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The Socialization of Pain and Catastrophizing

Today, I reflect on Letter LXXVIII of Seneca's Moral Letters. In this passage, Seneca talks to Lucilius about what scholars categorize as "On Wisdom and Retirement." Toward the middle of the letter, Seneca writes:

"So do not go out of your way to make your troubles any more tiresome than they are and burden yourself with fretting. Provided that one's thinking has not been adding anything to it, pain is a trivial sort of thing. If by contrast you start to give yourself encouragement, saying to yourself, 'It's nothing - or nothing much anyway - let's stick it'll be over presently,' then in thinking it a trivial matter you will be ensuring that it actually is. The love of power or money or luxurious living are not the only things which are guided by popular thinking. We take our cue from people's thinking even in the way we feel pain."

In thinking about my own experience with painful situations, I notice this kind of societal influence on my emotions. There have been times when, much to my surprise, I did not feel as melancholy or jubilant as I expected. What's even more troubling about these recollections is the fact that I felt a sense of shame because I was not in accordance with the popular emotions of the specific time or place.

I distinctly remember one specific example. When I was younger, I remember going to this funeral of someone I did not know. The person was of some acquaintance to my mom, and I did not mind going for support (even though my mom did not know the deceased individual as well). I remember looking at all of the defeated and saddened people and I remember feeling shame in not reacting in like manner at that particular time and place. I felt like I was doing something wrong; surely, I thought, one should be negatively affected by the loss of someone's life.

With the current pandemic, I feel like there is a comparable effect in play. Should we be wailing and angry at our government? All the mainstream news sources are doing it! When I reflect on this situation, I find solace in the fact that nothing that is happening with the virus is anything new. Historically, plagues have ravaged the earth for most of human history. It is better to weigh ourselves instead of tacitly accepting the crazed feelings resulting from ridiculous societal expectations.

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