Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.