Even now as Stoicism has spread in a resurgence around the world, many people still think of it as a “stiff upper lip.” Some see it as a tough, uncompromising ideology that can turn us into modern-day Spartans, impervious to our own pain and unconcerned with the suffering of others.
But these views are narrow and inaccurate. In my vision of Stoic thinking and practice, it’s a way of cultivating our inner resources to make us stronger and better humans, more capable of living fully in the world, and more realistic and reasonable about our place in it.
And that’s why I believe that you can be a Stoic and cultivate compassion for the suffering of other human beings (as well as yourself). In other words: Stoic compassion is not an oxymoron!
I recently gave a talk about how the two approaches—Stoicism and compassion cultivation—can work together side-by-side for the Stoics Care conference. I’d like to share a few highlights of that talk here. You can also check out the video here:
Why Stoic compassion?
Why did I turn to both Stoicism and compassion cultivation, and combine them together in my own life? A number of years ago, I went through a period when I was very stressed. I experienced stress at work, the stress of family needs, financial stress, everyday life stress. And politics played a big role—the divisions and rancor that grew in the public sphere in the US in 2016 was off the charts, and this situation hasn’t subsided since. I felt disconnected and sad and wanted to have a more positive connection with other people. I started practicing Stoicism and then in fall 2016 I took a course on Compassion Cultivation that has influenced me ever since.
The word compassion comes from Latin for “with suffering.” It begins with acknowledging that people face pain, loss, and adversity. The core of compassion is “being there” for others, wishing them happiness and peace. Put simply: “Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of another, along with a desire to alleviate that suffering,” according to James Doty, a co-founder of Compassion Cultivation Training. This 8-week training program that originated at Stanford University in 2009 focuses on insights from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. It aims to build calm and resilience in the practitioner, and to give techniques to learn how to grow a compassion muscle in ourselves so that we can spread compassion to others.
Compassion allows us to be with another person’s pain without absorbing it into our own being—preserving our sense of inner strength. Compassion for others is a resource that won’t run out, as long as we take care of our own internal resources.
Some people think that if Stoics truly follow their philosophy, they won’t suffer themselves, and perhaps there is nothing that they can do for the suffering of others. I have two things to say to that: first off, we all know many other loved ones, friends, colleagues who are not Stoics and who suffer. And it is our duty as humans—and as Stoics who believe in common humanity, cosmopolitanism, and that need for pro-social interactions inborn in all people—to care about these others and to support them. Second, we ourselves are not Stoic sages and are imperfect beings. That means we are bound to feel negative emotions and suffering, and we must also support and tend to ourselves.
What do Stoicism and compassion have in common?
Now let’s get to the heart of what Stoicism and compassion cultivation have in common.
Both are inexhaustible inner resources. Once you build and maintain these mindsets within yourself, they will never run out! That’s really the key here. You grow Stoic approaches and compassion in your mindset, attitude, and personal practices. Through mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness practices, journaling to encourage and analyze your approach, reading to re-set your mind, and new ways of being with other people, you light this fire within yourself. I will share a bit more about some of these practices at the end of this post.
I like to think of my Stoic and compassion practices like a flame within me. I can use that flame to improve relationships with other people and myself.
In this way, compassion can be the “missing piece” that connects your Stoic practice to other humans. In other words, you can unite your Stoic ruling center with a compassionate ability to support other people and yourself through adversity.
To build Stoic compassion, keep in mind these Stoic and compassionate concepts:
In a future blog post, I’ll dive deeper into self-compassion. For now, I’d like to briefly address how Stoic compassion is different from our typical concept of empathy, and why it is preferable.
Stoic compassion vs. empathy
Most often, people approach others’ suffering through the lens of empathy and emotional identification with pain. It sounds OK in theory, but empathy has flaws. Empathy (or emotional empathy) usually means putting yourself in the shoes of the suffering person. It can lead to feeling emotionally drained and experiencing “empathy fatigue”—especially for caregivers or medical professionals.
Often, empathy leads to entangling your response with negative emotions stemming from the other person (fear, anger, hurt, remorse, jealousy, etc.). You try to help but feel yourself becoming overwhelmed. You may experience a sense of powerlessness or guilt when you realize you can’t fix the other person’s problems, or make different choices for him or her. Ultimately, this could lead to you withdrawing from the suffering person due to frustration, fatigue, or despair.
