Stoic advice: family strife

[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.]

T. wrote: I live in Romania, I am 30, my father is 68, my mother is 60 and my sister is 36. My sister and I moved out from the village in which we lived with our parents, and here is where my predicament starts. Our parents put us both through college but my sister dropped out. She lied about it and in the meantime had a couple of jobs but still struggles financially. She lied because she was afraid of what our father would say and this made things worse. My father is churning things in his mind and is not able to let things go, constantly reminding himself about the money he wasted (50.000 Euros), and the fact that she has nothing to show for it. My sister also constantly struggles with being overweight — and she is constantly reminded of that by my father. My mother still lives with him and his tantrums, trying to help my sister financially, which brings about more conflict. Coming back to my sister, I think she likes the role of the victim — seemingly using her weight issues and having received little affection from her father as an excuse. Then again, she did lose some weight, but not enough for my father.

Now, in this triangle of suffering among my mother, my father and my sister, I am trying to cope by way of mental fortitude and Stoic philosophy. Anything I say to them is not being acknowledged, they ignore me. I worry about the wellbeing of my family, but it is hard for me to see how money (and in part the indifference of my sister) can possibly cause such torment. I know that it is not in my power to change things if the people I talk to are not willing to change — but if you would have any advise for a “prokopton”, it would be great.

You end your letter with a reference to the dichotomy of control, but it sounds like you have understood the concept but not really internalized it as practice. Don’t worry, you are not alone! But first and foremost you need to work on yourself, by repeating over and over, or re-reading often, or writing about in your philosophical diary, this specific advice from Epictetus:

“‘Do we have that many masters?’ We do. Because over and above the rest we have masters in the form of circumstances, which are legion. And anyone who controls any one of them controls us as well.” (Discourses IV, 1.59)

Here Epictetus is telling his students that so long as they do not practice the discipline of desire — i.e., so long as they keep desiring things that are not under their control — they will have many masters, those masters being the circumstances and people that are not “up to us.” It sounds like you are allowing your father, your mother and your sister to be your “masters” in this sense. Remind yourself that this is futile, as the only thing you get out of it — as you very clearly state — is pain.

Of course, the counsel isn’t not to care about your family, but to look at things differently, as in these two passages:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43)

“If your parents were poor, or if they made others their heirs instead of you, if they give you no help while they are alive, is this any disgrace to you? Is this what you learnt with the philosophers? Did you never hear that what is disgraceful is blameable, and the blameable is what deserves blame, and it is absurd to blame a man for what is not his own act, done by himself? Well, did you make your father what he is, or is it in your power to mend his character? Is this given you? What follows?” (Discourses III, 26)

Indeed, both passages apply to all the characters in your family’s tale: your sister, your father, and your mother. As the second quote says, you did not make them, and you are very unlikely to change them (especially your parents, people become less and less flexible when they get older). But as the first quote suggests, you need to “change the handle” by which you pick up the current situation. Don’t look at it from the point of view of irrational people struggling about things that are not important, but rather from your own point of view as a compassionate person who also plays the double role of brother and son to these people.

If you’ve missed it, take a look at my ongoing series on Epictetus’ role ethics (three installments are out: here, here, and here; three more to come in the next few weeks), and reflect on your natural (meaning that you didn’t choose them) roles and how to play them at your best.

Seems to me that your course of action should be to accept your father for who he is, since he is unlikely to change; to support and comfort your mother in her worries about your sister; and to support and yet try to influence your sister for the best, because — being younger — and closer to you in age, she is more likely to listen.

But you need to approach especially the last bit from the point of view of the dichotomy of control: your goal should not be to actually change your sister’s behavior for the best, since that is up to her, outside of your control. Rather, it should be to try your best to persuade her that she can do better in her life. In other words, the goal should be an internal, not an external one, because only the first truly is under your control.

Here is how modern Stoic Bill Irvine puts it, using the example of an aspiring novelist:

“It is especially important, I think, for us to internalize our goals [since] ‘external failure’ is commonplace. Think, for example, about an aspiring novelist. To succeed in her chosen profession, she must fight and win two battles: She must master her craft, and she must deal with rejection of her work — most novelists hear ‘No’ many, many times before hearing ‘Yes.’ … How can the aspiring novelist reduce the psychological cost of rejection and thereby increase her chances of success? By internalizing her goals with respect to novel writing. She should have as her goal not something external over which she has little control, such as getting her novel published, but something internal over which she has considerable control, such as how hard she works on the manuscript or how many times she submits it in a given period of time.” (A Guide to the Good Life, 97)

He goes on to say:

“Readers might complain that the process of internalizing our goals is really little more than a mind game. The would-be novelist’s real goal is obviously to get her novel published — something she knows full well — and in advising her to internalize her goals with respect to the novel, I am doing little more than advising her to pretend as if getting published weren’t her goal. In response to this complaint, I would point out, to begin with, that it might be possible for someone, by spending enough time practicing goal internalization, to develop the ability not to look beyond her internalized goals — in which case they would become her ‘real’ goals. Furthermore, even if the internalization process is a mind game, it is a useful mind game. Fear of failure is a psychological trait, so it is hardly surprising that by altering our psychological attitude toward ‘failure’ (by carefully choosing our goals), we can affect the degree to which we fear it.” (A Guide to the Good Life, 98)

Indeed, I would go further than Bill and argue that Stoicism (and many other philosophies of life, like Buddhism) are, in part, mind games. In the positive sense that their goal is to make us look at life in general, and our life in particular, from a different perspective. That is, to change how our mind perceives, and reacts to, whatever the universe happens to throw at us. But of course even if we do not practice a philosophy of life, we still perceive and judge things by filtering objective facts about the world (“my sister has financial difficulties”; “my father is lamenting the loss of 50,000 Euros”) into judgments (“my sister is incapable of handling finances”; “my father is being selfish”). That is, even everyday, philosophically unfiltered life is a “mind game.” If it’s not working for you, then change the way you play it.

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2 replies

  1. With some temerity, I would also suggest that T might benefit from the perspective on family situations to be found in Berne’s classic “Games People Play”, as might his sister if she is interested in such insights. The stoic position sits very well with Berne’s advice to avoid getting sucked into the game.

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