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Exploring Encheiridion 16 – Episode 55


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Whenever you see someone grieving at the departure of their child or the loss of their property, take care not to be carried away by the impression that they are in dire external straits, but at once have the following thought available: “What is crushing these people is not the event (since there are other people it does not crush) but their opinion about it.” Don’t hesitate, however, to sympathize with them in words and even maybe share their groans, but take care not to groan inwardly as well. (Ench 16) This passage refutes the characterization of Stoics as Mr. Spock-like beings completely lacking appropriate emotional responses toward others. As Margaret Graver wrote in her brilliant book, Stoicism and Emotion: The founders of the Stoic school did not set out to suppress or deny our natural feelings; rather, it was their endeavor, in psychology as in ethics, to determine what the natural feelings of humans really are. With the emotions we most often experience they were certainly dissatisfied; their aim, however, was not to eliminate feelings as such from human life, but to understand what sorts of affective responses a person would have who was free of false belief.[1] The conception of the Stoic as an emotionless person who lacks sympathy for others is an unfortunate caricature. Fortunately, it is repudiated by the Stoic texts. The Letters of Seneca are primarily motivated by his desire to counsel and help his close friend Lucilius. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are full of his sympathy for others. In Meditations 2.1, he reminds himself we all share a portion of the same divine mind; therefore, it is contrary to nature to refuse to work with others. Likewise, Epictetus reminds us of our duty to others in several of his Discourses. Encheiridion 16 provides a formula for Stoics to engage with and help people experiencing emotional distress. This formula can be broken down into two parts, and it’s essential to get these parts in the proper order. Otherwise, we may do more harm than good to ourselves and others while attempting to help them. These parts are: Take care not to be carried away by the impression the person is in dire external straits. Don’t hesitate to sympathize with them in words and groans. Now, let’s consider the parts of this formula in their appropriate order. Part 1: Take care not to be carried away by the impression the person is in dire external straits. This part is preparation. Epictetus is warning us to be in the appropriate state of mind before engaging with someone in emotional distress. As a Stoic prokopton, this might appear easy at first. We know the person’s distress is caused by their assent to a judgment that something bad has happened. Additionally, we understand that no external event can truly harm what is essential to our well-being—our inner character. Nevertheless, the Stoics observed the effects of what modern neuroscientists only recently discovered in the form of mirror neurons. We are indeed interconnected. No person is an island. Our mirror neurons react whether we are experiencing events firsthand or observing others experience those events. Modern science proved what the ancient Stoics observed: our interconnectedness is a fundamental aspect of Nature and human nature. For this reason, the Stoic prokopton has to be cautious when dealing with people in emotional distress. If we are inadequately trained, our sympathy for others can quickly turn into a bad emotional response that overwhelms us. I’ve been a law enforcement officer for over fifteen years and a detective for ten of those years. I was already exposed to death and human tragedy before moving to my current position as a traffic homicide investigator three years ago. However, part of my responsibility in this new position is to notify the next of kin when someone dies in a traffic crash. Each time I do so, I mentally prepare myself as I drive to their home to deliver the news.

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