[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]
[Note: this post is part of a special one-week marathon of Stoic advice, which is made necessary by the sheer volume of requests I keep receiving. If you have written and I haven’t gotten to your letter yet, please be patient. If you are interested in the other features of this blog, we’ll resume regular programming next week…]
N. writes: I’ve been meaning to write for some time. I’m doing it now as my various spiritual crises seem to have come to a head and now threaten to have real life consequences, more than just the everyday. I live in Pakistan. I am 39 and single and a doctor by profession. I am not ambitious in the more traditional sense but I’ve always had a yearning for excellence, also an uneasy relationship with the heavy handed authority which is part of out culture here. For these reasons probably living with my family became much too hard a few years back. We don’t leave the family home until we are married around here. And yet I left. I had passed part of the US medical licensing exam and so I went to the US to try and finish the licensing process so I could find work there, in hope of better quality of work and better social circumstances.
That was 5 yrs ago. The exam didn’t work out. Because I was too emotionally unstable and borderline depressive, now that I think about it. So I came back. But didn’t go to live with my family. First, because I had gotten used to a bit of freedom which would have not been possible in the family home, and second because I did not expect a nice welcome. I resolved to go back and attempt the exam again once I had saved enough for another trip.
I was unemployed for a while and then I worked in a rural area for three years. I saved enough to think about trying my luck in the US again. So I booked my exam. I also moved to the city of Lahore and am now working at a teaching hospital. Now it is two months until my exam. I still struggle with depression. I have a nonexistent social support system and that hasn’t helped. I’m uprooted from my previous life and in Pakistan it is hard for a single woman living alone to lay down new roots. That would require a level of social acceptance our society does not offer to people like me. I spent months trying to toughen myself up for this exam. It is a clinical exam and requires certain logistical resources for preparation which I’ve been unable to access. So all of this has added up and I seem to be back in the dark emotional place that I was in five years ago when I failed this exam the last time. If I don’t pass it now, my previously passed exams would be void. I don’t seem to be able to handle it at all. But quitting doesn’t seem to be an option either.
I’ve left other things unfinished. And all of this has entailed such a lot of investment, personal and financial. Also I don’t see myself ever being comfortable living where I do now. And yet, the thought of letting myself go through another breakdown kind of a situation scares me. It seems to already have started, the strange process of disintegration. I don’t want to quit and lose out on the opportunity, but moving forward with it seems much too hard. I don’t really know what to do. Now I think that perhaps I should have compromised with things at home and stayed there. I seem to have painted myself into a corner. Do you have any thoughts on how I can move forward?
You are in a really tough situation, most of which is not of your doing, as it is the result of societal structures you have little or no influence (and certainly no control, in the Stoic sense) over. You did the sensible thing, trying to take things into your hands, by leaving an oppressive home environment, trying to forge a different path for yourself, and refusing to give up even when things were not turning your way.
But there is an obvious Stoic lesson here: all we are in charge of is our judgments and efforts, not the outcomes of those efforts. As I explained in a previous post, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a magic wand. You are in the position of Cicero’s archer: you trained well, you picked the best arrows and bow, and you aimed to the best of your abilities. But the arrow didn’t hit the target, unfortunately:
“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.’” (De Finibus III.22)
This, however, doesn’t mean that you need to give up and accept what sounds like a dreadful life within a society, and a family, even, you feel increasingly alienated from. As Marcus puts it, the obstacle — for the wise person — becomes the way:
“Our actions may be impeded … 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.2)
The question, then, is how to advance action, how to find a new path around the obstacle that stands in your way. I simply don’t know enough about the specifics of your life, studies, and chosen career to advice you in detail. The obvious general answer that comes to mind, however, concerns whether it would be possible for you to pursue your career in a different country. After all, the United States isn’t the only place in the world characterized by a relatively open society. Indeed, at the moment, it isn’t really a hospitable place for immigrants, and it has distinctive drawbacks — compared to almost any European country — in terms of the nature and strength of the social net.
Or perhaps there is something else you can do professionally, a different way to channel your energy and interests that may offer a path of lesser resistance at this juncture in your life. Only you can determine what that might be, obviously, but perhaps some thinking outside the box, as they say, may be in order. Even if a different career does not seem ideal to you, it may be the best option in terms of some of your other priorities, like escaping an oppressive family and society. As modern Stoic Larry Becker puts it, practical wisdom is the ability to reason “all things considered,” meaning taking into account all your priorities and projects, which may be in conflict with each other, or at the least not all achievable at the same time. Here is my summary of that part of his book, if you wish to take a look.
Alternatively, you may find a way to stay in Pakistan that is still fulfilling, maybe by way of finding new friends and human support, and devoting yourself to doing your part to change your society from within. Here I find Epictetus’ theory of multiple, conflicting roles that we all play in life to be useful, especially as reconstructed by Brian Johnson (here is a relevant post).
Whatever you end up doing, the important thing is that it is as a result of your judgment, the only thing that is truly yours and that can set you free under any circumstance:
“What is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms.” (Seneca, Letter LI. On Baiae and Morals, 9)
You, like the rest of us, have no control over Fortune. But through your considered judgment, you can compel her to enter the fight on equal terms.