X. Stoicism Is for You, No One Else

Radical listening, showing sympathy, and living with others

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

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

This is a piece I wrote to myself, about a common obstacle many progressing Stoics (including myself) face – I hope you find it useful.
– Caleb

🏛️ Theory

It’s easy to handle stress if you’re a Stoic.

After practicing the philosophy for a while, you’ll see the payoff in the form of resilience. But some things still get to you.

Picture a plane delay.

While waiting to board, you hear a tired and disembodied voice announce that the airline delayed the flight. You look into whether it’s worth getting on another. It isn’t. So it is. You decide to use the break to get ahead on work, watch a movie you’ve put off for a while, and read Epictetus’s Handbook. It’s a long delay.

But not everyone can handle it. Their travel-fatigued faces take on a dour disposition. That’s ok. Storms can surround you, but you will remain calm.

There’s something else though. Your travel partner can’t handle it.

Perhaps they cry out of frustration and exhaustion. Perhaps they silently stew in a horrendous mood. Their attitude is so dour it manages to, in a miasmic way, seep into your mind-space and erode your calm.

So, you console them. You point out that there’s nothing to be done. It’s out of your control.

And yet they’re still upset – what’s up with that?

You’ve looked into workarounds. At this point, they should know that their attitude is mistaken. Delays are a travel risk. Yet they’re still displeased. You hand them Epictetus’s Handbook. They’re not interested.

You notice that you too are upset.

The Stoic response to people not being Stoic is to remain Stoic. That’s not the same as converting others to Stoicism. That approach doesn’t work.

Worse, it can warp our expectations. It can be frustrating to watch others, especially those you care about, succumb to adverse events. Exasperation is a natural response. But it’s not the Stoic one.

Indeed, Epictetus advised his students to commiserate with others’ suffering:

When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad, or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil; but discriminate, and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself,- for another man might not be hurt by it, – but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him, and if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly too.

Epictetus, Handbook 16

One should be wary of pushing Stoicism on others or expecting them to behave rationally.

We don’t live in a world where we’re surrounded by perfectly equanimous people. Wishing that we did is irrational. This is why Marcus Aurelius reminded himself:

Whenever a person’s lack of shame offends you, you should immediately ask yourself: “So is it possible for there to be no shameless people in the world?” It isn’t, and you should therefore stop demanding the impossible. He’s just one of those shameless people who must necessarily exist in the world.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.42

Anyway, we’re not sages. Why push that expectation onto others?

Sometimes we should just console those who are suffering around us. Some just need us to acknowledge their pain and then they’ll bounce back.

If we can fix the issue, we should. It’s better to remove the source of pain than change attitudes. If you can find another flight, do that – instead of complaining about others' reactions.

Sometimes our response reveals a lack of resourcefulness. It is often easier to treat someone's reaction to an obstacle – instead of the obstacle itself – as the problem. When you do this you’re like the founder blaming his customers for his company’s defeat.

When we compare ourselves to those who are less Stoic than us, we’re forgetting that the correct model is the sage. When we tell others to be more Stoic, we come close to committing this mistake too. They don’t need to be more virtuous, we do.

Seeing the other person's reaction as the problem is a subtle version of treating other impediments we face as harms. Such things are indifferent. They are not up to us.

What’s up to us is playing the role of friend, partner, and excellent person as well as we can.

Many people would benefit from becoming Stoic. They do not usually get better after we tell them this.

Whoever they are, should shape how we share the philosophy – or indeed whether we should share it at all. If we do decide to introduce Stoicism to them such a move must be made with care, not offered as a solution in a hectic airport or other stressful situation.

Hence, as a general rule, we should hold tight to the following:

Stoicism for me, but not for thee.

🎯 Action

Choose one way that you’ll focus on what is up to you. Be concrete, realistic, and ambitious.

🔗 Links

📜 I’ve been reading Three Times Wiser by kpaxs. The recent issue on Radical Listening has a lot of overlap with Stoic ideas – and is on point with this week’s theme of living with others:

Radical Listening
Refers to our ability to be present to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment. While we spend years learning to read, write, and speak, most of us dedicate little time to becoming better listeners.

Three Times Wiser

Check it the rest of the piece here.

📗 The original essay of Stoicism for Me But Not For Thee included a short aside on politics, through the avenue of Ivan Illich:

I do not believe that countries need a national "health" policy, something given to their citizens. Rather, the latter need the courageous virtue to face certain truths:
- we will never eliminate pain;
- we will not cure all disorders;
- we will certainly die.

Ivan Illich

There is wisdom in Illich’s words. Yet, they do not make for good policy. One should be suspicious of any government body telling its citizens to accept their plight. That’s a serious sign that social institutions are failing. What health policy should actually be, is another matter.

📕 A remark of translator George Long on Handbook 16 is useful:

It has been objected to Epictetus that he expresses no sympathy with those who suffer sorrow. But here he tells you to show sympathy, a thing which comforts most people. But it would be contrary to his teaching, if he told you to suffer mentally with another.

George Long

The Stoic view is similar to the Christian idea: “Be in the world, but not of the world.” Stoics refused to retreat from the world (unlike the Epicureans) or succumb to the world's corrupting forces (like so many non-philosophers).

🏛️ If you haven’t had the chance to read them yet, check out our earlier letters from this week on Stoicism and living with others: 8 Ways to Deal With Non-Stoic People and How Others Influence What We Want

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