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Epictetus and the paradox of self-care

October 13, 2016
When I was twenty years old and a student at the University of Winnipeg, my favourite philosopher was a relatively minor Greek-speaking fellow named Epictetus (AD 55-135). A noted stoic philosopher, Epictetus, whose named means "acquired", was born a slave. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he had difficulty walking since childhood. With the permission of his master, he studied stoicism under Musonius Rufus, and obtained his freedom sometime around the year 68. He spent the remainder of his life as a philosophy teacher, living simply and mostly alone, save for raising an abandoned child with the help of a woman he knew. He left no writings of his own but inspired his student Arrian to preserve and publish his teachings. 
As a stoic, Epictetus held that happiness was a negative quality, amounting to a lack of perturbation. He held that to be happy we must distinguish between what's in our control, and what's out of our control. Only "opinions, impulses, desires and aversions," i.e. mental states, are in our control. The rest is not up to us, so the key to happiness is in practicing mental toughness in the face of whatever fate throws at us. 
When I was home this summer visiting my mother and grandmother I pulled a copy of Epictetus off the shelf. I discovered at once my favourite passage, which  I believe challenges us to confront our mortality and to consider philosophically our worldly attachments:
"Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time." (Enchiridion, section VII) 
Fifteen years since I first read it, I can still see why it mattered to me. At twenty, I lacked control over my emotions and the uncertainty of life loomed large. I had just been to visit a good friend of mine in palliative care; he died of a brain tumour just shy of his twentieth birthday and, cruelly, spent the last year of his life robbed of his ability to do the things he loved to do most, like play guitar. I think virtually anyone could relate to the wisdom of Epictetus, which amounts to an apology for self-care and resilience in a world that often strikes us as violent, precarious and absurd. But now, several years into my career and on the wrong side of thirty-five, I also get something very different and not altogether comforting from those words. 
Epictetus wrote at a time of political decline and uncertainty, much like our own. In fact, it's striking how stoicism mirrors the self-help literature of today. We are exhorted on all sides to practice self-care and to adjust our expectations in life if we're to be happy and succeed. This is certainly sound advice; I can't expect to be happy or even minimally function unless I can get my life and my health under control. But I worry - as many others have worried - that self-care also serves to shore up the status quo.
If, for example, I am a mature student and I find the demands of working, raising a family and going to school overwhelming, then the mantra of self-care can be comforting if not lifesaving. It tells me that I have a modicum of control, which is an empowering thing to hear. But it can also drive home the idea that my hectic schedule and my lack of work-life-balance are ultimately up to me to address and to resolve. Is this really true? What if we had universal daycare in our country, or longer, better-paid parental leaves, or a six-hour workday? What progressive social policy options are feasible and desirable? These are fair questions and, notably, they entertain the idea that truly effective care of the self might imply the care of everyone else. 
So does this mean it's time to leave Epictetus behind? I don't think so. If we commit to the project of building a better world, then we need to look after ourselves and the stoic writings are still a master class in mental toughness. What I ultimately envision is a world where, when the captain calls me back to the boat, I can go running but feel assured that my wife, my child, and any other person I shared this planet with will be well taken care of. 


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Matthew McLennan      November 06, 2016 at 21:30
Thanks Nathalie for this thoughtful comment. I think that what you describe here is compatible with what I understand ideal self-care to be, at least in a more rational, caring society.

The idea that your self-care involves a room of your own (so to speak) does not seem particularly selfish to me, since caring for others properly almost inevitably involves self-actualization (the extreme - and we have to be cautious about this - is the advertising slogan that as a mom, you deserve x or y or z, and that in fact your kids are counting on you to take care of yourself for their sake - so shell out!). If it seems selfish to need a room of your own in any respect, I think this is only relative to social values, usually sexist, that pose a false dilemma between caring for yourself and caring for your family. As the son of a single parent, I can remember that my mom often had to put what was good for me ahead of what was good for her - but not always, since my grandparents for example did a great job of relieving some of the stress by helping to look after me. Not everyone has that option, but imagine if this kind of thing was generalized: reliable and accessible care networks that could give you the time and space you need to self-actualize without sacrificing the well-being of your family. Rather than give up on people having a room of their own, I prefer we push things further in that direction and perhaps one day resolve the feeling you describe, of having one foot on land and one foot on the ship.
Nathalie Poirier      October 21, 2016 at 11:01
Wonderful blog Professor and interesting thoughts. If I understand correctly, you are suggesting that self-care may indeed mean that we as a society have in place social structures that allow for the proper care of our loved ones such as children, ageing parents, disabled children and adults, sick family members etc. in order for us to go to the ship when being called. I would agree, and I can only imagine the difference that this would of made in my life 23 years ago when doing my first undergraduate degree with two small children, very little financial means and an absent partner! However, what I find most interesting is that in your perception it is important that the family is well taken care of when being called to the ship, that somehow your self care is intertwined in their well being, this is without a doubt honourable and as mentioned an ideal that we as a society should strive for. My perspective is perhaps less honourable, and I would even say more selfish. For myself, the ship calling (school in this case) had to do with my own self care and leaving the children behind was what I had to do in order to save myself, to take care of my own mental and emotional well-being and unfortunately this was not always what was best for my children. It felt unnatural and un-motherly, even brought shame and guilt that I was doing what I needed to do for myself and leaving my children aside. My ship, was my saving grace away from all the responsibilities of motherhood and child rearing, in a world where there was no support from government or otherwise. So when the ship calls for you, your hopes are that of a family protected and well taken care of and rightly so, however, when my ship calls I know that my self-care lives and breaths on the ship and that my family will be well and taken care of because of it's existence.

The idea that we can go to our ship with a family that is safe and well looked after is a privileged position experienced by a only a handful, but I do know this, that if I do not practice self-care I have very little to offer, my self-care lies away from my children and responsibilities which I can never really seem to leave, so it seems that I have always one foot on the ship and one on shore, leaving my in a very uncomfortable and precarious position. I am brought back to Virginia Wolf's text in "A Room of One's Own" where her ship is that of fiction:

"All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have
money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the
great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved. I have
shirked the duty of coming to a conclusion upon these two questions—women and fiction
remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems. But in order to make some amends I am
going to do what I can to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the
money. I am going to develop in your presence as fully and freely as I can the train of thought
which led me to think this. Perhaps if I lay bare the ideas, the prejudices, that lie behind this statement you will find that they have some bearing upon women and some upon fiction. At
any rate, when a subject is highly controversial—and any question about sex is that—one
cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one
does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as
they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker"