Practical advice: my grandfather threatens to end our relationship if he doesn’t have his way

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G. writes: My grandfather, who is quite old, had a serious heart attack problem and he had been very close to die. In fact, his heart stopped beating for a serious amount of time. Sadly, he is also out of his mind meaning that he does not listen to the doctors or anybody. He continuous smoking and driving, putting his life and the lives of others at risk. He has reached a point where he doesn’t really care if the lives or die.

He has been asking me to go and buy him some cigarettes. Since I know that this is unhealthy for him, I refused explaining to him my concern for his health. He asked me the same favor for a second time, when I went to visit him and I refused again. He became furious and said some big words like “We are never going to talk again. You are dead to me.” He told me that I should be ashamed for not buying him his cigarettes. I made a grave mistake, while possessed by anger, and told him that he is the one who should be ashamed for putting an end to such a relationship and saying such words for a few cigarettes. It was a silly thing to say on my side. He is not in a position to understand and I admittedly made things worse. Now, since I know him well, he can hold to this fight till the end. He is known for getting into fights, spoiling relationships and never asking for forgiveness. He believes he is always right! He is a difficult person. From my part, I will tell him that I am sorry for my words, since that is under my control, but I am almost sure that he will remain stone cold, feeling betrayed. 

Epictetus says: “Everything has two handles and it may be carried by one of these handles, but not by the other. If your brother acts wrongly towards you, don’t try to grasp the matter by this handle, that he is wronging you (because that is the handle by which it can’t be carried), but rather by the other, that he is your brother, he was brought up with you, and then you will be grasping the matter by the handle by which it can be carried.” 

Should I respect his stance and stop paying him a visit, but at the same time be on his side in time of need? He has my father, my grandmother, my uncle and my aunt on his side. Should I buy him his cigarettes since that is what he wants, he doesn’t care if he lives or die and he does not harm others but himself ? It’s complicated. I feel sad but that’s normal. What is the right handle? 

The right handle is precisely the one Epictetus is point to in the quote you mentioned: that he is your grandfather, that what he does is up to him, while you should be concerned with what you do, i.e., with your side of the relationship. Marcus Aurelius is useful too in these situations:

Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them. (Meditations, VIII.59)

You have tried to teach your grandfather, explaining to him your concern about his health and why you don’t think it appropriate to buy him cigarettes. He is not inclined to listen to you. So your only alternative is to bear with him.

Frankly, if I were you, I would get him his cigarettes. If he wishes to die while smoking, so be it. He is old, and it is his life. You can only be concerned with your relationship with him, which is going to be impossible to sustain if you don’t accede to his request. As you put it, the cigarettes will only harm him, not others.

However, the issue is quite different when it comes to his driving. As you also pointed out, in that case he is not just a danger to himself, but to others as well. Should he suffer a fatal heart attack while driving, he is likely to hurt or kill someone else.

So it is up to you to make it so that he will not be able to drive, if necessary by confiscating his license and car keys. The reason I’m saying this from a Stoic perspective is because of Epictetus’ role ethics, as magisterially explained by my colleague and friend Brian Johnson in his The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. (My author-approved commentary here.)

According to Epictetus we play three classes of roles in life: the universal role of a member of the human cosmopolis, a variety of roles the circumstances impose on us (e.g., being someone’s grandson), and a variety of roles we choose given our circumstances (e.g., being someone’s friend).

The general idea is to balance the second and third classes of roles as best as we can, but that the first class trumps the other two. In other words, never do anything that undermines the cosmopolis, even if one of your other roles puts pressure on you to do just that. In this case, I think, your duty to the cosmopolis overrides your grandfather’s reckless will to keep driving.

Of course, this will likely get you back to square one: your grandfather will be angry with you, and he may threaten again to end your relationship. In this case, however, you are justified in taking that risk because you are trying to protect innocent third parties who may get hurt.

One more piece of advice, if you don’t mind. Try to refrain from statements like “He is known for getting into fights, spoiling relationships and never asking for forgiveness. He believes he is always right! He is a difficult person.” Those judgments may or may not reflect the reality of who your grandfather is. But even if they do, they are not charitable, and therefore they may get in the way of you acting reasonably toward him, instead fueling your anger and resentment. 

Moreover, you probably don’t know enough about your grandfather to appreciate where his attitude comes from, as he lived a good chunk of his life before you were even born. And, finally, who’s to say that you may not behave in an equally unreasonable manner, if your places were exchanged? Which reminds me of two more pertinent quotes:

Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? (Enchiridion 45)

And:

When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. (Meditations, X.30)
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