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From Vol. 3, Issue 4, April 2021

What Are You Giving Up?


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The ancient Stoic Epictetus was keenly aware of this question. In Epictetus’ Discourses, chapter 4, part 10, he rattles off the fearful questions that many of us ask about our future careers, social status, physical condition, or other externals: “What shall I do? How will it be? How will it turn out? I only hope this, or that, doesn’t happen to me.”'

A simple way to decide

If someone came to him with these questions, Epictetus says he would point out: “Now doesn’t the future lie outside the sphere of choice? – ‘Yes.’ – And doesn’t the nature of the good and the bad lie within the sphere of choice? – ‘Yes indeed.’ – So whatever may happen, isn’t it possible for you to make use of it in accordance with nature?” He argues that as long as we are attending to our choices and doing what’s right, we may even be confronted with death, and it would be a good way to go.

Dangers of external pursuits

Then the discussion gets really interesting. Epictetus talks about the dangers of “wishing for anything that is not your own” since “nothing can be gained without cost”.

For example, “If you want to be consul, you must stay up at night, rush this way and that, kiss men’s hands, rot away at other men’s doors, say and do much that isn’t suitable for a free man, send presents to many people…” Even if the end result is the highest leadership of Rome, is it worth it? Again: What are you giving up for a fleeting, external sense of power?

This made me think of US stateswoman and law professor Anne- Marie Slaughter’s famous article in The Atlantic in 2012, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. The piece appeared when I myself was trying to balance raising young kids and working. Slaughter said professional women were caught in a difficult bind because they couldn’t be an active, present parent for their children while also pursuing high-power, highdemand roles.

In the years after she shared her story, Slaughter has come to argue that this problem applies to all people, not just women. In an interview with The Washington Post, Slaughter captured the wider problem. The article notes that “we give caregivers the shaft, dismissing stay-at-home parents at dinner parties, barely paying nannies a living wage and punishing those who take career breaks to focus on family with a challenging on-ramp back to the professional world. We have no national standard for paid parental leave or universal child care. But she doesn’t define this simply as a woman’s issue. Slaughter heard from enough men to see an often overlooked end of the equation: that the pressure to be the breadwinner comes at the expense of time and relationships with family.

The pressure cooker boils over

Now, during the pandemic, this pressure-cooker has boiled over. Without daycare or in-person school, many mothers have had to leave jobs to care for young kids, and dads are also carrying a lot of the load (statistically, it’s overwhelmingly women who quit jobs). Parents are stuck in hard places, coping with the demands of externals to put food on the table for their children - an understandable need.

We know the price we need to pay

But deep down, we all know that the price to be paid for the pursuit of externals is very real. Epictetus’ thinking brought that home in a different context so many years ago; the concept remains much the same. And at the very least, we ought to become aware of the choices we are making, and what we may be giving up.

Meredith A. Kunz is a Silicon valley-based writer. You can follow her on her website or @Thestoicwoman