(If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, send it to Massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.)
A. writes: I’m a reader of your work and a practitioner of Stoicism (thanks to your last handbook for new Stoics). I recently fell in love with a woman. The ‘thing’ is: she has a child, 8 years old. I wish to be my best with her, so I am seeking advice from a Stoic perspective about this kind of relationship (i.e., dating a single mother). I found some terrible article published by the “red pill” community (of which I knew nothing at the time). They used Stoicism to promote character, but at the same time they urge people not to date a single mom because it’s a trap made by women who cannot assume their own responsibilities. I admit I fell for it, because I was impressed by their apparent knowledge (for a layman like me) of Stoicism. I felt so bad that I talk about it with my girlfriend and I almost broke up with her. I’m into Stoicism, and I try to practice the dichotomy of control, but why then did I panic? Why can’t I enjoy my relationship as a preferred indifferent? Do you have some tips about dating a single mom and cultivating wisdom and virtue at the same time?
Let me start with the basics: it shouldn’t take the might of Stoic philosophy to realize that the red pill community is sick in the soul, and that it is insane to say that “women” spend their time springing traps at the expense of men, because they don’t want to take on their own responsibilities. The misogyny that motivates that sort of “thinking” ought to be obvious.
The second thing to note — as I’ve written in the past — is that it is a bit misleading to ask questions along the lines of “is X Stoic?” or similar. That’s because Stoicism is about improving your own character, not about performing specific actions.
Let me give you an example. Suppose someone asks whether donating to charity is a Stoic thing. The answer is: it depends. Are they donating because they are genuinely concerned about the specific cause? Then the action seems like a good exercise of their virtue. Are they donating because they want to flaunt what they are doing in order to impress other people? Or to get a tax benefit? Then the action does not seem to spring from a virtuous attitude.
And, by the way, that’s what virtue is: an attitude, an attribute of one’s character. So it makes no sense to ask whether an action is virtuous or not, from a Stoic perspective. We can only ask whether the agent is doing X from within a virtuous frame of mind.
Which brings me to your case: can you be dating a single mom and cultivate wisdom? Yes, of course. The virtue, again, doesn’t reside in the action, but in your motivations for the action. Do you love this woman? If so, what does it matter — outside of obvious and addressable pragmatic considerations — whether she has a child or not?
Indeed, if the situation is complex, say, in financial, or emotional terms (it’s not easy to suddenly step into the life of an 8-yr old), then that’s precisely how you will exercise your virtue. Consider what Epictetus writes:
“This is what you will see skillful ball players doing also. None of them is concerned about the ball as being something good or bad, but about throwing and catching it. Accordingly, form has to do with that, skill with that, and speed, and grace; where I cannot catch the ball even if I spread out my cloak, the expert catches it if I throw. Yet if we catch or throw the ball in a flurry or in fear, what fun is there left, and how can a man be steady, or see what comes next in the game? But one player will say ‘Throw!’ another, ‘Don’t throw!’ and yet another, ‘Don’t throw it up!’ That, indeed, would be a strife and not a game. In that sense, then, Socrates knew how to play ball. How so? He knew how to play in the law-court. ‘Tell me,’ says he, ‘Anytus, what do you mean when you say that I do not believe in God. In your opinion who are the daemones? Are they not either the offspring of the gods or a hybrid race, the offspring of men and gods?’ And when Anytus had agreed to that statement Socrates went on, ‘Who, then, do you think, can believe that mules exist, but not asses?’ In so speaking he was like a man playing ball. And at that place and time what was the ball that he was playing with? Imprisonment, exile, drinking poison, being deprived of wife, leaving children orphans. These were the things with which he was playing, but none the less he played and handled the ball in good form.” (Discourses, II.5)
Think of yourself, perhaps a bit immodestly, as Socrates: you have been handled a particular ball to “play” with. A relationship with a single mother of an 8-yr old child. How you handle this ball is up to you, you have control over your own decisions — though, of course, not over the outcomes. You may do your best, for instance, and the child may still not grow to accept you. But so long as you did your best, you have nothing to regret.
As for why you panicked even though you understand and practice the dichotomy of control, the answer is that you are not a sage, yet. (To be frank, sages are pretty rare, so don’t count on actually becoming one.) Stoicism is not a magic wand, it doesn’t provide you with sudden immunity from human frailties. It only helps you to cope with such frailties, and hopefully to gradually overcome them.
If you love this woman, be with her. And for crying out loud, delete even the URL of the darn red pill community. They are not good for your soul.