By Scott Bennett
After starting Stoic Week (the week-long Stoic practice event hosted by Modern Stoicism) in 2021, I was struck by its emphasis on care for others (oikeiosis) and service to the world at large. Like many people, my entry to Stoicism was primarily an effort to quell my own negative emotions and get some control over the anxiety and depression that had been following me around for years. But what the Stoics actually teach is so easily missed from that starting point:
Our common life is founded on kindness and harmony; it is bound in a compact of mutual assistance, not by fear, but by love of one another.
- Seneca, On Anger, 1.5.3 (Ward Farnsworth translation)
The important thing is not how we feel, but what we do for others. This perspective shift showed me that I had been so focused on my own goals for so long that I had forgotten how much I used to want to do good in the world. I had lost track of anything that felt like purpose in life. I started looking for ways I could apply this lesson, and since I had struggled with suicidal thoughts many times in my life, that became my area of focus.
In the search to find something where I could contribute to the greater good, I found Crisis Text Line (crisistextline.org), a free, 24/7, text-based mental health support service. It operates similarly to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and other crisis hotlines, but is delivered via text or instant messenger service rather than voice phone call. (I have a neurological voice disorder that prevents me from doing this work over the phone.) CTL is there for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis. This is often suicidal ideation, but not exclusively. Because it is text based, their clients tend to be young, with over 70% being under 25.
The average conversation lasts 45-60 minutes, although if the texter is at imminent risk of suicide, they can last as long as two hours. An “imminent risk” texter is when someone has expressed suicidal thoughts, a plan, the means to carry out that plan, and a timeframe within 48 hours. Volunteers have a professional supervisor looking over their conversations, and stepping in with help when needed.
Talking to a stranger who is thinking about ending their own life soon is a massive responsibility, and those conversations put me into a state of sharpened focus. Reaching out to a crisis line is sometimes the last effort someone makes before attempting suicide. Taking someone from that level of intense pain to a cooler place of calm where they can stay safe is indescribable. I don’t know of anything else that yields that much satisfaction.
As someone trying to make progress on the Stoic path, this work offers some invaluable lessons and opportunities to practice key concepts.
The View From Above
To see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm or stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another, and leave it. Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.30, Gregory Hayes translation)
In doing this work, we’re exposed to the full scope of humanity and the problems we all face in common. I wasn’t expecting the diversity of conversations I would have. I knew I would talk to people thinking of ending their own life, but there are a lot more people just experiencing sadness or stress or fear, with nobody else they can talk to about it. I’ve had conversations about struggling with self harm, addiction, being homeless, feeling overwhelmed by work or school, and being in abusive relationships. I’ve talked to young kids, teenagers, adults, and the elderly. Gay, straight, transgender, white, black, brown. A much wider variety of people than I normally encounter in my daily life, and a constant reminder that the problems I face are not unique, and by contrast relatively mild.
Justice and Compassion
A key part of the service is being there for the other person with empathy. This requires being able to see things from their perspective, to understand what they are going through, and let them know that their feelings are valid. And for us as Stoics, it’s an opportunity to practice Enchiridion 16:
Whenever you see someone grieving at the departure of their child or the loss of their property, take care not to be carried away by the impression that they are in dire external straits, but at once have the following thought available: “What is crushing these people is not the event (since there are other people it does not crush) but their opinion about it.” Don’t hesitate, however, to sympathize with them in words and even maybe share their groans, but take care not to groan inwardly as well. (Enchiridion 16, Epictetus, A.A. Long translation)
The role calls for us to empathize and validate, but it would be quickly overwhelming to take on all this emotional upset inwardly. It requires compassion, but never sympathy, as nobody wants to feel pitied. Feeling heard and understood makes it possible to start to see a way out.
Another consideration is that we’re not there to give advice, to tell the other person what they should do, or share a story of how we dealt with something similar. These are natural human responses, and can be difficult to suppress. We can, however, brainstorm with the texter to help them find their own next steps to deal with their crisis. And in Socrates we have a perfect role model for how to do that with thoughtful questions, rather than prescriptive advice. This practice at active listening and Socratic questioning has given me skills that transfer directly to other parts of my life.
The Dichotomy of Control
But perhaps the biggest Stoic concept that gets a workout doing this is Epictetus’s fundamental rule, or what we think of as the dichotomy of control:
Some things are up to us and some are not. Up to us are judgment, inclination, desire, aversion–in short, whatever is our own doing. Not up to us are our bodies, possessions, reputations, public offices–in short, whatever isn’t our own doing. (Enchiridion 1, Epictetus, Robin Waterfield translation)
When I’m talking with someone in crisis, the part that’s up to me is limited to the messages I send. I can carefully listen to what the other person is saying, follow my training, and craft thoughtful responses. That’s it. What the other person does is not up to me. This is something I have seen fellow volunteers really struggle with- ending a difficult conversation with a suicidal texter, and not knowing whether they went on to make an attempt. As Stoics, though, we know that what matters is that we showed up and did our best. And while I would strongly prefer that the other person not take their own life, that’s something that’s within their circle of choice, not mine.
In my first year with CTL between Stoic Weeks in 2021 and 2022, I completed over 300 conversations in 225 hours. The averages say that some of those people probably went on to take their own life, despite my efforts. But I also know that there are at least a couple people alive today because of a conversation I had with them, and I’m more proud of that than any other work I’ve ever done.
Counterintuitively, spending that much time focusing on improving the cosmopolis has done a lot for my own equanimity. A renewed sense of purpose beyond my own small circle of problems has led to my anxiety and depression melting away. I’ve made lasting friendships with other volunteers who I look forward to seeing each week.
I couldn’t have come up with a better way to actively practice Stoicism.
Scott Bennett is a furniture and product designer in Denver, CO. After graduating from Loughborough University in automotive engineering and an early career designing racecars, he went on to found Housefish, a manufacturer of modern furniture. He discovered Stoicism after a chance encounter with a bust of Marcus Aurelius in Chicago, and is now an active member of the Stoic Salon and New York City Stoics.