It was a hot June day when we made it to the top of the ruined French castle. The giant hunk of medieval stone sat high on an ancient hill perched over the nearby “valley of hell” that inspired Dante’s descriptions in the Inferno. We paused to survey countryside below. Together, my family of four had, at least briefly, conquered our fears of heights and falls.
It was a moment of satisfaction. Why? Because we chose to do it, and it was not easy (by our standards, at least). And because it brought us to a spot where we could see the world for what it is: physically huge, historically immense, and indescribably beautiful.
Our moment in that world is tiny. And yet we persevere—and we can find joy. That scene made me think of two elements of Stoic philosophy that can lead to a happier and more meaningful life, namely freedom and courage.
For me, freedom is not being “free from,” but “free to.”
It’s not having zero social or communal obligations. I cherish my family ties, and my daughters and husband are the most valued and positive things in my life. I realize that they connect me to non-optional support tasks and challenging emotions, and I’m OK with that. Unlike Henry David Thoreau, who felt he had to escape human ties to find authentic life experiences on his own at Walden Pond, I want to live enmeshed with family, friends, and loved ones.
Finding a sense of freedom within family life, and even at work in a large organization, is still possible. As I have written before, autonomy and the ability to make choices is key to my approach to work and to raising my kids.
My Stoic practice has helped me build my capacity for freedom by ensuring that I commit to making my own choices. Ancient Stoics taught us that even in the worst of circumstances, we can always choose how we respond. Epictetus began life as a slave, and suffered a terrible injury during his younger years. His seminal idea was that we should approach the many things about which we have no control with the knowledge that we can decide for ourselves how they affect us.
The example of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the Navy fighter pilot who held captive in Vietnam for more than seven years and became a well-known proponent of Stoicism, is instructive. Despite torture, he maintained his will to live and resist by relying on Stoic ideas, exercising the power to choose and experience inner freedom even in captivity.
Courage, of course, also kept Stockdale going. He didn't shy away from physical discomfort and pain. Stockdale inflicted injuries on his head and face to avoid being used in enemy propaganda, staying true to his own ethics. He said later that he knew he’d get out eventually, and that he’d view that time as a defining moment.
Yet he also accepted his situation while he lived it, practiced endurance, and didn’t expect to emerge quickly or unscathed. (I don’t know if I would be that strong in the same situation—and perhaps none of us do until we experience something so brutal.)
He did get out, recovered, began researching, writing, and teaching (on Epictetus and Stoic philosophy, among other topics), and eventually gained a national stage as the running mate of independent candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992's presidential election.
Ultimately, Stockdale showed in living color that we need courage to accept difficult things and still make the best choices possible without guilt or fear.
In Stoic practice, we are reminded that many incomprehensibly sad and difficult things—our loved ones’ deaths and our own mortality, illness, emotional pain, and other challenges—are outside our control. We can nevertheless work to manage our own personal reactions to hardships, and that’s where courage comes in.
The castle climb was a happy moment. Many other less beautiful things confront us daily. But drawing on our internal freedom to choose and apply reason, and our courage to carry on, much is possible for each of us.
“Those whose bodies are in good condition can endure both heat and cold; and so, likewise, those whose souls are in fine condition can endure anger, and grief, and every other emotion.” – Epictetus (Fragments, 20, Robin Hard translation)
My husband took part in an event that put runners through extreme challenges and obstacles—including climbing walls, rolling barriers floating in pools, and electrified wires dangling down through your path. You work with others to overcome everything the course throws at you to reach the finish line. And in this case, you run through lots of mud along the way.
Though I didn’t participate, I applauded him. Both my husband and I have tried to get into better shape physically in the past few years. He’s taken on a regular training routine at a gym. Though my athletic activity is less regular, I’ve worked at staying active. Training matters, as any gym-goer could tell you.
You’ll find tons of websites, books, and magazines devoted to physical training, and numerous regimens for how to stay physically fit are being hawked to the American public. Seems that every celebrity has her or his own workout. I recently watched Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg do her gym exercises with comedian Stephen Colbert, and I heard Tom Brady interviewed on NPR about his book on how to train and eat to be fit.
What we don’t hear about in our popular culture is how to train your soul.
Certainly, religious institutions have much to say about it from their own particular points of view. There is great value there, but it often hinges on accepting a certain faith and a set of beliefs. That's not what everyone choses to do.
For the large group of secular Americans, there’s a big gap in what we’re reading and hearing about on a daily basis and our souls’ well-being.
In fact, much of our news and culture seems to drain rather than restore our inner resources. And even our friends are often no help, if we relate to them on social media. I’m really tired of being directed to Facebook updates that seem targeted to generate jealousy, competition, and a feeling of being left out. How to strengthen our souls? How to prepare them for life’s ups and downs?