The ancient Stoics understood the pitfalls of empathy and taught a form of compassion that avoided emotional over-identification. Both Stoicism and Compassion Cultivation acknowledge that only certain things are up to up and that we need to stop trying to control or fix other people.
Epictetus said that “you should not disdain to sympathize” with people who are suffering, “at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” He then added: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.” (Enchiridion, Chapter 16)
This sounds harsh to our ears, yet I think it’s a reflection of a form of compassion, one in which we share sympathy and loving expressions, but we do not give our soul over to the other’s pain. We maintain the integrity of our own hearts in order to stay strong for others in a more sustainable, long-term way.
Exercises to build Stoic compassion
Here are a few exercises for building Stoic compassion:
Mindfulness meditation is not specific to compassion cultivation training, but it is a practice widely accepted to calm and center the mind. We sit quietly, follow our breath, and let our chaotic thoughts flow out of our minds. (You’ll still have thoughts occur to you, of course, but you’ll be able to let them go more easily—and observe them less judgmentally—if you practice this kind of meditation regularly.) Once we are more grounded and relaxed, we are more open to experiencing compassion.
Loving-kindness meditation is a classic practice derived from Buddhism (where it is called metta) that plays a strong role in encouraging compassion towards ourselves and others. The focus is to feel compassion without any sense of judgment, and without wanting anything in return. Here is a quick review of how it works:
A more advanced type of compassion-oriented meditation is called tonglen, which originated in Tibetan Buddhist practice. It’s not recommended for beginners because it can sometimes bring up tough emotions or negativity.
Here’s a quick explanation of tonglen, if you feel ready to try it:
In addition to meditating, journaling is another excellent way to combine compassion training and Stoic practice. It’s a Stoic tradition dating back centuries.
You can write in your journal how your meditations are going and what aspects are hard for you, exploring why. You can investigate challenges in your life and share supportive thoughts to “be there” as a friend for yourself.
You can also use your journal to cultivate gratitude, recognizing what you love and appreciate about other people. You can also write about aspects of their lives that you’d like to build compassion for, even if you disagree with the person’s decisions or approach. A more advanced practice would be to journal about those who are tough to feel compassion for, and imagine their inner struggles.
All of these are ways to grow connection and feelings of kindness, benevolence, and support for others—in other words, compassion—in alignment with your Stoic mindset. When combined, these two practices are incredibly powerful to the individual, and to all those around her/him who benefit from that bright flame within.
They say that in the old days, people cursed their enemies with this wish: “May you live in interesting times.”
Today, we are surely living in “interesting times.” That has been made clear in the pandemic and now the advent of the first major land war in Europe in decades. On top of that, to those of us here in the US, there often seems to be more to divide us than unify us. We hear constant partisan battles raging across our media (both traditional and social) and our politics. Everywhere you turn, it seems that someone is judging you for what you do or how you think or who you are. The atmosphere is filled with negativity, and hate is spewed for even the smallest of transgressions.
But despite all this, we carry on. Throughout history, people have looked for inspiration during difficult or dark periods. As things grow bleaker we need this even more. So now, I think it’s time to look at life a different way.
I was inspired by a friend to propose this new approach: Rather than being dragged down by everyone’s flaws and shortcomings, let’s try turning to our friends and family as role models.
My friend points out that her own circle of friends have demonstrated remarkable strengths. They are capable of doing hard things, and showing the way—inspiring others for how to live, if you just take a look.
For example, one friend coped with the illness of her parent, while still taking care of a young child. Another friend found herself with a tough diagnosis while enduring a stressful job and a teen struggling with depression. Another friend re-entered the workforce after a break for raising her family, and took on new responsibilities. Other friends have endured personal losses and difficult training programs and housing issues and more.
There are also so many examples in the wider world of people doing extraordinary things. Right now we are seeing brave regular citizens standing up and fighting for their sovereignty on the streets in an unprovoked war they didn’t want. They are willing to sacrifice everything.
This idea of learning and being inspired by others struck me as the polar opposite of how most of us view our friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues, and classmates. We’re usually so competitive. Our thoughts and comments dwell on someone not doing well enough or not doing what we would do. Failing us in some way, in how to live well.
