One doesn’t usually think to go first to the Summa Theologica for advice on emotional matters. Yet in this post we shall indeed go to St Thomas here, seek advice on sorrow and consider some of his remedies for it. His advice is contained primarily in the Prima Secundae questions 35 – 37.
St. Thomas follows some of the eastern fathers in naming four kinds of sorrow (cf I IIae 35:8): Anxiety, Torpor, Pity, and Envy. Let’s look at each before examining some of the remedies he suggests:
1. Anxiety – is a kind of sorrow that emerges when the mind is weighed down with something so as to make escape seem impossible. Thomas’ definition is likely rooted in the Latin word angustia which means a narrow pass or straight. And thus anxiety tends to arise when we experience stress about a situation and find no room to maneuver, no way out. Anxiety also tends to regard the future, whereas pain regards to present. In pain, one can suffer in the moment about the situation, but knows that it will pass. But anxiety arises when we sense no determined end to the painful situation, no room to maneuver, and no way out.
Thomas calls anxiety a form of sadness. And so also in modern culture we often link anxiety and depression. This is because anxiety, as a sorrow, weighs us down. And just as joy and hope tend to expand and lighten, the sorrow of anxiety tends to crush and turn us inward. It makes us feel limited, hemmed in, confined, and heavily weighed down.
Someone once said that depression is anger turned inward. This makes sense, because anger results from fear and anxiety, and anger that cannot be expressed or managed becomes like a heavy weight or depression.
2. Torpor – is an uncommon word today, but literally, it refers to slowness of movement. When one is sorrowful or depressed, they are less motivated to move. St. Thomas says If, however, the mind be weighed down so much, even the limbs become motionless, which belongs to “torpor” (I IIae 35.8). Even ordinary talking with others, which is a kind of movement, seems difficult and arduous. The sorrow we call torpor, slows us down, and makes us feel rundown, sluggish.
Inactivity tends to build, and the less motivated we feel, the less we move, and the less we move, the less motivated we feel; a kind of downward spiral.
This is why those who are experiencing depression are often encouraged to find a friend that will make them move about, make them go places, even if they don’t feel like it. This helps to stave off the downward spiral the torpor brings.
The second two types of sorrow that relate more to our experience of other people’s circumstances these are pity and envy.
3. Pity – is the sorrow that we feel for the evil or misfortune endured by another person. But it is deeper than mere regret or perturbance. Pity is to experience the misfortune of another, as though it were our own.
Pity therefore implies a felt relationship. Perhaps it involves a close friend or family member, but it can also be the felt relationship of common humanity with the one who suffers.
Of itself, pity is a proper and good sorrow born in love. And yet, like any common human emotions or passions, it can be tainted by sinfulness. For example, sometimes pity results more from ego needs wherein one develops a sort of condescending attitude, needing to see others as beneath them or worse off.
And thus, what masquerades as pity is too easily and merely the drive to be in a superior position vis-à-vis another person. Patronizing attitudes are a misguided pity where we do for people what they should rightfully do for themselves, and too easily rob others of their dignity and their call to live responsible lives.
Hence, pity, like any sorrow has to be moderated and helped by reason, and also the understanding that it is not always possible or helpful to assist everyone, in every circumstance, simply because we feel sorrow for their condition. Sometimes the best we can do is listen to them, and pray for them.
Properly understood pity is a very beautiful emotion or passion rooted in love for others.
4. Envy – on the other hand, is a very dark sorrow rooted in sin. I have written more extensively on envy here: ENVY. For this reflection let it suffice to say that envy is a form of sorrow, or anger at the excellence, or good fortune of another person, because I take it somehow to lessen my own glory perceived excellence.
Envy is a particularly dark sin, because it seeks to destroy the goodness in others rather than to celebrate it. If I am jealous of you, you have something I want. But when I am envious, I seek to destroy that which is good in you. That is why St. Augustine called envy THE diabolical sin.
