This article is part of the weekly Epictetus series. New articles will be published every Monday.
What would a Stoic do if he saw someone crying? Does he think to himself ‘this is none of my business’ and move on? Does he try to reason with the person and explain that his sadness is created by his own opinions and not by what happened? These would be rather cold-hearted responses. Dogmatically, however, you might find that they are correct. As we have seen in part 5 of this series, “men are not disturbed by things, but by their opinions of things”.
Luckily (if I may say so), Stoicism is not particularly dogmatic in nature. Another belief that many Stoics share is that it is our duty to keep the global community of people healthy. And a bit of mental care and sympathy for a fellow-citizen in distress can go a long way. This is why Epictetus proposes the following reaction, as a combination of keeping ourselves in line with reason, while allowing consolation for others:
When you see someone crying in sadness because his child is away from home or because he has lost his possessions, take care that you are not carried away by the appearance, as if he is in distress because of external things, but immediately say: ‘he is not hurt by what happened (because someone else is not hurt), but he is hurt by his opinion about it’. Surely, as far as words go, don’t hesitate to sympathize with him, and if need be, even cry with him. But take care that you don’t cry internally as well.
So we may (or even must) console a person in need of consolation. We can listen to them, allow them to tell their story. We can even cry with them if the situation requires it. On the exterior, we can show all the sympathy and emotion that the other person needs. But on the inside, we must acknowledge the lessons that Stoicism taught us: nothing that happens can hurt us, if not for our opinion about it. Internally, don’t cry and be sad. Externally, do your best to help a person in need. After all, we Stoics are not the ice statues that some believe us to be. This paragraph of the Enchiridion proves just that.
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