But what if we could be less judgy of others—while still staying focused on our personal virtues as individuals?
What if we could think of each other as naturally good and at least at heart reasonable people? That’s at the core of Stoicism. We are social beings, and we are all endowed with reason.
To build on this is: What if we could focus on Epictetus’ concept that the only thing we can control are our own judgments? So by resisting the urge to judge and condemn people for small failings, we could actually train our own sense of choice and recognize the good more clearly? And instead, we could valorize other people's practical wisdom, for our own benefit?
There’s so much potential in this approach. Instead of tribalism and looking at other people as the other or the enemy, we could view them as fellow humans who are struggling to do what they think is right.
Socrates famously said that some people act wrongly because they possessed wrong-headed judgments and ill-conceived ideals, not that they were “evil.” They were mistaken and misled. The Stoics took that up, with Epictetus reminding us that when we disagree, to recall that a person did what he or she thought was right. What's more, Stoics believed in finding a mentor to learn from; why not a friend or a person you admire in your own world?
Of course, I reserve the right to identify and fight against unjust people who are harming others and making others’ lives worse. But everyone else should have a chance to live out their own ideals, as long as no one is being hurt.
I have some amazing family members, friends, and colleagues—and they are and continue to be my role models for how to:
I want to learn from them. I want to treasure them and admire them. Not compete with and judge them.
Even kids can be role models this way. They certainly show great examples of emotional intelligence, and my children, in addition to my mom and husband, help me gain a sense of perspective. We can seek the good in all our interactions.
“Say no” to using moral righteousness to bash people in our lives. That’s what social media is for ;)
Instead, let’s say “heck yeah!” to building true and real connections with other people—and learning from them.
The virus is on the upswing again. On Thanksgiving we got the alert that the new omicron variant was spreading. It kept on expanding its reach as we packed up for traveling to see relatives in the East Coast, something my family had not done for two years.
Thoughts crossed our minds about cancellation. Maybe the risks would be too great. But we also realized that there’s huge value in seeing loved ones, in person, while we can. Who knows what next year will bring for any of us?
The lessons of Stoic thinking have taught me that the present is all we have. The lessons of loss are distributed unevenly and often. All is constantly in flux, as Marcus Aurelius reminded himself often.
We all have the opportunity to cultivate an open heart to the unending changes of our world, including those of illness and death—which we essentially all live with all the time but choose to turn away from. The pandemic was a wake-up call for many about this fact, which had been smoothed over by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the medical establishment for much of our lives. Today, many of us know the pain of loss first-hand and do not need a reminder.
Another piece of news that came across my feed this winter break was the death of writer Joan Didion. Because of my interest in innovative nonfiction writers, I had recently started to delve into her work. I spent part of my time off reading The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir about the sudden death of her husband. It’s a devastating book, both because of her raw exploration of grief for her spouse and also her descriptions of the simultaneous severe illness of her only daughter, who, at age 39, was hospitalized with pneumonia and then developed a severe brain injury. Didion shares the perspective of a wife and mother (albeit a non-conventional one) facing the loss of her two closest loved ones. This is not unfamiliar to families who have experienced death, especially in the pandemic, but even long before.
So: This moment is all we have. Live it well. And make the next one count too. We won’t wait long for sorrow to meet us.
Why say this now, in this season? As we spend time with loved ones over the holidays, it’s easy to get caught up in petty frustrations, fears, annoyances. Even tiny ones. I got really angry with one of my kids for leaving her food trash lying out, rather than putting it in the trashcan. Is this rational? Possibly. She is definitely capable of cleaning up. Trash is yucky, and why should someone else have to deal with it? On the other hand—it’s just a stack of trash, and easily handled. Why should I let garbage dominate my mind? I could see that I was not abiding by my Stoic approach in becoming angry. I hated realizing just that idea: “You’re not living up to your principles.” More anger, more digging in of heels, more ego-protecting defensiveness.
So even if you’re struggling with these kinds of reactions too, I won’t tell you to remember your principles: I know how annoying that feels. I will instead lead both of us back to the big picture, and perspective of the now, and the realization of how fleeting it really is. To the value we place on family and friends and the dear ones in our lives today. To the time we have lost due to separations during the pandemic... and even to the people we have lost.
