From Vol. 6, Issue 2, February 2024
Who cares? Stoics do
Stoics empathize, but are not overwhelmed
As Stoics, we feel empathy with people in distress, righteous anger at injustice, and joy when suffering is ameliorated. What we don’t do is let ourselves get overwhelmed by these emotions. Stoic caring isn’t about feeling the feelings, it’s about using the feelings to spur us to action rather than letting them be an impediment to action. Even joy is a reminder not to rest on your laurels, but to continue to take actions whose results will bring about another moment of joy.
Pursuing the virtue of justice
I’m a Catholic, and I believe that, as the apostle James tells us, “faith without works is dead.” It’s part of my religion to do good in the world – not just to care, but to care enough to do something. Similarly, my Stoic beliefs would be hollow to me if I did not pursue the virtue of Justice by trying to make the lives that touch mine a little better. Seneca put it this way: “works not words.” (Moral Letters, 20). It’s no wonder that the early Christians admired his writings.
We need to do what we can
I believe that it’s a mistake to do nothing because you can only do a little. I see homeless people all around me in New York. I cannot feed and house all of them, but I can advocate, and vote for leaders who can make systemic change. I make sure that Helen, the homeless woman on my block, has warm blankets in the winter and cold water in the summer. I want her to have a home of her own and support to live a life of dignity. Until then I will help her care for her everyday needs as best I can.
After 9/11, I joined my Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) for my neighbourhood. My fellow team members and I trained to administer first aid, direct traffic, conduct triage assessment, and do all manner of important tasks to support our first responders in case of disaster. The first and most important lesson I was taught by the Office of Emergency Management was to “care for the caregiver.” If you are caring for a sick loved one, participating in a community activism group, or volunteering at a shelter, it is imperative that you care for yourself so you can be safe, strong, healthy, and powerful to care for others. Stoics care; we care for our communities, our classrooms, our environment, and for ourselves. It is not selfish to care for your needs, it is imperative.
My CERT team included older people, some with mobility issues, and even one person who used a portable oxygen concentrator. That didn’t stop us from doing the best we could according to our abilities. We measured snow levels during storms and checked on neighbours when the power went out. When a gas line exploded in a building in the neighbourhood, we ran a clothing drive for people who’d lost everything.
We have come into being to work together like feet, hands, eyelids, and the teeth in upper and lower jaws. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1
He uses the analogy of the harmony of the human body to demonstrate how we should care for others. One single snaggly tooth won’t do much good on a cob of corn, you need the partnership of your other choppers to grab onto the kernels. Just like we need our upper and lower decks of teeth to work together to nourish our bodies, we need to work together to create harmony in the world.
I don’t know if my fellow team members were Stoics, but they were motivated by the same impulse – to do good in the world. They cared. They practiced the virtue of justice. Epictetus tells us that with every accident, we should ask ourselves, what abilities we have to deal with it. (Enchiridion, 10.) This could have been the motto of my CERT team.
Being honourable, being useful
Ralph Waldo Emerson, sometimes known as the American Stoic, wrote that the purpose of life is not individual happiness, it is “to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I agree with him, but I also believe that living your life according to Stoic principles will lead you to the flourishing, happy state of eudaimonia.
So, who cares? Stoics do.
Karen Duffy is a producer, actress, and former MTV VJ. Her latest book on Stoicism. Wise Up (https://amzn.to/3PpLv5D) is published by Seal Press.