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From Vol. 3, Issue 2, February 2021

Taking Responsibility


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A morning walk with my banker

This morning, I met my bank’s branch manager as I was taking a walk. I asked him how he was doing: he sighed and said that times were really hard. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis are starting to affect his clients, entrepreneurs in the area of Paris I live in. “We’re doing all we can to help our clients not go out of business, but sometimes, what we have to do is help them put an end to what they patiently built over the years.”

A time to fight, a time to persevere

How do you know, I asked myself, when is the time to fight and persevere and when is the time to let go? Stoic advice is clear: you should put your effort on what is under your control and let go of what is not. This presupposes that there is a clear line between both.

Imagine you own a restaurant and with lockdown, you’re going out of business. The government has provided financial support during the first lockdown; a little less during the second one. Your bank manager has already given you a loan to pay the rent and you would need another one to make it through the summer. But your bank manager won’t give you a second loan. In his opinion, you’d better close your restaurant down.

Is it quitting time?

Should you quit? And if so, when?

It’s the truth I’m after », Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself, « and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in selfdeceit and ignorance. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.21

Fine. But as human beings, we are always ignorant of something, there is always a part of reality that escapes us. And it is precisely because we don’t know everything that we go beyond ourselves, that we take risks in life. In situations where the future is particularly unclear (such as now), what depends on us is how we use our judgment to evaluate the situation and take the risk we are comfortable with. There is no absolute truth to look for.

If there is one thing you can’t control, it is the government’s decision to shut restaurants down. Don’t lose any energy there, Marcus Aurelius could have told you — don’t spend a second being angry or resentful. Put your energy in choosing the way you are going to look at the world and the situation.

It’s the pursuit of these things [things that are outside your control], and your attempts to avoid them, that leave you in such turmoil. And yet they aren’t seeking you out, you are the one seeking them.- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.21

Taking responsibility

Marcus Aurelius, and Stoics in general, are asking us to take responsibility — not for what happens in the world — things that are external to us — but for what we think, the way we frame the world — things that are internal to us. It is in this part of the soul, the ruling faculty (hegemonikon) that we have freedom. Having people inside the restaurant is not possible for the moment. But many other things are possible: cooking, take-aways, organizing virtual cooking classes with your customers… But maybe that’s not what you want to do, and it is time for you to accept that all things have an end. The way we look at the world opens up new possibilities for action - and that could mean imagining new ways of moving on to something else. It’s for you to decide.

Flora Bernard co-founded the Paris-based philosophy agency, Thae, in 2013. Flora now works to help organisations give meaning to what they do.