Stoic Wisdom on Caring

Finding the balance

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

This exchange is a good starting point for uncovering the value of Stoicism:

A: “My husband has no bad days. He’s extremely emotionally stable and unfazed. Our Christmas Eve flight home just got canceled and we’re stuck in Chicago. We don’t get to my family until the night of Christmas. Yet he’s “just vibing” and said we’d explore the city.”

B: “He’s not emotionally stable, he just doesn’t care about anything and he’ll gaslight you into believing you’re crazy because you do care about things.”

I think there are a few key lessons here.

The first is that sometimes we shouldn’t care. Delays during travel, especially holiday travel are expected. There’s no sense in losing one’s mind over a predictable outcome. As Marcus Aurelius said:

Remember just as it is a shame to be surprised if the fig tree produces figs, so it is to be surprised if the world produces such and such things of which it is productive; and for the physician and the helmsman it is a shame to be surprised, if a man has a fever, or if the wind is unfavorable.

Meditations 8.15

Expecting there to never be lost flights, long security lines, and adults throwing tantrums in airports – whatever it is – is to live in a fantasy land. We don’t live in that world. So, the woman praising her husband may be accurately picking up on an admirable trait.

The second lesson is that Stoicism requires caring about the right things. If we learn that the woman’s husband could have found a better flight or that he insisted on taking a risky flight during New Year's Eve for the sake of his own comfort, we’d have a different opinion of his actions. In other words, you want to try your best to get to where you’re going while remembering that fate has its own plans. This is a tightrope to walk. 

The final lesson is that it’s difficult to judge. We just don’t know that much about this couple's situation. It could be that the husband doesn’t care about anything, is happy to avoid his in-laws, chose a risky flight out of his own comfort, and is now going about Chicago insisting that his wife’s disappointment is an overreaction. That would be vice. And yet it equally could be the case that he did his best given what the two of them wanted, gave his in-laws the call they were looking for, and heroically rescued what would otherwise be a miserable delay.

We don’t know. In fact, most situations we hear about are like this. We can make reasonable guesses, but always need to hedge them with the fact that our opinion may change with the evidence. In many cases, it’s better to suspend judgment entirely.

Be careful when you judge others. And don’t forget to care, but not too much and in the right way. Do your best, without gripping onto the outcome too tightly. 

🎯 Action

Choose one action today which, if you did it, would show that you care about what truly matters. Do it. 

⚖️ Aristotle’s idea of the golden mean is useful here. Are you caring about things enough or too little? Have you struck the right balance? Often many of us find ourselves caring too much or too little. Once you identify the direction in which you err, try to overcorrect and find yourself in a better place.

What did you think about today's letter?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.