Stoic advice column: I lost my parents and people tell me that things happen for a reason

Fortuna is blind

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

D. wrote: “I stumbled across Stoicism a few months ago when researching cognitive behavioral therapy, I suffer from social anxiety and over the years I have bought numerous ‘positive thinking’ books and searched in vain for the ‘magical cure.’ I have never latched onto anything which I believed would be able to help in the long run, but from what I’ve learnt from Stoicism and what I’ve put into practice so far, I believe it is the first thing of substance that could really make a difference. However, there is one area of Stoicism which I am currently struggling to process, the idea of fate.”

“I am currently reading Donald Robertson’s book Stoicism and The Art of Happiness, who talks about ‘loving your fate and joyful acceptance,’ and refers to Marcus Aurelius speaking of the need to find satisfaction in external events that befall us, greet them joyfully, and accept them with pleasure. I find this the most challenging area to accept as seven years ago my parents were killed in a car crash by a man suffering from a mental illness. I won’t go into the full details but there were systematic failings by the health service in the UK that led to this event occurring. I was 23 at the time with a younger brother and sister. It particularly irritates me when I hear people say ‘everything happens for a reason,’ as it is difficult to comprehend the reasoning for this event. Do you have any advice on how I can approach this area of Stoicism?”

D., first of all I’m sorry for your loss, it must have been a terrible experience. You do raise a very interesting and important question about Fate and Stoicism in general, not to mention that oft-repeated, and I completely agree, very grating phrase: “everything happens for a reason.”

Let me start with the latter, then. Well, it depends on what one means by “reason.” Typically, people uttering that phrase are Christians, or believers in a similar religion, and what they mean is that there is a God out there with a plan. That plan involves things that appear horrible to us, such as the sudden death of one’s parents, but that are actually part of an unspecified, and unspecifiable, plan on God’s part. It will all be clear once we get to the afterlife and will be in God’s presence.

I don’t believe any of that, and neither did the Stoics. They were materialists, with no belief in the afterlife, no concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing God present everywhere. They didn’t believe in the existence of a God who cared about human beings, who would answer to prayers (or ignore them, as the case may be). So, in that sense, the Stoic position is that no, things don’t happen for a reason.

But if by reason one means that there are rational explanations for things, then yes, absolutely. The Stoics did believe in a universal web of cause and effect, so everything that happens has a “reason,” meaning a cause. In the case of your parents’ death the causes appear all too clear, and include the unfortunate actions of someone suffering from mental illness, as well as the bureaucratic failures of a system put in place to prevent such occurrences.

It is true that the Stoics were pantheists, which means they thought of the universe itself as god, and that in a sense there is a rational cosmic reason that explains events that seem obscure or wrong to us. But here is how Marcus explains it in Meditations VI.33:

“For hand or foot to feel pain is no violation of nature, so long as the foot does its own appointed work, and the hand its own. Similarly pain for a man, as man, is no unnatural thing so long as he does a man’s appointed work. But, if not unnatural, then is it not an evil either.”

If the cosmos itself is an organism, then we are part of it, in a way analogous to how a hand or foot are part of a human body. The body may do something that is good overall, but that it involves causing pain or discomfort to one of its parts, for instance stepping in the mud. The foot doesn’t understand why it has to get muddy and cold, because it cannot perceive the organic functioning of the whole body. But it is necessary for it to do so, or the body isn’t going to be able to cross the terrain that he needs to cross before getting home.

One could interpret Marcus as hinting at the existence of a type of cosmic Providence that acts for the good of the whole universe. Or one could take him as simply using an evocative analogy in order to conceptualize the universal web of cause and effect.