Today, hanging on the family tree, I see little photo ornaments I made of my girls’ faces when they were small. I can still think of them as babies, who needed our protection and guidance every minute. Those days are gone, and soon, these days of having teens living at home with me will be gone too. Let’s make the most of this winter, Covid or no, and soak in those moments with the ones we love as fully and deeply as we can.
“What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated–tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom [or philosophers] who say that only the educated are free” ~ Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.21-23a
Most of us remember panicking before taking a test in school. The stress made these kinds of questions pop into our minds: Did I study enough? Did I study the right things? What if I forget what I learned? What if I get confused and make mistakes? What if I get a headache and can’t focus? What if my brain is too tired to do this?
My kids experience this kind of stress daily, especially my high schooler. And some tests are bigger than others. My 11th grader is getting ready to take the SAT, and even though some schools aren’t requiring it anymore, it’s been an anxiety-producing right of passage for college applicants for decades.
But what if you didn’t have to “do” school and testing this way? What if the high-stakes testing approach taken by most high schools isn’t working for the bulk of the students… and what if there were a better way?
I’m no expert on education, but I’ve spent a while observing my children’s public school experiences, and I’ve reflected on my own schools. I’ve also worked in the past with education professors, to learn about how they teach teachers and what kinds of teaching methods they promote.
What I’m coming to see is that so much of the current system is just not functioning for so many students. During the pandemic, a lot of failures in the way students are taught and assessed came to light, especially for those in underserved or underfunded districts and those dealing with challenges at home. Students got report cards filled with Ds and Fs, and were forced into summer school. They hadn’t learned the material, but then again, the teaching approach hadn’t given them much of a chance once they fell behind or missed tests due to tough online learning conditions.
That’s why teachers and school districts are starting to downplay testing and even grading via rigid points systems. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, teachers and administrators described the changes they were making as the pandemic and school closures severely affected student performance—and as they began to see academic differences among groups. The story describes
… a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Los Angeles and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined—have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines.
My kids got a taste of this kind of approach in their middle school, when their math teacher offered them a chance to retake tests to improve their scores. It greatly lessened their stress about individual tests without dimming their desire to learn the material. In fact, they learned more overall by retaking tests that at first seemed daunting, and by studying the material for longer, in greater depth.
Unfortunately, in the local high school, courses don’t work this way. Students are thrown into midterms and finals and high points value final projects where they don’t even know how they’re being assessed until their semester grades are entered into the official grade book—too late to change anything or learn anything new for that particular unit.
It’s painful. It’s arbitrary. And it doesn’t give students a chance to actually improve if something goes wrong.
My high school daughter explains that many of her teachers are “teaching to the test.” She says they want students can do well enough to pass final exams—but that they are not teaching in a way that prepares her and her classmates for the next class in the series. That’s been particularly tough with the unevenness of teaching and class environments during the pandemic.
On top of the mercurial and stressful nature of testing and grading this way, there’s the added element of the many inequities in education that are now being put under the microscope. For both reasons, a new approach is needed. It’s something that I think Epictetus would agree with: He was clear that all people deserved to be educated to become free in their minds—not just the few. All people should have a chance at liberating themselves through learning… no matter the circumstances.
Standardized tests have also been a thorn in the side of teachers for decades, as teacher performance as graded based on testing. To quote Daniel Koretz of Harvard Graduate School of Education,
To undo the problems created by test-based accountability, teachers must refocus instruction on teaching the underlying knowledge and skills that any good test should reflect, rather than spending time preparing kids for the specific test used for accountability.
Again, the argument comes down to helping students master a body of knowledge and skills, rather than assessing a single snapshop of what students memorized and could spit back out onto the page on a specific day.
Side note: This is not to say that student behavior such as tardiness or attendance issues, missing assignments, etc., shouldn’t have any impact or any measurement. In fact, some schools working on mastery approaches are adopting a “citizenship” grading system to capture some of these elements, separate from the typical transcript. It wouldn’t be part of students’ GPA.
