Stoic advice: my brother in law needs help but won’t seek it

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

M. writes: I’m a beginner in stoicism — I read your book (in Dutch) and try to do the spiritual exercises as best as possible. This works rather well, except in the case of one particular person: my brother-in-law. The problem with him is that he is mentally very unstable. He’s about 51 (I’m 53), he has a very paranoid personality. For example, he’s convinced that other people and/or ‘the regime” are overhearing him, that the people from the French-speaking part of our country (Belgium) want to take over the Dutch-speaking part (Flanders), that we’ll soon all lose our houses and that we’ll be “on the street,” etc.. Furthermore, he’s obsessed with food, but in a very unhealthy manner: his “diet” is extremely one-sided because, first, he thinks that a lot of foods (even healthy ones) are bad for his health, and, second, because he firmly believes in the theory that you may not combine certain foods (which science says is a myth). At other times, he devours lots of unhealthy foods. The result is that he’s very skinny, and that he has an unhealthy, pale appearance. It’s completely impossible to convince him that his beliefs and behavior are illogical and unrealistic. And that’s not all: in his life, he has only worked for a few years (long time ago), but he quit his job (as a teacher) because he was convinced pupils were laughing at him. He still lives with his 87-year old mother, who takes care of him (also financially), but whom he blames for the fact that his life is a failure. Also, he’s extremely nervous, he can’t sit still for five minutes (which, unfortunately, does not imply doing household chores — he’s extremely lazy in that respect), he talks to himself, etc.. He also has suicidal tendencies. And finally, and this is the worst problem, he obstinately refuses to undergo psychological/psychiatric therapy. He is, however, very intelligent (university degree), and was very skilled at painting, but unfortunately stopped doing this many years ago, and we have not succeeded in convincing him to start painting again (which, maybe, would be a good therapy).

You’ll understand he’s really a burden, in the first place, of course, for his mother, in the second place for his only sister (my wife; there are no other relatives). To a lesser degree for me too, although I have to admit that it’s very difficult to keep my (beginner’s) Stoic calm when he stays with us, during some weekends (for example: I’m the cook at home, but whatever I cook (and I’m not a bad cook, if I may say so), he’s never satisfied.

So my question is: how would an experienced Stoic deal with this situation? Not only with respect to keeping calm when such a person is around, but also with respect to this person himself, who refuses to see that he’s mentally ill and that he needs help? And how to help him anyway?

From the situation you have described, it sounds to me like you and your family are already trying to do whatever is possible to convince your brother-in-law that he needs help, as well as to prod him toward more productive activities, such as painting. If he is not responding, than this is a classic case of succeeding at doing your best, while Stoically letting go of the idea that it is up to you to actually achieve the goal. Remember how Cicero summarizes the general case, using the metaphor of the archer:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)

I’m sure this isn’t going to be satisfactory, but that is simply the way it is. The universe has thrown you and your family a difficult situation in the form of your brother-in-law’s behavior and obvious mental problems. It is not in your power to resolve the issue, what is in your power is to do your best to put up with it and to keep trying to provide him with the tools to help himself. Remember, Stoicism isn’t a magic wand, capable of making life problems going away. It is rather a “mind trick,” if you will, to allow you to look at those problems in a different fashion.

I take it the really difficult time will come when his mother will pass away. At that point he will no longer have financial or logistical support, and will have to face the situation he is in. I suggest you begin to talk now about this with your wife, who presumably will need to make some hard decisions about what to do with her brother at that point, decisions in which you need to be involved, both because they will at least indirectly concern you, and because it is your duty to be helpful to her in your ethical role of husband. As Seneca reminds us:

“Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.” (Letter CVII. On Obedience to the Universal Will, 3)

In practical terms, I suggest you consult a lawyer on how to handle the situation, including asking questions about what your wife’s legal rights and duties are according to Dutch law in similar circumstances.

As far as how to regard your brother-in-law, you may want to re-read chapter 8 of my book, devoted to the Greek concept of amathia, or unwisdom, which the ancients considered to be the common root of much human malady. That chapter begins with a quote from Epictetus that applies just as well to your case:

“For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right.” (Discourses II.6)

You have tried to show your brother-in-law where he is going wrong, but if he persists it isn’t because he is evil, it’s because he is convinced that he is right. The proper attitude, therefore, is one of pithy and compassion, not anger or resentment.

One more thing, you mention twice that you feel like your status as a beginner at Stoicism makes it difficult to keep calm whenever your brother-in-law visits. But you may be confusing Stoicism (the philosophy) with stoicism (the attitude of getting through life with a stiff upper lip). Consider:

“For there are certain emotions, my dear Lucilius, which no courage can avoid; nature reminds courage how perishable a thing it is. And so he will contract his brow when the prospect is forbidding, will shudder at sudden apparitions, and will become dizzy when he stands at the edge of a high precipice and looks down. This is not fear; it is a natural feeling which reason cannot rout.” (Seneca, Letter LVII. On the Trials of Travel, 4)

Or again:

“A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings: for whoever imagines that paleness, bursting into tears, lustful feelings, deep sighs, sudden flashes of the eyes, and so forth, are signs of passion and betray the state of the mind, is mistaken, and does not understand that these are merely impulses of the body. Consequently, the bravest of men often turns pale while he is putting on his armor; when the signal for battle is given, the knees of the boldest soldier shake for a moment; the heart even of a great general leaps into his mouth just before the lines clash together, and the hands and feet even of the most eloquent orator grow stiff and cold while he is preparing to begin his speech. Anger must not merely move, but break out of bounds, being an impulse: now, no impulse can take place without the consent of the mind: for it cannot be that we should deal with revenge and punishment without the mind being cognizant of them.” (On Anger, III)

Whether it is fear, anger, or your sense of resentment against your brother-in-law that we are talking about, Seneca is making the standard Stoic distinction between proto-passions (propatheiai), which are instinctive and unavoidable, and full blown negative passions (pathos), which in order to take hold require an assent of your rational mind. This distinction, as it turns out, is upheld by modern research in cognitive science.

What this means specifically for you is that there is no sense in feeling bad because you feel your mind agitated (as opposed to calm) whenever your brother-in-law is around. Given the situation, it would be inhuman for you to feel otherwise. What marks the Stoic student, however, is the ability not to act on one’s negative emotions. Inwardly, you are agitated; outwardly, you still need to show compassion to him and be helpful to your wife. This can be taxing, so if you need a break, take it. Excuse yourself and go for a short walk, or retire to the bathroom and take a few deep breaths, ready to come out again and do your job as a human being. With time, it is even possible that you will achieve inner calm, and that the disturbing propatheiai will simply not manifest themselves. Regardless, the challenge is to do the right thing when the situation is demanding, not just when it’s easy:

“You can judge of a pilot in a storm, of a soldier in a battle.” (Seneca, On Providence, IV)

Of a husband, during the visits of his paranoid brother-in-law.

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1 reply

  1. Maybe give you’re copy of Massimo’s book to him next time? It will be a therapy in disguise.

    Very much enjoyed your book in dutch translation also Massimo, thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

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