Times Columnist Laura Kennedy on Coping with Grief, Taming Anger and Stoic Life Lessons

It’s for good reason Laura Kennedy has earned herself an enormous following for her thoughtful “Coping” column in The Irish Times. She first started the column in early 2016 at age 27 after the passing of her mother, as an “attempt to use philosophy as the pragmatic skill it is to navigate the very natural and frightening grief.” The result has not only been the creation of a community of readers who are healing together, but an introduction to philosophy for many real, ordinary people. Aside from writing, Laura is currently working on finishing her Ph.D. in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. In our interview with her below she told us how the Stoics can help us with grief and anger, how her journey in philosophy began, Spinoza’s psychology and much more.

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You’re finishing your Ph.D in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. Pursuing a doctorate is a monumental challenge, especially one in philosophy. When did you first begin your studies in philosophy, and why was it so important for you that you decided to dedicate years of your life deeply studying it? Can you tell us a bit about your research as well?

I developed an informal relationship with philosophy in my teens, and actually first found myself interested in philosophy through a certain dissatisfaction with English literature, which had been what I wanted to study at university. Good literature stokes the philosophical questions that are already roiling around inside us. I would read a great novel or poem and feel that it gestured to important insights, but left them floating tethered beneath a choppy surface. It took me a while to realise that works of literature usually examine philosophical questions by superimposing a lens through which the reader is expected to consider the work and world. The philosophical questions raised aren’t directly unpacked or often even delineated. It wasn’t until a copy of Plato’s Republic landed in my hands that I realised the meat and potatoes of my interest lay in philosophy; here was the mental stuff that could sate my curiosity about people and the world. It wasn’t until I went on to study Philosophy and English Literature as an undergraduate that all these suspicions were confirmed: I was less interested in the analysis of literature than in the joy of reading books. Ideas were another matter.

Philosophy terrified me. The first couple of weeks of my undergraduate degree felt like learning to read a new language. I was astonished to see what looked to me like the mental acrobatics that my Professors could perform. The knowledge I had taken for granted was melted away, and I was frightened and thrilled by the realisation that understanding even basic concepts was an active process, and not a passive one. I decided to fully dedicate myself to it once I realised the wonderful tragedy of serious philosophical study. It is Plato’s cave in microcosm —once you delve deeply enough to see that the world necessarily cannot be what you had taken it for granted to be, it is hard to go back to the shadows. That isn’t at all to say that philosophers have a better grip on what is than anyone else, but they should have a heightened awareness of how much they don’t know. It seems impossible to me to come to that realisation and then go about your business as normal.

My own research focuses on Spinoza’s psychology as laid out in his Ethics and its influences on fundamental concepts within early psychology which still impact how we think about emotions in particular today. I like the concept of philosophy as a pragmatic skill, and there is much overlap between Spinoza and the Stoics. My interest in emotion and related concepts like free will is what drew me to Plato as a teenager, and to the Stoics and Spinoza later on.

 

You’ve clearly read and studied the Stoics. What are the 1-3 most important lessons you’ve picked from them that you regularly reflect on?

I’m particularly interested in Stoic accounts of anger. So many of our emotions can be implosive, with most of the real mechanism of them occurring beneath the surface like a serene looking duck whose strange little feet are flapping mercilessly under the water’s surface. Anger is an explosive emotion, meaning that it instantly becomes the problem of everyone else around us. It can also be one of the ugliest and least noble emotions, and is associated with many of the worst errors we make in the course of our lives.

I found Seneca’s theory of anger as a misplaced expectation incredibly helpful, and I think of it if I find myself irked by an inability to find my keys, or the less than ideal actions of others. By Seneca’s account, anger is not something which happens ‘to’ us, but an error of basic reasoning. I cannot expect to live in a world where babies don’t cry on planes, and I am not entitled to be angry about misplaced keys when I didn’t put them back in their usual spot. Moderating expectation – particularly in relation to things outside of our control, significantly mitigates the impulse to anger, or indeed the experience of the emotion itself.

Emotions — particularly powerful ones — always present themselves within our internal landscape as truthful accounts of that which is external to us. We think in the moment that we are upset because a colleague said something rude, or that we are angry because someone has treated us unjustly, or whatever. I’m always struck by Marcus Aurelius’ idea that our emotional responses do not exist in any way outside of our internal landscape; they are merely our projection of an external stimulus and the power it holds over us. The idea that pain, or anger, or any emotion is volitionally manufactured within us, or perhaps volitionally fed by us, is everything that is difficult and wonderful about stoicism. The responsibility always lies within the individual. This is freeing and irritating all at once.