Here in Northern California, a local independent school near my home uses a “mastery-based learning model,” which they explain this way: “Students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of all competencies and skills identified in a course before moving on, thereby reducing the number of ‘gaps’ in their education. Academic progress in a discipline is decoupled from age… While the time it takes a student to finish a course may vary, the depth of mastery remains constant.” When their students apply to colleges, they submit a mastery transcript, rather than one full of As, Bs, Cs, or Ds.
In some California schools, districts expect students to know 80% of the material before they can move on from a unit; they aren’t allowed to pass through without demonstrating competency.
This approach is already well underway far outside of California, too, and larger districts or even states have already adopted it—showing it isn’t only an option for small or private schools.
Mastery-based education, also known as competency-based education, has taken root in the state of Idaho, for example. The Idaho state department of education website says that the Idaho legislature voted to move towards this style of teaching in 2014, and that
Mastery-based education empowers students, personalizes learning, supports the demonstration of competencies (the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that lead to success), and recognizes mastery by allowing students to advance as they demonstrate their knowledge and skills regardless of time, place or pace.
With Mastery-Based Education, failure is not an option. Mastery systems give students the opportunities they need to demonstrate their competency with appropriate pacing and supports. Assessments are purposeful and demonstrate what students can do, not just what they know. Learning is flexible, self-paced, engaging, and focused on building skills critical to college, career, and life…
The most promising thing I’ve taken away from this approach is the quote above: "Failure is not an option."
This way of thinking, to me, embodies a Stoic message: It’s through adversity that we can learn the most, and that we have the chance to build and deploy our virtues. It’s by learning skills for the sake of understanding and growth that we better ourselves and exercise our human excellence, not simply cramming to prove ourselves to others or compete with them. It’s when we fail that we see we could do better and keep going, acting on what is in power at any given moment. It’s our intention to learn and improve as humans that powers us forward.
This idea of working at it until you master something is difficult for many students, and it may seem easier to assign a grade (even if it's low) and move on... but shouldn't we give students the chance to build real skills?
This is a timely concept. In a period when many, many students received Ds and Fs during online learning in 2020-21, and when many classes and instructors weren’t able to adequately help students understand the subject matter, we have to re-think what it means to “fail” students.
One of the best decisions I made as a mom was to become a Girl Scout leader. Now, it is the end of an era… I’m retiring from this volunteer role with 10 years total service to the Girl Scouts (across 2 different troops).
After all these years, our troop finally disbanded after the girls got older, moved, left our school district, etc. We have now officially transferred the remaining girls out of our troop and into another one.
Over the years, I hope I’ve made a difference, even a small one, with this volunteering. It changed me, at least: Working with kids starting from first grade onwards helped me evolve as a mom and a volunteer.
This effort is on my mind now as I write from the perspective of a Stoic parent—largely because of a critique I keep hearing about Stoicism.
Stoics are blamed for not engaging in, or even caring about, the world around us. People say that Stoic life philosophy isn’t a good influence because Stoics just focus on themselves and their own inner peace… that they block themselves off from everything, and are heartless jerks, living without emotion or ties to others. In other words: Stoics are obsessed with their own “inner citadel,” at the expense of problems and issues in the world “out there.” That seems to be the argument of a recent article in Philosophy Now, among others.
To that I say: Wrong! (Perhaps my strong response is not particularly Stoic, but it is honest!)
Another leader and I launched our Girl Scout troop before I adopted a Stoic life philosophy, but this way of thinking has surely helped me as I moved forward in leading of young people.
How? Being a Girl Scout leader—like many forms of teaching and volunteering with younger kids—is about learning how to share control with young people. You need to engage the children you’re working with and provide a framework for girls to grow, while encouraging them to explore things on their own and figure out their way of making it fun or interesting. After all, this program is supposed to be "girl led." As a leader, you are tasked with ensuring that the girls start making decisions as soon as they can.
In the moment, lots of things will go wrong or just be plain messy. That’s OK, in the Stoic worldview. Those moments do not define you as a teacher, volunteer, or person. Just keep on going moment to moment, role modeling the virtues that Stoics promote—fairness, practical wisdom, courage, and self-discipline.
Beginning with first-graders in Girl Scouts meant LOTS of sticky glue projects and bickering over marker colors and antsy kids who didn’t always get along in the early days. There was a less-than-scintillating curriculum about animals that my co-leader and I worked through. There were songs that got endlessly stuck in our heads (even if they were cute at first) and loud carpools and camping trips resulting in sore backs.