We will all have challenges, up to and including our own demise. To quote Michael Crichton, “no one escapes from life alive.”
I have tried a bunch of approaches, from Western to Eastern spirituality, from organized religion to mindfulness classes, from psychology study to counseling.
Right now, I think the answer is Epictetus. His words can help us train for the real run, the run for our lives and our moral character. It’s not a run we can “win,” exactly. And it lasts our whole lives.
In his Discourses 4.6, the Stoic thinker delves into politics versus philosophy. He is having a discussion with a student who complains that he is not respected—even pitied—by powerful men in political office. Why can’t he play an important role in politics, too? Epictetus points out all the effort that the politician has gone to in order to achieve his “success” in government. He callsmout the attention the politician has given to flattering, pleasing, and lying to get ahead with others.
Those who care about their souls have a different approach, he says. The follower of philosophy should ask herself upon waking up,
"What have I still to do to achieve freedom from passion? To achieve peace of mind? Who am I? Surely not a mere body? Or possessions, or reputation? None of these things. But what? I’m a rational living being."
From there, her daily training begins. She questions herself further, “’Where have I gone wrong’ with regard to achieving happiness? ‘What did I do’ that was unfriendly, or unsociable, or inconsiderate? ‘What have I not done that I should do’…?”(Discourses 4.6.34 – 35, Robin Hard translation)
The very act of asking these questions of ourselves is a way to keep ourselves nimble in our ethical lives. Self-reflection creates the right circumstances for improving how we treat other people and ourselves.
Stoic exercises can also help us cope with the many sad things we’ll be confronted with in our daily lives. In my study of Buddhism, I’ve encountered the idea that life is suffering. There is truth there.
As Stoics, we can strengthen ourselves by training our inner rational being to prepare for the tough times.
We can train by imagining being strong facing difficulty. We can picture looking down, as if from above, on our lives. We can try to keep a broad perspective on each little moment, knowing it is one of many moments lived by many individuals across many lands.
And every day, we can question our own thoughts, knowing that these “impressions” so often lead us down the wrong path. That is true all around us, both for our unavoidable difficulties and for our personal challenges. If everyone just relied on their first impressions of the Spartan-style run’s course, the place would be a ghost town. Instead, people ask themselves, “How could I train to do this? What skills would I need? Why shouldn’t I crawl through mud to get that cool T-shirt (and to know I have achieved finishing this thing)?”
I personally would still avoid the mud. But I won’t shirk from working on my inner “genius”—as the ancients called it.
And ultimately, I will keep on striving to do my best to represent courage and wisdom, and to privilege that rational part of myself. I know I won’t always succeed and will stumble. But that’s not the point. I’ll still keep running.
Never in history have humans lived in a time of more plenty. In modern America, we are surrounded by food, drink, entertainment (of the wholesome and non-wholesome varieties), drugs (legal and not), and much more.
The great good fortune of being born in a well-off country in a prosperous time has a dark side, though, as people indulge in and even become addicted to the things that in small doses give them pleasure. It takes a strong effort every day to resist, and to stay on course with a Stoic-inspired life where reason prevails (rather than our unthinking desires).
In this world, sometimes even the smallest things seem destined to be my undoing, especially when I’m out and about in the suburbs with my two tween daughters.
Latest case in point: They have become obsessed by bubble tea, that sweet concoction filled with fruit flavors and sugar, and often with milk and “pearls” or “boba” or “bubbles”—small chewy balls of tapioca or other jelly-type substances.
It’s a satisfying indulgence on several levels. The sweetness feeds the sweet tooth. The bubbles, nestled inside the bottom of the cup, give you something to chew on and consume. The fruit flavor brings freshness. And of course the caffeine adds a lift. My kids aren’t allowed to consume caffeine on a regular basis, but the green tea of a bubble tea seems fairly innocuous, when you think about how watered down it is with ice, water, flavor, pearls, etc.
We used to have just one bubble tea place nearby, Tea Era, and every time we drove past it out on errands or on our way to a class, the kids would pipe up, “Can we stop, can we stop?” I usually said no, but I did pull over now and then. The mango green tea with pearls called out to me, especially on hot days.
But now we have several new bubble tea establishments in my area, one of them in walking distance and the others not much farther away. And the girls’ requests to stop are much more frequent.
(To me, this shows that one element of addiction has to do with how often you are exposed to something, how easy it seems to get/do, and how normative it feels in that environment. That’s discussed in a book I’m reading, Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Bubble tea is now becoming completely ubiquitous in my neighborhood, at least.)
