Stoic Insights for Happier Relationships

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The Mission Daily Episode 39: Stoic Insights for Happier Relationships

In ancient Rome, there was an entrepreneur-turned-statesman named Lucius Seneca. He was a philosopher who counted himself among the Roman Stoics. Seneca started from humble beginnings and rose to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world at the time. Some people say he was like a modern day investment banker, but he was a bit more difficult to classify than that. He was an entrepreneur who built up a fortune, lost most of it, and faced exile for years before eventually returning to Rome. Slowly, Seneca rebuilt his fortune. Towards the peak of his power, he was a bit like a venture capitalist or entrepreneur-in-residence for the Roman State. Seneca tutored the Roman Emperor, Nero, and was regarded by many as one of the wisest men in Rome.

Seneca’s success and popularity had turned him into an enemy of the state, and towards the end of his life, he was faced with death for the crime of being too good. The corrupt emperor, Nero, who sentenced Seneca to death, didn’t realize that Seneca was a master of long-term thinking. Seneca strategized as to how his teachings would survive and grow after he was gone. He knew the state would confiscate and destroy nearly everything he owned, so he needed a way to make his teachings antifragile. He compiled many of his teachings and philosophies into letters, which he strategically mailed to his friend, Lucilius. Those letters which Seneca wrote to Lucilius became a book called Letters from a Stoic, or sometimes called Seneca’s Epistles.

In letter IX of Seneca’s Epistles, he writes to Lucilius and relays with admiration the story of Stilbo, a practicing Roman Stoic. Being a practicing stoic meant that he would occasionally go through the mental practice of writing things off, or preparing in advance for the loss of certain things. We’ve seen earlier that reflecting on our own mortality is an endless well for our motivational thirst. The practice of considering losing what, and who, we love is no different. This practice forces us to face the present moment with gratitude. It forces us into engagement and ensures that we properly value those we love today, while we still have them.

Seneca told Lucilius a story to illustrate this point. This story is not meant to be callous or flippant, but told with the greatest sympathy and admiration. The story told was of a stoic named Stilbo who had been traveling away from home. When he returned, he found that barbarians had sacked his city. His wife and his entire family had been killed. This was the madness of those ancient times. In assessing the damaged city, Stilbo was asked, “What have you lost?” Stilbo answered, “Nihil perditi. Omnia mea mecum sunt!” Or, in English:

“I have lost nothing. My goods are all with me.”

At first glance, it may certainly seem that Stilbo’s response, and Seneca’s praise of it, is incredibly cold. But to understand the deeper meaning of Stilbo’s response, we must investigate the Stoic philosophy towards life and relationships. We must recognize that the Stoics had an ideal mental state they were pursuing in life. That state was apatheia.

Apatheia is the mental state of being undisturbed by lesser emotions; a state where nothing can be taken from us because we have properly valued everything and everyone while they were with us. The Latin word “apatheia” doesn’t relate to “apathy,” but translates most closely to the English word “equanimity.” It could even be considered synonymous with contentment.

Apatheia is a mental state where we don’t let petty annoyances and passions direct our aims. We accept that we’ll face losses, and distressing events will happen. It’s only with that recognition that we are prompted to place the proper value on loved ones while they’re still here. The Stoics recognized that the most prudent way to alleviate the sting of future losses lies in the ability to properly value and be content in every present relationship.

Seneca praised the story of Stilbo in his letters to Lucilius as a poignant reminder. He also wanted to ensure that the value in Stilbo’s story would not go unrecorded in history.

“…If a man can reduce his needs to zero, he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.” –John Boyd

A Few Thoughts on Apatheia

For most humans, apatheia is not an easily attainable goal. It’s impossible to always value everything appropriately in the present. But apatheia is such a lofty goal for a specific reason. Lofty goals have the tendency to propel us to greater feats of accomplishment. When we fight hard to accomplish the seemingly impossible, we find ourselves either accomplishing it, or worse case, we expand our definition of possible. When we aren’t afraid to nurse massive (sometimes seemingly impossible) goals, we are lifted up to achieve far more than if we had been “reasonable.” Being reasonable or realistic rarely has a useful purpose.

The person with the courage to pursue the ideal state of apatheia is rewarded with more meaning than they might otherwise have won. It’s only by having audacious goals that we make any progress at all. It’s in the pursuit of these things that we find a balanced satisfaction, and blissful contentment. The pursuit of the unattainable quietly forces us to make progress every single day.

