Oak Fractured by Lightning is an allegorical painting by Russian landscape painter Maksim Nikiforovich Vorobyov (Максим Никифорович Воробьёв) of the death of his wife.
The thick, tempestuous dark clouds symbolize the painter’s misery and anguish at the death of his wife, while the sudden flash of lightning reminds us of how quick death can strike. As the moment in time of the mortal peal of lighting is preserved in the painting, just so is the pain and emotional turmoil of the death of his wife etched in the painter’s mind. We see other lighting bursts in the background of the painting in the top left section, where death (lightning) is on the horizon, present everywhere.
“It’s better to conquer grief than to deceive it.” — Seneca
Stoicism does not advocate hiding from emotions but rather dealing with them appropriately and accepting reality as it is, not as we wish it to be. It is a common misconception that Stoics suppress their emotions. It is not about suppressing emotions, but rather being in control of our emotions, that is a central tenet of Stoicism. (For more on this topic see Stoicism vs stoicism.)
Some emotions we need to accept, some to temper and some to conquer. Grief is a normal part of life, and choosing the extremes of either denial, or choosing to be miserable the rest of our lives, is unhealthy. Something worth keeping in mind is that although life may feel unbearable without a loved one, we need to fight and try to live as good a life as we can. We owe it to ourselves, and it is also what our loved ones would have wanted for us.
Great art is often the outcome of the artist wrestling with their own emotions. You can see it in the painting above, as well as in other great works of art such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. Here the artist took the negative emotions that he was feeling and instead of wallowing or suppressing the emotions, instead chose to use them to create something full of meaning and in turn transform themselves as a result of the process.
The emotions and the degree to which we fight them or surrender to them, dictate the quality of our lives.
***A memento mori is a reminder of death. It is a key practice in Stoicism but is not unique to it. It can be a simple visual reminder or quote or a more serious mediation on death. Stoics use it to remind themselves of how short and fragile life is and therefore how much we have to be grateful for, to live virtuous lives, and not to waste our time.
In this series, each Monday, I will post a memento mori from various sources, either from the primary Stoic texts themselves or other sources.