Finally, I try to regularly remember Epictetus’ recommendation to put aside ego. To paraphrase him, it is impossible to learn what we think we already know. Now more than ever (in the current climate at least), both dialogue and dialectic are essential. It becomes impossible to share ideas if we decide what someone else thinks before we engage with them. I interpret this directive by Epictetus as recommending that we shut up and listen to one another without becoming overly mired in emotion or preconceived ideas.

 

Do you have a daily routine that incorporates any Stoic exercises? How has it benefited you? And do you have a favorite Stoic quote?

I don’t know if you could call it an exercise as much as a mindset, but I try to use Stoicism in daily life. Not in that way in which it is commonly (and rather unfairly) misinterpreted as being about denying or fighting our more earthly emotions and impulses, but in the way that Stoicism truly intends – to accept them, to understand that feelings do not logically entail any particular behavioural response, and to try to be accountable to myself. Every important lesson in Stoicism seems to lead back to personal responsibility, and that is where responsibility ultimately does lie.

I have a lot of favourite Stoic quotes, but the one that comes to mind now is Epictetus: ‘Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.’ I think we are all doomed to fail in this, but there’s honour in the endeavour.

 

You started your column Coping after the death of your mother, and you say that the “relationship with her was the defining one of my life.” If you’re comfortable, can you talk a bit about that moment and the decision to turn to writing as a means of understanding and coping through that period?

My mother was just 58 when she died, and I was 27. She raised my brother and I alone. Young people from the sort of background I come from don’t normally climb out of the circumstances of their birth, for many legitimate reasons. My mother, by sheer force of will and working several jobs, propelled my brother and I into third-level education and consequently out of the poverty we were born into. Her life was so difficult, and her death was so deeply unjust. She was about to reach a point in her life when things would get a little easier for her when she was diagnosed with one of the cruellest and most painful cancers a person can get. Though watching someone you love die is agonising, there is no time to feel disabling grief when the other person’s needs outweigh your own with such urgency. My mother’s illness was about her, and not me. Amidst her terrible pain and illness, she needed those around her to be mentally robust.

After her death, the sense of purpose and busy work that came with having practicalities to manage went away, and there was only the space that she left behind, which seemed to expand as I reached into it. The column was an attempt to use philosophy as the pragmatic skill it is to navigate the very natural and frightening grief that comes not just with losing a loved one, but coming to terms with the arbitrariness of such a loss which can look (if one chooses to see it that way) like an instance of cruelty. There is a period after you lose a loved one during which everyone around you —colleagues, friends and so on —will cut you some slack, be sympathetic and understanding. However, long before you feel sturdy enough to march into it, normal life will resume and others will cease to make allowances for you. This is only as it should be, but it is very challenging. The column was at first my account of coping with normal life with what felt for a time like an open wound.

 

Looking back now, thinking and reflecting on grief for so long, what would you tell someone who just lost a significant other, a close family member, or anyone important in their lives? How do they even begin to orient themselves in that difficult time?

That is a difficult question to answer, since everyone is different. It truly does help a little (even the most helpful things only help a little), to adopt a Stoic attitude. By this, I do not mean any form of self-struggle or denial, but rather that most comforting element of Stoicism — acceptance. Stoicism is less concerned with how we feel than what we do with how we feel. In the midst of grief, there is little internal space to do anything but feel overwhelmed by the new terrain and trajectory of your life. Both are suddenly and irrevocably altered when someone integral to you dies. Accepting the sense of despair and loss this brings about is important. We still need to try to exercise a sense of control over what we do with those emotions. We not only mourn the loss of the person, but the sense we carried with us of what our future life would look like with them in it. Grief is wading uphill through a cold, viscous liquid. The pain is bone-deep. It is lasting and ugly but it isn’t necessarily hopeless, and as time passes small moments of distraction will feel like patches of dry land you can rest on. I would advise talking regularly with someone you trust, trying to eat and sleep well (these will both be very difficult for a while) and being kind to yourself about your feelings and impulses while, like a true Stoic, still holding yourself accountable for what you choose to do with them.