The latest addition to local tea offerings is Gong Cha (translated as “tribute tea for the emperor”). A chain of tea shops originating in Taiwan, Gong Cha has a tried and true way of capturing fruit flavors and infusing them into the drinks. I have to confess: it is really good.
My girls gave me an extra Gong Cha straw last time we went, and I just came upon it in my purse before writing this. Like Pavlov’s dog, I found my mouth watering. It’s time to turn to Stoic thought to guide my path before it’s too late.
How can I find new inspiration to avoid calorie bombs everywhere I turn?
Epictetus, in Discourses III, 12, described the need to train oneself. “Since habit has established a strong predominance… we must set a contrary habit to counteract the former… [and] employ training as an antidote.” He describes “the man who trains” as a person “who practices avoiding the use of his will to get [things].”
Despite the man-centric language, any of us could do this. We could experiment with ways that train our minds to go in a different direction.
Training. This is a much more positive path forward than merely decrying that I lack the self-discipline to refuse delicious drinks or foods, quietly sobbing to myself. That’s what I used to do. It got me nowhere except deeper and deeper into a pit of self-pity filled with self-recrimination.
Instead, the Stoic advice is to find a way to train, to learn to find the strength through practice. A good lesson for me and for my kids, too. It reminds me of the growth mindset that they have been hearing about in school: we need to believe that we can all learn and grow, not that we are “fixed” in an unchanging situation.
Some training is in order for me to break the sweet tea habit before it becomes too strong.
Maybe it's a good idea to try driving down alternate roads that don't remind the family of tea. I could try harder to suggest other snacks, or seek out calorie figures and comparing those to what else we eat. Maybe it's about training ourselves to try the unsweetened or less-sweet versions and to accustom our taste buds to a more balanced sugar level. And then as we watch others drink the super-sweet, milky-rich drinks, we'll recall that we are in training, and that a simpler and less indulgent version could be (almost) as satisfying.
So every time I drive by a bubble tea shop, I’ll remember that it takes effort to resist, and that it is training that will allow me to harden myself. But it won’t be easy.
Do you ever feel so angry you could scream, and then suddenly realize that this feeling goes against all you believe? All you try to achieve as a person, parent, and Stoic?
As promised, my third installment of my conversation with Stoicism teacher and writer Donald Robertson focuses on anger. I am not the most patient of people, and I often wonder how I could avoid becoming upset too quickly and speaking out in anger, especially to my children. I also would like to do a better job of helping my kids manage their own anger (depicted here!).
I asked Donald: What does Stoic thinking teach us about how to cope with anger?
You want to begin by spotting yourself becoming angry. As a therapist, I’ve dealt with anger management. The first stage of therapy is that you have to spot it to stop it.
There are different levels of self-awareness. Everyone knows when someone turns red. But the hard part is noticing anger before you are truly aware of it. There are early warning signs. Earlier than normal, try to notice it. It becomes harder to control passions the longer they go on.
The same thing is true if you are a runner—when you’re going fast, and someone says stop, it’s hard to stop because things have escalated. But stopping when you’re walking, it isn’t as tough. That’s anger. It’s less and less voluntary the longer it continues. Catch it early, and you have more voluntary control.
It’s possible that you are getting annoyed, and you are not aware you are angry. One answer to that is that another person could observe you. Stoic mentors, in ancient times, would follow you and notice your responses, like Rusticus did with Marcus Aurelius. It can be more obvious to others.
Learn to notice internal signs like tense shoulders. Like the specific thoughts you have, such as blaming thoughts. Or maybe it’s the tone of voice I’m using, or I’m frowning – that’s mindfulness training, as well as self-monitoring and self-observation.
Anger is temporary madness. Evidence shows that it creates cognitive distortion. Anger narrows our scope of attention and amplifies our response. We are prone to generalization and can’t problem solve. We have ‘gone crazy and can’t think clearly.’ Awareness of other stimuli will dilute that response—so the more I notice about my body, the more I will be forced to expand scope. That way I can give my mind a bunch of things to do.
As a side note: Seneca wrote a book about anger. He said anger is unnatural and unnecessary. It’s ugly and bad. He says, “Look at people’s faces when they are angry, don’t they look twisted and horrible?”
Are there other specific Stoic-based approaches to calming anger, once we become aware of it happening?
They did cognitive distancing. The ancient Stoics talk a lot about when a thought pops through your mind, you should see it as an arbitrary value judgment. All the thoughts we have are projections. All judgments are fundamentally indifferent. Nothing external is that bad. The only thing we should care that strongly about is our own character. That value doesn’t exist in external world. It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgments about things. I’m externalizing it – you are a jerk, this is awful, you are awful. This is catastrophizing. We need to learn to roll that back.