In fact, given that there will always be occasional adversity along the way, Stoic thinking actually makes me want to engage more with the world, and reduces my qualms or thoughts of “imposter syndrome” about having something to offer other people as a volunteer.
And now, I can see the payoff. Over the past year, and with the support of both co-founding leaders, the girls in our troop partnered together to complete a Silver Award. They created an online webinar designed for younger kids (2nd to 5th graders) during the pandemic. Their presentations, videos, quizzes, and website focused on health, with units covering Covid-19 safety, bicycle safety, and nutrition—all top-of-mind topics for young kids and their parents during lockdowns.
In addition, a couple years back, a group of three girls in our troop did their Bronze Award project about how to be a good and safe pedestrian—a vital lesson here in California where pedestrians are in danger, even in seemingly quiet suburban neighborhoods.
As a leader, I helped to guide these efforts. Working with the girls in our troop required less and less from the adults, and more and more leadership from the girls, with each passing year (though the amount of paperwork needed never diminished, and I owe a huge debt to the other leader who co-founded the troop for handling that!).
That evolution has been an important way of building the girls’ confidence and skills, as well as their desire to address real-world problems, as they now prepare for high school next year. It's been really remarkable to see them grow from young kids focused on drawing with their favorite color marker to adolescents who care about helping and teaching other people.
To learn more about how Stoic-inspired living can inspire us to improve the world around us, check out the book Being Better by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos. It highlights numerous opportunities to make a positive impact on our societies and communities.
This counter argument against the anti-Stoic nay-sayers is quite clear when you look at famous Stoics from history, most of all Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor of Rome. He clearly could not just withdraw from public life and ignore making important decisions about the external world... nor did he shy away from it. We don’t either.
Every year when my daughters go back to school, I find myself feeling queasy, a nervous pit in my stomach and a pounding in my head.
I’m sure a lot of parents remember the first time they dropped off a child at kindergarten and the trepidation of putting your kid in the hands of an unknown teacher and unfamiliar school. For me, that feeling is now multiplied times two (both my kids) and, really, times twelve (the number of classes and teachers my kids now have as middle and high schoolers).
And on top of all that, the pandemic. Younger kids don't yet have the option of getting vaccinated, and that creates layers of worry. Older kids, even if vaccinated, could bring home breakthrough infections caught at school.
And on top of all THAT, what the students have gone through during these 15 months of closure or semi-closure of schools during lockdowns. It's been a time of massive emotional upheaval for people of all ages, but even more critical for developing minds.
All students have been utterly changed by this experience. Never in modern American history have kids had to spend so much time sitting at home—separated physically from their peers—and ruminating on their experiences, their challenges, their identities. Never have they shown up to school so anxious, from what I’ve seen, and yet so hungry for social interaction and human contact. News story after story document the anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental and emotional challenges that students have been going through, not to mention the educational setbacks caused by a lack of in-person education in many areas across the country.
Research is demonstrating the impact. A study published in September 2020 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that of 195 students surveyed, "71% indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple stressors were identified that contributed to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students. These included fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones (91% reported negative impacts of the pandemic), difficulty in concentrating (89%), disruptions to sleeping patterns (86%), decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86%), and increased concerns on academic performance (82%)."
In the same vein, a Penn State teen anxiety study from late 2020 showed an increase in anxiety severity of 29%, with generalized anxiety up 46% and school anxiety up 143%.
Teachers are feeling it too. I’ve read alarming statistics about the number of teachers who have recently quit or are considering quitting. It’s been a nearly impossible burden for them to manage online learning and in-class hybrid learning and their own lives. Now, with our schools in California back to fully in-person teaching, I hope it will begin to return to something resembling the profession that they chose. But my daughters have reported that even mild-mannered teachers expressed frustration with students and classroom management in the first days back. So this adjustment period is going to take time for both teachers and students.
And it is also a major adjustment and a scary time for parents. For the first time in 15 months, both my kids were at in-person public school for the past few weeks, away from home for long stretches. I miss the feeling of sheltering from the storm together in our home fortress, where we could still find glimmers of fun and mutual support among all the dirty dishes and piles of dirty face masks and orphan socks. Even knowing how bad things have been, and still are, made us feel that we had to be strong together.
