Stoic advice: I’ve not been careful with someone else’s health


Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ physician

[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…]

R. writes: I recently met a woman who I like and feel attracted to. The problem is that I contracted a skin condition that is highly contagious (nothing serious, it usually goes away on its own, but is pretty unaesthetic because it causes wart-like lesions). In spite of knowing that I had one of these lesions close to my lips, I kissed her, and therefore maybe spread the infection to her skin. I’ve since confessed this to her and made it clear that I will take care of the medical expenses in case she gets a confirmed diagnosis of the condition (removal of the lesions is pretty uncomfortable and costly). Apparently, she has since forgiven me or not taken the matter as seriously as I do (I infer this because we keep seeing each other). A friend told me that since the condition is harmless I have done nothing serious.

I cannot help but think that although her health is not compromised, I have unnecessarily caused her an annoying and bothersome predicament, all because I could not contain my impulses. The fact that she has a child and may spread the infection to him only makes my guilt worse. Also, the possibility of having lost a significant romantic relationship it’s something that creeps up my mind from time to time.

Obviously, I will have to abstain from physical intimacy with other people until my immune system manages to get rid of the infection. In the worst case, these could take four years. I believe the Stoic thing to do is to accept that I have no control over how long this could take, and learn from this to prevent harming others in the future. Actually, I think I’ve learned a significant moral lesson here: I used her as a means to gain momentary pleasure and I paid for it with my integrity. So I might as well use this obstacle as a way to strengthen my moral fiber.

From now on, it seems there is not much to do besides offering her all my support and friendship. And I use here the word friendship as opposed to the romantic relationship which I wished for and which my bad luck has deprived me of (I conceive romantic relationships to be defined by physical intimacy, but maybe there’s a broader experience to them). You may think I have figured out how to proceed but I’m having trouble dealing with the anxiety of losing her (as if it would be just to ask her to wait for me to get cured) Any Stoic advice that you could add would be really helpful! 

Well, you seem to me to have, in fact, figured out exactly what happened and why, and moreover how to move forward with it. The fact that you still feel anxiety at the prospect of losing this woman is natural and probably unavoidable. Seneca acknowledges that even the wise person is bound to experience feelings, since he is still a human being:

“For natural faults of body or mind are not removed by any amount of wisdom: what is innate and implanted may be mitigated by treatment, but not overcome. … This is not cast out by any amount of wisdom; if it were, if wisdom could erase all a person’s faults, then wisdom would have nature itself in charge.” (Letter XI)

“For there are some things, dear Lucilius, that no amount of virtue can escape: nature gives the virtuous a reminder of their own mortality. So they will change expression at sad events, and shudder at sudden events, and grow dizzy when looking down from a great height. This is not fear, but a natural affect which cannot be assailed by reason.” (Letter LVII)

“I come now to the point you are expecting from me. Lest it should seem that what we call virtue strays outside the natural order, the wise person will tremble and feel pain and grow pale, for all these things are feelings of the body.” (Letter LXXI)

As I have pointed out elsewhere, philosophy is not a magic wand, it can’t cure us of all unpleasant emotions, it just provides us with good tools to deal with such emotions. But that’s far from a negligible thing!

All of the above said, let me point out a couple of things that stand out to me from your narrative. First off, don’t pay attention to your friend, the one who minimizes the import of what you did. The fact that — luckily — the condition does not have major consequences (though, as you say, it is costly and painful to take care of, which counts to me like significant consequences) is irrelevant. The point is that you have violated the trust of a person you care about because you were incapable of denying assent to certain impressions, as the Stoics would say, and because you were not sufficiently courageous to be upfront with her.

I’m not writing this to make you feel bad, nor to condemn you. I’m trying to be helpful, and it isn’t my place to pass judgment on others:

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45)

I am, rather, describing what happened from a neutral, yet Stoically-informed, perspective. While there is no point in indulging in regret and self-pity, there is a point in learning from one’s past mistakes, which in turn requires to clearly see certain actions as mistakes, resisting the temptation to minimize them, regardless of the advice of a well intentioned friend.

Second, you seem ambivalent about the future of your relationship with this woman. You fear that any chance at romance is lost, yet you say that she seems to have forgiven you. Then again, you appear to blame your condition for not being able to continue the relationship. My advice here is to practice both the (highly interrelated) virtues of courage and justice: talk openly to this woman. Ask her if she is still willing to pursue a romantic relationship with you, taking of course proper precautions about your condition (including, if need be, an abstention from physical contact for whatever time is necessary). I don’t see the point of torturing yourself with doubt, really. Her answer is outside of your control, and of course you will have to accept it, whatever it is. But asking, honestly and straightforwardly, is most definitely within your power. So what on earth are you waiting for?

Finally, I am sympathetic to your resolve to use the experience, and your endurance of the condition for an open ended period of time, as a way to practice your Stoic philosophy. Just so long as you don’t fall into the temptation of transforming this into a Christian-like exercise in self flagellation. Stoic humility and willingness to learn are a good thing, but there is no such thing as Stoic expiation of sins.

1 thought on “Stoic advice: I’ve not been careful with someone else’s health

  1. René López

    What if she willingly agrees to have physical contact? I suspect the ethical thing to do would be to assume the role of a protector and refuse it since accepting would come from a selfish impulse to tap on the opportunity without considering the harm she may unknowingly incur. I believe the right thing to do remains the same even if she does this after fully considering the consequences.

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