While discussing these four types of sorrow, St. Thomas also discusses some solutions to overcome them. We will look at them. But first, since envy sort of stands apart from the other forms of sorrow, due to its always sinful quality, the remedy for it is also unique. The remedy for envy are the gifts of joy and Zeal. When someone else has excellence or good fortune, the proper response to seek is to rejoice with them and for them, as members of one body. When one member is praised, all the members are praised, when one member is blessed, all the members are blessed. This is rational and reasonable we should seek from God the gift of joy at the excellence or good fortune of another person. We should also seek from God the virtue of zeal, wherein we seek to imitate, where possible, the excellence we observe in others.
Remedies – As for the other forms of sorrow, anxiety, torpor, and pity, Saint Thomas advises some of the following remedies:
1. Weeping – St. Thomas makes a very interesting observation and where there is laughter and smiling there is increased joy. But weeping, rather than increasing sorrow, diminishes it. How is this? He says, First, because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. (I IIae 38.2) Thus tears are the soul’s way to exhale sorrow. For when we weep, we release sorrow. Tears have a way of flushing it from our system.
It is a rather beautiful and freeing insight, especially for some of us who were raised with more Stoic notions. Many of us, especially men, were often told not to cry, not to show emotions. But of course such an approach seldom works, for the more we shut up our sorrow, the more the mind ruminates on it. Better to weep and let it run out like water through our tears.
2. Sharing our sorrows with friends – Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccl 4:10-11) Aristotle also says “Sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.”
The danger to avoid in sorrow is turning in on ourselves. We often need the perspective of others. And even if they don’t have many answers to give, or solutions to offer, simply speaking with them of our sorrow is itself a form of release, when it comes to sorrow. St. Thomas also adds: when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure….[and] every pleasure assuages sorrow [Ibid].
3. Contemplating the truth – The word philosophy, means “the love of wisdom,” and for those schooled by it, it provides a great consolation. St Thomas says the greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth. Now every pleasure assuages pain…hence the contemplation of truth assuages pain or sorrow, and the more so, the more perfectly one is a lover of wisdom. (I IIae 38.4)
This is even more so, with the contemplation of sacred truth, wherein we are reminded of our final glory and happiness if we persevere. Hence, we are given perspective and reminded of the passing qualities of sorrow in this life, that “trouble don’t last always”, and that the sufferings of this world cannot compare with the glory to be revealed.
4. Pleasure – We have already seen that St. Thomas says “pleasure assuages pain.” If one is physically tired, then sleep is a solution. And if one is in pain or sorrow, pleasure is also helpful remedy.
In sudden and heavy loss or sorrow, some period of quiet convalescence maybe called for. But, there comes a time when one must go forth and savor the better things in life once again.
One of the Psalms says When sorrow was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul (Ps 94:19). And hence, into pain, God will often send consoling pleasures which should be appreciated and savored, with proper moderation of course.
Every now and again as a priest, ministering to those where there has been a tragic or sudden loss of a spouse or other beloved family member, some of those who mourn almost feel guilty when going forth into the world again to enjoy the better things, laughter, good company, and entertainment. But it does little honor to those who died that we should also cease living. There comes a time after suitable in brief mourning one must go forth reclaim the joy of life again.
5. A Warm bath and naps – here is a rather charming remedy that St. Thomas recommends. Charming though it may seem, it is very good advice, but we are not simply soul, we are also body. And our bodies and souls interact and influence each other. Sometimes if the soul is vexed, caring for the body will bring soothing help, even to the soul. St Thomas says, Sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it. (I IIae 38.5)
On the one hand, we live in a culture that tends to overindulge the body. And yet, to overindulge the bodies not really to care for the body. Frankly some of our overindulgence stresses the body, and also thereby vexes the soul.
Surely what St. Thomas has in mind here is the proper care of the body. Whether that means a warm bath, or a gentle walk, or naps, the soothing care of the body can help alleviate sorrow.
Sorrow! It does find us. But in the midst of it, there are some gifts in strange packages. Simply to learn these simple truths can be a gift: that tears are the soul’s way to exhale, that we ought to reach out and stay in communion with others who can help us, that meditating on eternal truth is important, and that proper soothing care of ourselves has his place.
Sorrow also reminds us that this is not home, that we ought to set our gaze on the place where joy shall never end, even as we must journey through what is often a valley of tears. And yet, does not the Book of Revelation remind us to regard what the Lord will do for those who die in him:
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning, crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev 21:4)
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.