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The Stoic Approach to Love
How my dog–and Stoicism–helped me find a better way to love
Five years ago, my partner and I decided to get a dog. We picked up a ten-week-old puppy, whom we affectionately named Hazel because her immediately sweet demeanor and deep brown coat reminded me of that wonderfully sweet hazelnut chocolate spread, Nutella. Hazel was so tiny, I could cup her in my hands. She had a very playful and inquisitive nature about her, more so than other puppies we’d had growing up. The connection was immediate and intense.
When we took her home, we made sure to take her to the vet to get a clean bill of health. They quickly identified a particularly strong heart murmur, which concerned us–the place we picked her up from showed us medical records that did not indicate any murmur. The vet attempted to assuage our fears; puppies often have heart murmurs that they eventually outgrow after a few months. We asked if we should change anything about her lifestyle, they told us it wasn’t necessary. We took Hazel to the vet for monthly check-ins. In each one, the heart murmur was still strong. In each one, the vet told us not to worry. So we allowed her to continue romping around the dog park, going on hikes with us, and training her to be our adventure pup we could take anywhere.
One day, when running in the park with her friends, Hazel very suddenly slowed down, looked for us, and then collapsed. We rushed her to the emergency vet, who informed us she was suffering from congestive heart failure. She was only six months old. The vets said she would have to stay overnight and that she may not make it to the next morning. My partner and I went home and both wept. I was a mess; my childhood dog that I grew up with passed away only a year prior. We got a few restless hours of sleep and woke up to a call from the vet. Hazel made it through the night–we could go get our girl.
The emergency vets explained that what the other vet thought was a benign heart murmur was actually a severe heart defect she’d had from birth. They told us that our adventure pup could not go on long hikes, couldn’t play in the park for extended periods of time or at high intensity, couldn’t do all the things we’d planned to do together. They told us that they thought she had maybe another six months left before her heart gave out. We decided that we would give her the best six months a puppy could possibly ask for, and that we would cherish every day we got with her.
Five years ago, I also found Stoicism. Before what happened, I recall reading the following passage:
With regard to whatever objects… are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are… if you embrace your child or your wife, that you embrace a mortal—and thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it. - Epictetus; Enchiridion § III
Initially, I found that passage callous. But after Hazel had gone through that ordeal, I came back to it realizing the profundity of its sentiment. When we accept that what we love can and will come to an end, it frees us of fear and attachment, allowing us to love deeply and fully in every moment.
How a Stoic loves
The Stoics argued that one could not properly love without properly understanding virtue. They did not shirk or avoid their intimate or loving relationships; nor did they cling to them like a hopeless romantic. Stoic love is a love of appreciation rather than a love of attachment. If you are attached or clinging to that which you love, it becomes suffocating for the subject of your affection and opens you up to unnecessary suffering and clouded judgment. A love of appreciation is joyful of the reason you loved someone or something in the first place. It cherishes the time spent together; and during time apart, you have only fond memories. It is a wholly positive experience for those involved. And when it is over, there is no need to despair.
As Seneca often did in his Letters to Lucilius, I will reference some profound wisdom–not from a Stoic– but from someone whom I would never agree with on most things:
If you love a flower, don’t pick it up.
Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love.
So if you love a flower, let it be.
Love is not about possession.
Love is about appreciation.
- Osho Rajneesh
Just as love is not about possession, think of the love you have of nature as you go on a hike. You pass by a thousand little wonders. The chipmunk that quirkily rests atop a stone. The leaves of a tree rippling softly in a breeze. The clouds floating and dissipating high in the sky above. The creek gurgling below your feet. You love each moment and cherish them equally. Yet, as you pass them by during your hike, you do not despair for having passed them. You appreciated that experience and that moment.
So it is with the love you have for another person or pet. You love the experience of them, each moment you spend. But when you pass them by or they you, that is as natural as continuing along in your journey. So, do not despair when they are no longer in your life–appreciate them for the experiences you shared, the lessons you learned, and the love you have for them.
By the way, you should know that Hazel is what her cardiologists now call “exceptional.” Through our great care, and her great stubbornness, she just passed her fifth birthday with that same inquisitive and playful energy. She’s a long way past what we now affectionately refer to as her “expiration date.” Her “adventures” now consist of pleasant walks with her mom and dad, playing a short while in the park, before coming home and taking a snooze on our couch. She may not be the adventure pup we thought we’d get, but every day with her continues to be a gift.