interpretations are often used to support the argument that strength is simply repression, when in fact it’s anything but. Stoic philosophy proposes something far more useful: that you can rise to a challenge without denying how you feel about it; you can feel pain and fear and still find calmness and bravery within. Essentially, true strength is feeling your feelings and doing it anyway. Admitting and accepting your anxiety about a situation and facing up to it alongside those feelings is a much more productive and compassionate way to deal with the human condition and its inevitable moments of suffering. No one is entitled to a life free from pain, and you cannot escape the inevitability of death and ill health. You can, however, control how you respond when they happen to you: peace lies in acceptance.

In this portrait of a man and a place, my dad and I found both escape and reality, both art and truth

I must admit I’m surprised that in the strange experience of parental role-reversal, I’ve found the firm, no-nonsense voices of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius comforting. They can be austere and occasionally joyless, and there are things in their teachings I firmly disagree with (Seneca was not pro laughter, more fool him), but their counsel to find serenity in adapting oneself to the present rather than projecting into the unknown has never felt more prescient than now.

And part of that adaptation lies in facing one’s reality. Perhaps this is why, over the past 12 months, I’ve been drawn to reading about grief and loss, and in particular the loss of a parent. I discovered a deep solidarity in the pages of A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir’s unvarnished description of her mother’s decline and eventual death, because these experiences are at once intensely singular and utterly universal. Earlier in the course of dad’s illness I was too raw to read something so direct about the end of life, but after years of his gradual deterioration I have built up my resilience, and I want to face the truth about things I previously did not want to know.

Last spring when even window visits at the care home were impossible, I would read to dad down the phone. He was no longer capable of conversation, but his mind was still lively and I wanted to find ways to keep him engaged. I tried reading to him from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, an old favourite of ours, but in the end the thing that worked best was an essay by John Berger, The Red Tenda of Bologna, a tribute to Berger’s beloved uncle that also explores his grief at the uncle’s death. In this portrait of a man and a place, my dad and I found both escape and reality, both art and truth. Transported alongside Berger beneath Bologna’s famous colonnades, we were reminded of the enduring power of love, and how the links between people extend beyond death, carried across space and time in the memories of the living.

Everything gets distilled and becomes astonishingly simple: in these precious moments together, how best can you love and be loved?

Of course, where Alzheimer’s leads, ultimately no memories can follow. Loving someone with the condition really brings home the vitality of the present moment. This stage of my dad's illness has landed him in an idealised Stoic state where nothing but the present exists. It's inspiring: there are no expectations, and so there are no disappointments. Everything gets distilled and becomes astonishingly simple: in these precious moments together, how best can you love and be loved?

Equally, when it comes to my fears for my mother's health, I try to live moment to moment with her where I can. In spite of everything, we managed to have a beautiful, simple Christmas in our support bubble, gently cooking and watching the Muppets Christmas Carol, and walking to wave at dad through the care home window. We are careful with one another because we are more aware than ever of the finite nature of life.

This week, just as the vaccines are finally rolling out to the most vulnerable, we learned that dad has tested positive for Covid. It’s another level of torturous anxiety, and I’m finding the only way through is to acknowledge and accept my fear, and remember that, in the words of Seneca, “the whole future lies in uncertainty”. I’m sure the Stoics would approve of dad’s favourite aphorism about the stars and the grains of sand, so when my mind runs headlong into negative outcomes I try to remember their multitudes, the fact that all life must end, but that for the moment we are all still here.

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Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

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