Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, for some time now I have been thinking about starting a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. The genre dates back to 1680, though of course one could think of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius as an early version of it. If you are interested in the history and philosophy of advice columns, check this old podcast of mine.
If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. I will, of course, keep personal details out of the published version. Please keep in mind that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.
B. from the Unites States writes: “I’ve been dating a girl for eleven months, and from the beginning she told me that she has Multiple Sclerosis. Her sickness was under control then, but now she is getting worse and she probably has to undergo stem cell therapy. Money is an issue for us; however, we’re trying to overcome it with the help of friends. In the course of the stem cell therapy she is going to be in so much pain. She is so upset these days and I’m trying to be strong. Actually, since the situation is not under my control, with help from Stoicism I’m not that upset these days (not as much as before, I mean). Sometimes I feel that she wants to break up with me because she feels sorry for me. What should I do in that situation? Else, should I break up with her? I don’t want to. But I feel that my situation gets worse when she starts the treatment, and I have to focus on my studies and sometimes her behavior doesn’t help. I don’t know…”
First of all, I am sorry that you and your girlfriend have to experience such a difficult situation, I wish it were otherwise. To begin with, an important thing to keep in mind is that you were aware of the situation when you started, which means your companion has been honest with you and has not withdrawn information about her health status from you. This means that when you began the relationship you used your ruling faculty with full knowledge of what was likely going to happen.
The second thing that strikes me as important is your claim that you do not wish to leave her. I take it that you mean it, so I will use this as evidence of the fact that you love her and care for her.
I’m glad to hear that reminding yourself of the dichotomy of control is being helpful to you. As I’m sure you fully realize, of course, to repeat to yourself that your girlfriend is a mortal, and that this sort of things happen and are outside of your control, is not at all the same as not caring about her, or not trying to do whatever is in your power to be helpful.
Which brings me to the crucial part of your letter. She may or may not be trying to break up with you in order to spare you suffering. I certainly do not know whether that is the case or not, and you yourself can only guess. But her intentions too are something outside of your control. What you do control is your own intentions and the actions that derive from them.
I’m going to quote an extended passage from Epictetus to you, not because you are behaving at all like the father Epictetus is addressing, but because it makes perfectly clear, in my mind, what a Stoic would do under similar circumstances (the story is from Discourses, XI, On Family Affections, and it is worth it to read the full chapter, not just the extracts below).
A father comes to Epictetus to ask for advice. His daughter is very sick, and he feels miserable. “Lately when my daughter was ill and was thought to be in danger I could not bear to be near her, but fled away from her, until some one brought me news that she was well.”
“Well, do you think you were right to do it? ‘It was natural’, he said.”
“‘All fathers’, he said, ‘or most of us, at least, feel like that.’ I do not deny, said Epictetus, that parents feel so, but the real question is whether it is right. No doubt as far as that goes, we must say that even tumours come into being for the good of the body [since they are ‘natural’].”
“What if we were discussing things hot or cold, hard and soft, what test should we use? ‘Touch.’ Well then, as we are discussing what is natural and right and the opposite, what test would you have us take? ‘I do not know’, said he. Look here, it is no great loss perhaps not to know the proper test for colours and smells, nay, and flavours too, but do you think it is a small loss to man not to know what is good and what is evil, what is natural and what is unnatural?”
“When once you have realized this, then, said Epictetus, you will make this your one interest in the future, and to this alone devote your mind — to discover the means of judging what is natural and to use your criterion to distinguish each particular case as it arises.”
“For the present I can help you just so far as this in regard to what you wish: do you think family affection is natural and good? ‘Of course.'”
“Was it right, I ask, for you, being affectionately disposed to your child, to run away and leave her? Is her mother not fond of the child? ‘She is indeed.’ Should the mother then have left her too, or should she not? ‘She should not.'”
“Was it right that as a consequence the child should be thus left desolate and helpless because of the great affection of you her parents and of those about her, or should she die in the hands of those who had no love or care for her?”
“Tell me, would you have liked, if you were ill, your relations and every one else, even your wife and children, to show their affection for you in such a way as to leave you alone and desolate?”
“So in your case, you ran away just because you were so minded; and again, if you stay it will be because you are so minded. And now you return to Rome, because you have a mind to do so; and if your mind changes, you will not depart thither. And in a word it is not death nor exile nor pain nor any such thing which is the cause of our action or inaction, but thoughts and judgements of the mind. Are you convinced of this or not?”
“So henceforward whenever we do a thing wrong, we shall blame nothing else but the judgement which led us to do it, and we shall try to remove and extirpate this even more than we do tumours and abscesses from the body.”
You see, B., what Epictetus’ advice to the father was, then. You are not in the same situation, because you actually don’t want to leave your girlfriend, but you are faced by a similar dilemma: should you leave her because she actually wants to spare your suffering, or perhaps because the circumstances are hard, and you need, as you say, to focus on your studies?
My opinion is that, from a Stoic perspective, you should stay by her side and endure the emotional suffering, the financial burden, and the setback to your studies. It would be the courageous and just thing to do, and courage and justice are, of course, two of the cardinal virtues. You will also have plenty of opportunity to practice temperance, as the situation will repeatedly call for your self-control and patience when dealing with her behavior, which will be influenced by the stress she is under. And you will also need the fourth virtue, prudence (or practical wisdom), since you will find yourself facing difficult circumstances, which you will need to navigate at your best.
The above certainly doesn’t represent the easy path, but then again the path of virtue is not easy. You will fail to do it perfectly, because you are not a Sage. But that’s what it means to make progress, to be a prokopton. As Seneca put it:
“I am not a wise man, and I will not be one in order to feed your spite: so do not require me to be on a level with the best of men, but merely to be better than the worst: I am satisfied, if every day I take away something from my vices and correct my faults. I have not arrived at perfect soundness of mind, indeed, I never shall arrive at it.” (On the Happy Life, XVII)
I hope others in this community will be able to chime in with their wisdom and help you out further than I can.