When my wife was seriously ill some time ago, people from our church contacted me to ask if we needed anything. When I replied that it was nice of people to offer meals but that Teri’s chief problem was simple loneliness — no one to talk to, as she lay in her sickbed, except a very busy husband — people were, not to put too fine a point on it, shocked. I had said something unexpectedly shameful. One person even commiserated with Teri: how difficult it must have been for her to have a husband who so openly admitted that she had personal needs in her illness. (To be sure, there were also deeply sympathetic friends, though not as many as we had expected to find.)
Of course, this whole situation speaks of more than Stoicism: it speaks perhaps most eloquently of a way of middle-class American life so consistently hectic that the one thing you simply cannot ask from other people is their time. But it was nevertheless clear that what we were supposed to do was to say that we were doing just fine and didn’t need a thing, though under considerable pressure we might consent to receiving a meal or two. To admit that illness is worsened by loneliness was several steps beyond the socially acceptable. So says the Stoic creed, and most of the time what I say in return is: To hell with it.
This really causes me to wince, as I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Midwestern Stoic who’s trying to undo that programming to the extent that it interferes with my full participation in the Body of Christ.
The Stoicism described here isn’t just uncomfortable with an admission of loneliness because it’s emotional openness; it can’t bear to talk of loneliness because that feeling is the direct consequence of so much Stoicism. If we refuse to let others help us, or refuse to help, we are so alone. If we refuse to share our inner lives in any measure, we can never know or be known. That’s the poison of American Stoicism (also known as “politeness”).