Five Remedies for Sorrow from St. Thomas Aquinas
Jan. 27, 2019
Community in Mission
One doesn’t usually go to the St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica for advice on emotional matters. But on today’s feast of St. Thomas we shall indeed go there to seek advice on sorrow and consider some of St. Thomas’ 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 - This is a kind of sorrow that emerges when the mind is so weighed down by something that escape seem impossible. St. Thomas’ definition is likely rooted in the Latin word angustia, which is a narrow pass or straight. And thus anxiety tends to arise when we experience stress over a situation and find no room to maneuver, no way out. Anxiety tends to pertain to the future, in contrast with pain, which generally pertains to the present. With pain, one can suffer about a situation in the moment yet recognize that it will pass. Anxiety arises when we sense no definitive end to the painful situation.
St. Thomas calls anxiety a form of sadness. 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 – This word is not used very frequently today. Literally, it refers to slowness of movement. When one is sorrowful or depressed, one is 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 conversation with others, which is a kind of movement, can seem difficult. The sorrow we call torpor slows us down and makes us feel rundown and sluggish.
Inactivity tends to build. The less motivated we feel, the less we move; the less we move, the less motivated we feel. It’s a kind of downward spiral.
This is why those who are experiencing depression are often encouraged to find friends that will make them move, make them go places—even if they don’t feel like it. This helps to stave off the downward spiral that torpor can cause.
The second two types of sorrow (pity and envy) relate more to our experience of other people’s circumstances.
3. Pity - This is the sorrow that we feel for the evil or misfortune endured by another person. But it is deeper than mere regret or perturbation. Pity is experiencing 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 out of love. And yet, like any common human emotion or passion, it can be tainted by sinfulness. For example, sometimes pity results more from egotistical needs, wherein one develops a sort of condescending attitude, needing to see others as beneath him or worse off than he is.
And thus what masquerades as pity is too easily merely the drive to be in a superior position with respect to another person. Patronizing attitudes are a misguided form of pity such that we do for people what they should rightfully do for themselves, thus robbing them of their dignity and their call to live responsible lives.
Hence pity, like any sorrow, has to be moderated and helped by reason and by the understanding that it is not always possible or even helpful to assist everyone in every circumstance simply because we feel sorrow for their condition. Sometimes the best we can do is to listen to them and pray for them.
Properly understood, pity is a very beautiful emotion rooted in love for others.
4. Envy - On the other hand, envy is a very dark sorrow and is rooted in sin. I have written more extensively on envy here: Envy Is a Diabolical Sin. For this reflection, however, I will just summarize by saying that envy is a form of sorrow or anger at the excellence of another person, because I take it as lessening my own.
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 of you, I seek to destroy that in you which is good. That is why St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin.
While discussing these four types of sorrow, St. Thomas also discusses some ways to overcome them. We will look at remedies for all four of them. Because envy stands apart from the other sorrows due to its sinful quality, the remedies for it are quite different. The remedies for envy are the gifts of joy and zeal. When someone else possesses goodness or excellence, the proper response is to rejoice with them and for them, as members of one body. When one member is praised, all members are praised; when one member is blessed, all members are blessed. This is rational and reasonable; we should seek from God the gift of joy at the goodness or excellence of another person. We should also seek from God the virtue of zeal, wherein we seek to imitate, where possible, the goodness or excellence we observe in others.
Remedies - As for the other forms of sorrow (anxiety, torpor, and pity), St. Thomas advises some of the following remedies:
1. Weeping - St. Thomas makes the very interesting observation that where there is laughter and smiling there is increased joy. But weeping, rather than increasing sorrow, actually 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 sensibilities. Many of us, especially men, were told not to cry, not to show our 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 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 said, “A 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 us, simply talking to them about our sorrow is itself a form of release. 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 literally means “the love of wisdom,” and for those schooled in it, it can provide 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. We are given perspective and reminded of the passing quality of sorrow in this life, that “trouble don’t last always,” and that the sufferings of this world cannot compare with the glory that is 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. 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.
The Book of Psalms says,When sorrow was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul (Ps 94:19). In the midst of pain, God will often send consoling pleasures, which should be appreciated and savored (with proper moderation, of course).
As a priest, I sometimes minister to those who have suddenly lost a spouse or other beloved family member. In these situations, I find that some of those who mourn feel almost guilty about venturing out into the world again to enjoy the better things: laughter, good company, entertainment, etc. But for the survivors to cease living does little to honor those who died. There comes a time, after a suitable period of mourning, when one must go forth and reclaim the joy of life again.
5. A warm bath and a nap – This is a rather charming remedy recommended by St. Thomas. And it is actually very good advice, for we are not simply soul; we are also body. And our body and soul interact with and influence each other. Sometimes if the soul is vexed, caring for the body will bring soothing to both body and 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).
We live in a culture that tends to overindulge the body. And yet to do so is not really to care for it. Frankly, some of our overindulgence actually stress the body, which 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, a leisurely walk, or a nap, the soothing care of the body can help to alleviate sorrow.
Sorrow! It does find us. But in the midst of it, there are still some gifts. Learning 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 its place.
Sorrow also reminds us that this world is not our 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 finally, the Book of Revelation reminds 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!