The Benefits of Stoicism

I remember the moment I was called stoic live on national television. September 2nd, CNN Legal View, Ashleigh Banfield. I sensed her going in that direction as she started the sentence, but I wasn’t sure what descriptive word she would land on, so I couldn’t prepare my response as she was speaking. “Stoic.” There was a split second where I thought “Am I really stoic?” but I didn’t have time to analyze that deep-seeded question, internally, on live television before responding - so I just rolled with it. My response came from the heart, which was the only thing I had left at that point. The truth is that no one sees me behind closed doors, in private, except my family and close friends. I feel like part of my heart has been ripped out, part of my soul. I love Ben. I miss him so much. There are no words for this.

After a few weeks of consideration, I believe she was correct. Soon after Ben’s death, a therapist told us that the human brain can only handle so much trauma at once. To survive, it compartmentalizes before catatonia takes over, moments where the brain shuts down. I’ve come to realize that I have what I call “buckets.” Many buckets. And, I put them on shelves in my brain, take some down at points, keep others stored away – as they are all so very heavy, filled with the emotions of July 7th and the aftermath, that I would surely succumb to their weight bearing down on me all at once. The public sees me when I’ve taken my advocacy bucket off the shelf, supported by stoicism, and briefly when my grief bucket tips over a bit. But, most of the buckets are privately mine, and I spend the better part of every day pushing them back in their place on the shelf in my brain, as they teeter-totter under the vibrations of our sorrow and pain and exhaustion, until I can finally let them fall when I am safely behind closed doors with family and close friends.

What the public didn’t see on the Today’s Show or CNN was Kyle standing right off-camera, watching, listening, tearing up at times. Yes, I support him, but he does the same for me. The Sunday before the interviews, I’d told him I needed him to come with me. I couldn’t do it without him, in fact. And, that is also part of my truth. Our truth.

Kyle and I went for a walk together in Central Park right after the CNN interview. Our path took us past some of our favorite spots, with many memories. Past Heckscher Playground and the Sheep Meadow where we had lain with Ben and the girls several times the summer before. I took his hand, he paused, and finally talked about his emotions from the day. “I couldn’t hear what you and Ashleigh were saying but I could see the picture of Ben right behind you on the set, and I just looked up once, pointed, and the only words that could come out of my mouth were ‘That’s my son.’” His voice quivered. Then, the first tears of the day flowed freely down my face. I felt that all-to-common pain in my chest, and it took my breath away momentarily. I’d held it together far too long. The bucket was falling. I had been able to see the pictures of Ben on the camera in front of us, but compartmentalized that portion, and often avoided looking in that direction altogether because….well, because I had to remain stoic to achieve my objective that day. My mind had to remain clear, uncluttered with the pieces of my heart that, being shattered, push their way into my consciousness at inconvenient times. As we heard the happy laughter of children playing in Central Park, I responded to Kyle, my voice breaking, “Yeah, but you know, I don’t want to say ‘Look, that’s Ben on CNN.’ I want to be able to point one day and say ‘Look that’s Ben, playing soccer.’ And, I don’t get to do that. I just miss him. So much. That's why we are doing this today.” To which he responded, “I miss him too,” and we walked and cried.

It was in that moment that I realized why I have become an advocate and why I have to do it stoically. I can’t get my Benjabear back, I can’t rewind and change the events of July 7th. It is out of my control. And, that bucket, well that bucket of my loss as a mother, I have to keep on a shelf for times when I can even begin to delve into those emotions, they are so overpowering. But, I can control my life from this point forward, make choices to ensure others never have to think “I wish I could see my baby playing soccer.” And, to accomplish that, it takes a small measure of stoicism.

Reading through the Forbes article, Five Reasons Why Stoicism Matters Today, by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, I began to understand that the connotation of the term stoicism has become twisted in modern times, in an age where over-sharing and emotional displays are commonplace, accepted and, often, expected – leaving little room for an ancient philosophy built on emotional control. But, there are benefits.

Stoicism evolved in a time of turmoil, a chaotic world on the edge, “in a world falling apart” - Athens, Greece in the early 3rd century BC. Its the natural philosophical backbone for Christianity, the military (prisoners of war) and leaders. In the words of Goodman and Soni:

Stoicism tells us that no happiness can be secure if its rooted in changeable, destructible things. Our bank accounts can grow or shrink, our careers can prosper or falter, even our loved ones can be taken from us. There is only one place the world can’t touch: our inner selves, our choice at every moment to be brave, to be reasonable, to be good. The world might take everything from us; Stoicism tells us that we all have a fortress inside.

The night of July 7th, my world fell apart. It seemed to have been destroyed in an instant. In the blink of an eye. I felt like I had lost everything. Life spun out of control. As my body began to go into shock – legs too wobbly to stand, overcome with chills, shaking, an out-of-body feeling, where I could form no words to respond to questions – I found a way to survive. There was a moment when a female physician, with a nurse and therapist standing nearby, took me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes, and calmed me down by stating, very matter of fact: “Lindsey, you are in control -- of everything from this point forward. It is your decision. You. Are. In. Control.” In that instant, when my brain could not even function to imagine our life moving forward, the seeds of stoicism were planted.

Our tragedy – there are no words really. Losing my son. My joy. The complexities that will lie within us for the remainder of our lives. It was just another day, and in an instant, my world crumbled. But, that night, I had a decision to make. And, I did.