This place of continual struggle for progress is the only way to look back on the past and be satisfied. Pursuit of apatheia in the present means that we create a reservoir of positive memories which we get to hold onto and reflect on with satisfaction of a life well-lived. As we grow older and wiser, we’ll store up golden memories for old age.

The person with the will to pursue contentment or apatheia is rewarded with the satisfaction of a life fully lived. No matter what blows fate might bring, their relationships have been properly valued, and their goods are always with them.

There are two central practices in fighting our way towards apatheia in relationships: curiosity and growth. These practices help us spark better connections, prompt more meaningful conversations, and prevent wasting time in arguments.

When Curiosity Blends with Growth

Curiosity doesn’t mean just mindlessly asking questions, but asking well-thought-out questions. Asking great questions comes from writing lists of possible questions, practicing them beforehand, and then picking the best ones to help us get to know our friends or partner better.

What stops us from being curious is often our ego. A certain amount of ego dissolution is necessary to begin the process. Once we sidestep ego, we can remove the fear which accompanies asking challenging questions — the fear of being wrong, of saying something stupid, or of misspeaking. Genuine curiosity can spark connections that make meaningful relationships.

Consider this test: When was the last time someone was actively curious about your endeavors, preferences, likes, dislikes, aspirations or ambitions? These types of personal, curious questions are rarely ever asked. When someone does ask us careful, compassionate questions, we remember them forever.

These are the interactions our friends or partners might remember for years. Curiosity precedes the type of connections and bonds which will endure whatever fate throws our way. Curiosity is the key to empathy, which is the cornerstone on which everything else is built.

When we stay curious, we multiply the moments and chances we have to connect, reconnect, and build our relationship. Our minds are naturally creative in this state. Curiosity breaks the barriers of imagined differences, and we see most of our problems as fleeting.

Curiosity keeps us resourceful. This practice has the by-product of keeping us open to opportunity in life. The curious person is more likely to stumble on secrets, compelling anecdotes, or find a reason to keep going when all looks hopeless.

Now, we’ll mix growth with curiosity to help produce even more meaning in our relationships. Here are three equations to help build curiosity and growth in our relationships.

An Equation for Apatheia

Curiosity without Growth = Satisfaction, but eventually pain. This inevitably brings the regret of looking back and wishing we had done more.

Growth without Curiosity = Some meaning, but we risk missing out on opportunities and serendipity. Growth without curiosity can lead to a rigid path where we’re always looking forward to a future accomplishment. We tend to miss out on exploring all the paths that are available to us.

Curiosity + Growth = Satisfaction, meaning, and a journey which is a joy to reflect on. This is one of the master equations for relationships. It leads towards uplifting relationships which get better with time, and offers us memories to reflect on when we face future loss. The journey becomes the reward, and we explore and live life fully.

Growth or progress in a relationship arrives when we take an enlightened view of our own mortality. When we set the goal of apatheia, we’re inspired to make progress.

So if growth and curiosity are key elements of successful relationships, why don’t more people choose them? The answers are all over the place. My guess is that it’s hard because it feels unnatural to do at first. It’s difficult to put these practices into action. It requires huge amounts of faith that the upfront investment will prevent future pain. Undertaking a path of growth and curiosity together requires enduring periods of uncertainty.

The person who remains ignorant of the benefits of these practices usually underestimates the future suffering from not engaging in them today.

When we seek to grow, we’ll naturally feel uncertainty and ignorance while we’re moving out of our element. Many people think this is a signal that they are stupid or not cut out for it. This is the point where they typically shut down, become defensive, blame others, or give up the pursuit. This person continues to remain ignorant, thinking their meaning will always be elusive.

On the other hand, the person who introduces growth and curiosity into their relationships is well on their way to building meaningful memories. The person who pursues apatheia understands that feeling ignorant about something is just a precursor for growth. It’s only through enduring temporary feelings of ignorance that we’re able to learn anything.

After a short time on this path, pieces of knowledge gained in uncertainty have a tendency to compound. We’re never afraid to ask the questions that matter. Soon, we begin connecting deeply in relationships.

Growing personally is the best way we can show how committed we are to our relationships. The best way we can thank a partner or friend who has supported us is by growing and becoming curious. When both parties in a relationship are aiming towards contentment or apatheia, the load of the work is lightened.

For a deeper dive into how you can build better relationships, listen to:

The Mission Daily Episode 39: Stoic Insights for Happier Relationships

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Author: Chad Grills

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