Now, it’s back to a new reality that echoes the old school days, but with a difference. We have been receiving frequent notifications of Covid exposures at the local high and middle schools. We’re doing home tests we bought at Walgreens much more often than I thought we would. We’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. But I wonder if there is no real “best” in this situation.
During the day while my kids are at school, I picture them fighting the crowds in the halls and passageways of their overcrowded public schools, places built for a fraction of the current enrollment; I picture them encountering classmates who have radically changed their attitude and appearance in a multitude of ways in these past months on their journey through adolescence, older but not always wiser after extended isolation; I picture them trying to get along with teachers and students who are equally shellshocked by the past year and a half’s experience; I picture them at their sports practices, trying to get back skills and teamwork lost in lockdowns; I picture them at mandatory pep rallies, with hundreds of yelling students standing next to them (is this a good idea in a pandemic? They did move the recent rally outdoors after massive student protest at the high school... this move happening “for the first time in 10 years,” according to the student newspaper).
Odd things have indeed been happening on campus: A freshman boy brought a gun my daughter's high school campus last week, and the police descended after it was reported to administrators (luckily no one was hurt). And students have been stealing the soap dispensers and other fixtures from student bathrooms at the middle school, part of a TikTok challenge, just at a time when kids need to practice good hygiene. Teachers are now monitoring and checking in students at bathroom doors.
Despite all this, the parents I talk to are happy that in-person school is back so their kids will have a real learning experience and get to see their peers. (Not to mention so that we can work and go about our adult lives.)
But that doesn't make everything simple and easy and "normal" again. The moms and dads I know have been under tremendous pressure in the time of Covid and it hasn't stopped yet. It's even harder on parents who want to get the kids vaccinated, but they still aren't old enough to qualify.
An article in The Atlantic summed up the emotional situation well. Writer Dan Sinker titles his piece “Parents Are Not Okay.” He writes about the back-to-school he’s facing with his kids, ages 16 and 6: “It’s enough to bring a parent to tears, except that every parent I know ran out a long time ago—I know I did. Ran out of tears, ran out of energy, ran out of patience. Through these grinding 18 months, we’ve managed our kids’ lives as best we could while abandoning our own. It was unsustainable then, it’s unsustainable now, and no matter what fresh hell this school year brings, it’ll still be unsustainable. All this and parents are somehow expected to be okay… Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can.”
As a mom, I want to protect my children; I want to fight for them; I want to prevent their suffering and help shape a healthy mindset in them, inspired by Stoic ideas. But now that they are teens living through a pandemic, they need to do all this for themselves. It’s a time for releasing them into the wild, with much higher stakes due to Covid and its impact on students.
I remind myself that they will make the best choices that they can. My husband and I have tried to give our children the tools to cope with this uncertain world. They know about being brave in a rough situation and sticking it out when things are hard. They want to be fair and value other humans. They care about doing the right thing, if they can figure out what that is in the confusing world. I hope the lessons of self-control have sunk in, too; that's not always easy for anyone. Like everything else, all of this is about balancing risks with rewards, dangers with common-sense courage.
It's also a test of all that our children have learned about how to handle an unstable situation with unpredictable humans all around them. I find myself recalling Marcus Aurelius' acknowledgement that other people aren't always aware of what's right/wrong and that their behavior reflects that, yet we still need to work with them. He wrote: "I can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together..." (Meditations 2:1).
As teens, my kids have to make their own choices on how to navigate school. Those choices will be their own, and to a large extent their levels of stress will too. In fact, there’s a very good chance they will handle their feelings better than I will my own, as their mom! That is reassuring. After seeing them off, I popped some Tylenol with a big gulp of water, and turned back to my copy of the Meditations, and to my own work.
If my Stoic practice teaches me anything, it’s that we can all do more to question and reframe our experiences of mental distress, to notice and shape these responses in ways that bring out our courage and wisdom rather than fear and anger. We can continuously work on letting go of the things outside our control that cause us to spiral into worry, and on improving the things we can choose for ourselves. Ultimately, our kids will carve their path using the tools we have given them as a guide… and, fortune willing, they will adapt to find a good flow of life in this chaotic world.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.