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Q - How can a Stoic comfort someone who is very emotional?

A - There are two situations. Either the emotions are due to something the person can control or they are due to something they cannot control.

Epictetus specifically listed a person’s body in the category of what a person cannot control. In modern terms, Westerners tend to support this very point when we talk about “chemical imbalances.” When a chemical imbalance is the cause of the extreme emotions, a Stoic can comfort a friend or relative by helping them contact competent medical help. This is simply like encouraging kith or kin to see a doctor to set a bone or perform an operation.

The category of what we can control in life pretty much boils down to how we reason. If a person’s reason is the root cause of their unstable emotions, then Stoicism is the most effective, most efficient, and most ethical known solution. However, most people that are very emotional consider Stoic advice as simply another opinion from somebody they know. Nevertheless, the wise course for the Stoic is to continue responding with Stoic ideas to the emotional person, when appropriate. This means speaking the ideas. There is a tremendous power in the spoken word - the Logos. But, if the person you love does not take you and Stoicism seriously, they might be more responsive to recommendations to visit a psychologist that practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This therapy is the current Academic approach that is closest to Stoicism. Many people have first taken Stoic ideas from this psychology and have ended up pursuing true Stoicism.

Still, it is important to remember that comforting another is not something that you can control. We have a saying that the other person must be hungry, honest, and humble. We call it the three Hs. It is similar to the Stoic idea embedded in English as, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Hungry means the person must be ready to correct a problem in themselves they recognize. Honest means they must recognize truth when they encounter it, and they must be intellectually able to know themselves well enough to identify what blend of the two categories above is causing their extreme emotions. Humble means they must be willing to change their thinking and lifestyle. As you can see, this is the origin of the phrase, “Ready, able, and willing.”

Another thing a well-trained Stoic must practice is captured in English by the saying, “Mind your own business.” The Stoic School demonstrates how Nature defines what is your business and what isn’t. The School teaches that your business includes the things 1) that benefit you, or, 2) that you have a duty to do, or 3) that bring you enjoyment.

Therefore, 1) if comforting the other person does not benefit you in a great way, and 2) if you do not have a duty to comfort the person, and 3) you do not enjoy spending the energy necessary to do so, then it is best to realize that the matter is none of your business. You are witnessing Universal Reason pulling the person’s reason and body toward Right Reason; and that process neither needs nor will allow your help, just as gravity neither needs nor allows your help. This is how the Stoic School helps you identify and avoid toxic relationships (or, as Stoics in Eastern Europe put it, “psychic vampires”).

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