Indeed, Marcus himself was famously open to different interpretations of the concept of Fate:

“Recall the alternative; either there is providence or a fortuitous concurrence of atoms.” (Meditations IV.3)

“Either it is a well-arranged universe or a chaos huddled together, but still a universe.” (IV.27)

“If a thing is in your own power, why do you do it? But if it is in the power of another, whom do you blame? The atoms (chance) or the gods? Both are foolish. You must blame nobody.” (VIII.17)

“Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?” (IX.39)

“Whether the universe is a concourse of atoms, or nature is a system, let this first be established: that I am a part of the whole that is governed by nature; next, that I stand in some intimate connection with other kindred parts.” (X.6)

You’ll find a fuller analysis and other quotes here.

Let me now get to the issue of amor fati, love your fate. That phrase is actually not Stoic, as it comes from Nietzsche, who was a critic of Stoicism. But it does encapsulate some aspects of Stoic thought, even though the idea of “loving” one’s fate goes a bit too far. In particular, it reminds me of Chrysippus’ famous analogy of the dog and the cart, which was allegedly also recounted in one of the lost volumes of Epictetus’ Discourses.

Imagine a dog who is leashed to a cart. The cart begins to move forward, in whatever direction the driver, but certainly not the dog, chooses. Now, the leash is long enough that the dog has two options: either he can gingerly follow the general direction of the cart, over which he has no control, and thereby enjoy the ride and even have time to explore his surroundings and attend to some of his own business, or he can stubbornly resist the cart with all his might and end up being dragged, kicking and screaming, for the rest of the trip, accumulating much pain and frustration and wasting his time in a futile and decidedly unpleasant effort.

We humans are, of course, the dog: the universe keeps churning according to God’s will (if you are religious) or cosmic cause and effect (if you are more secular in your metaphysics). But you do have some room to maneuver, while you are alive and well, and can choose to enjoy the ride, even as you remain aware of the constraints you have and know that whatever you wish to accomplish always comes with a big caveat: Fate (the cart, God, the universe) permitting. This incidentally, is one interpretation of what it means for the Stoics to “live according to nature.”

So the Stoic idea of Fate is that it embodies the web of cause and effect that characterizes the cosmos, and that the virtuous response is to do your best to accomplish what you want to accomplish, all the while being prepared to accept with equanimity whatever outcome will actually materialize. I stress that this isn’t a counsel for passivity, as clearly shown by this famous quote by Marcus:

“Our actions may be impeded by others, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations, V.20)

The Stoic sense of equanimity comes from the view from above, that is from the capacity of putting things in perspective and to realize that the universe doesn’t always (or even often) do what we want it to do. Here is a famous quote by Epictetus on this:

“When somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others.” (Enchiridion 26)

This isn’t callous disregard for human suffering, but rather an attempt to instill in us equanimity toward what happens, by reminding ourselves that it also happens to plenty of other people too.

And there is an often under appreciated positive side as well to the Stoic position, as Seneca reminds us:

“Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.” (LXIII. On Grief for Lost Friends, 7-8)

So, to go back to your original question, my advice is to allow yourself the normal range of human reaction to personal loss, but then to step back and gain a broader perspective on what happened. You may then want to channel your energy into positive directions, which may simply be a renewed commitment to enjoy your family and friends, or a more active involvement to improve the system whose failure was partially responsible for your parents’ death. What stands in the way becomes the way.

7 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: I lost my parents and people tell me that things happen for a reason

  1. Robert Howie

    That’s brilliant advice. I’m very sorry to hear of the person’s loss. The advice is very positive and, the summary last paragraph in particular, focuses this sad time into an actionable and positive way.
    What stands in the way becomes the way indeed.
    Good luck and best wishes

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ted Petrocci

    Well done Massimo. I did enjoy the cart story.
    Indeed a sad and tragic loss. An example of the struggle with impermanence, and how we often rail against what we perceive as unfairness. The emergence of consciousness especially as discusssed by such men as Julian Jaynes helps me recognize how young we are in our mental process relative to human existence. No wonder we have yet to master our emotional mind. And like Seneca and Marcus and others I am realizing how many will mislive their lives harboring anger or grief or self-centeredness.
    What stands in the way for most will remain…in the way and not be seen as the way.

    Liked by 1 person

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