Perhaps in our daily afflictions we miss certain remedies that are right at hand. Thomas Aquinas names two that might seem surprising in their simplicity: sleep, and talking to oneself.
“Sorrow is mitigated after sleep.” When we wake up in the morning we can have a fresh perspective. Often what seemed an insurmountable problem the night before becomes at least tolerable the next morning. At issue here is not forgetfulness. Denial and avoidance are not helpful means of addressing affliction. Rather, I think, in play here is a straight-forward somatic reality: we are more capable of thinking clearly when we are rested. Perhaps also by a loving Providential disposition morning conduces more to a genuine hopefulness.
Sleeping enough and sleeping well are of course part of this picture. Carving out enough time for slumber can be challenging, but it is in our power. Yet what about the quality of our sleep? A significant aspect of this, too, Aquinas suggests is somewhat in our control. “Images at night [i.e., in dreams] are usually formed by what we think about during the day.” A bracing thought indeed that we are influencing our sleep-time with our waking deliberations and imaginations. But Aquinas characteristically has an encouraging suggestion: the last thoughts before going to sleep most proximately affect our sleep. Here then is an easy starting point: the recitation of a line from scripture or other positive maxims can be very fruitful.
And then there is the second remedy for affliction: “the consolation wise men give themselves by the deliberation of reason.” Here is a remedy so simple yet so rich. In speaking of ‘wise men’ Aquinas surely indicates this remedy will take some work on our part:
“For when wise men are alone and removed from the distraction of men and commerce, then they can speak more within themselves thinking something through according to reason.”
This is something at which we can aim. But don’t we already ‘think about’ our sorrows, perhaps too much? Here we should distinguish indulging in regret, self-pity, and what-ifs, from making an effort rationally to think through our affliction or sorrow. I think I do the latter much less than the former. To have the good kind of interior conversation– “thinking something through according to reason!”– I can resolve to step back and make space to do it.
Another key aspect of this point is easy to miss. If “thinking something through according to reason” will always aid in dealing with sorrow and affliction, there is an implicit confidence here that a well-functioning reason (and the wiser we become the more this is our reason) can grasp at least enough of the situation to find some consolation in a deeper view of it.
This does not imply that we can ‘sort it all out’ and see everything with complete clarity. It also does not imply that clear thinking will remove affliction or reveal there is no reason for sorrow! But it does imply this: from the deeper, fuller view, our situation is always better than we have yet realized.
This confidence that Aquinas has in human reason is quite remarkable. Yet in the end it is not so much a confidence in human reason—which by the way to become wise requires a graced divine assistance—as a confidence in the Providence that governs all things. A Providence that offers such ordinary gifts as sleep, and the power for interior reflection, to make all the difference in the vicissitudes of life. ~ ~ ~
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Image: Adolph Menzel (German, 1815-1905)
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