Epictetus said if you have an angry thought, you can tell it, “you’re just an impression. You’re not the thing you claim to represent.” He is talking to the thought, as if another person, as if it is an outside object. This is creating cognitive distance. “You again, you are my angry judgment that comes up.”
It’s like catastrophe-tinted glasses – there’s a difference between looking through the glasses and taking the glasses off and look at the glasses.
We can try to take a step back and look at our beliefs, judgments, and impressions. Marcus believed in a catharsis—a separation—of our thoughts from external reality. Learning to notice that we are putting those glasses on and looking through them. It’s not a feature of reality. It’s a perspective, a projection. That weakens our emotional and behavioral response.
Having done that, Epictetus says, tell the thought to wait a while, and give us time to rest and respond. You could say to yourself: “Wait until I’ve calmed down and come back to this.” Then you can later be more rational, and ask yourself, what would Socrates do, what would Zeno do? What would the people I admire do?
Also, you could do a cost-benefit analysis of your angry response. Say you do what your anger was telling you to do. What would be the consequences? What would be another way of responding? When we have calmed down and removed ourselves from situation – time out strategies. The Platonists believed in that.
Counting to ten is not long enough. Augustus had a Stoic tutor, who told him to recite the Greek alphabet when angry. That’s longer than counting to ten!
Any other Stoic wisdom on anger, especially when working with kids?
The Stoics believed we are all like children in a way. They didn’t claim to be “wise”—no one was a true “sage.” They thought that we are all in the same boat, and none of us are perfect.
Seneca said of his philosophy, “Imagine this is a therapy, but I’m not a doctor. I’m the guy in the hospital bed beside you who has been undergoing treatment longer. I’ve made some progress.” It’s like peer support.
Getting back to anger: Marcus Aurelius had some strategies for anger management. One of them is to remind yourself that you are just as bad as the person making you angry. Humility could that be enough to stop the feeling. We are all foolish, we all have passions, and you have to figure this out for yourself.
Parents who get angry are child-like. Realizing that is humbling and helps to snap us out of it. “There’s a child within me, who is having a tantrum,” we might say to ourselves.
With kids, when they get angry, we should teach them not to ashamed of anger. But also to tolerate anger. What matters is what they do next, after the angry feeling happens.
Thanks for reading The Stoic Mom. If you have any suggestions or ideas for future 2018 posts or any questions, please write in the comments!
This is part two of my conversation with author, trainer, and teacher Donald Robertson. Read on for his thoughts on Stoicism and parenting, and on how Stoic philosophy can help us question our own values.
Add to the discussion in the comments… and share your questions and suggestions for future posts and interviews.
Q: How can Stoic philosophy help me become a better parent? And how should I begin teaching Stoic values to my kids?
A: The best way to teach is through role modeling. Stoic philosophers did lecture and wrote books, but they also thought that the best thing to do is to set a good example. To start by improving our own character.
Accepting that our children and our students are not under our direct control is critical. Even Socrates had bad students who went off the rails. Well, he said, I don’t control their minds. All I can do is provide a role model. Sometimes it’s in the hands of fate.
We need to work on accepting these limits and not getting frustrated with them.
The ancient Stoics were a lot tougher on kids than we are today. They believed that character is instilled through exercise, sport, and work.
Today, many parents express their love through consumerism, buying toys, taking kids out to places for entertainment. But in Stoicism, it’s more important what we give them to DO, rather than possessions. The way we invest our time is a more appropriate gift – and to have them do things that require effort. We develop virtue through hard work.
Q: Parents today get competitive about their children’s success in academics, sports, careers, everything. How can we re-think that with Stoicism?
I live in quiet Nova Scotia. That’s not as obvious here. The competitiveness of parents varies a lot.
As Stoics, our goal isn’t to give our kids skills that would make them externally successful. Stoicism challenges some of our culture’s values that way. Stoics believed that what they were proposing should upset people. It’s an “epistrophe” in Greek–like a U-turn. Part of that is questioning consumerism and narcissism.
Stoics would say – what is Success in LIFE? Will a degree and a good job make our children good people? Is our priority to make our children materially successful, or more rounded people?
Sometime pursuit of wealth is obstacle. Epictetus says you can’t serve two masters. If you pursue a successful career, you can earn wealth. Some career paths suck you into a certain type of character and values, which is not necessarily good. External success is not same as virtue.
Instead, we should ask: Do our children have wisdom? Integrity? Are they true to themselves? Are they living in a way consistent with rational values?
Q: Interesting. Could we apply these same questions to ourselves, as people and as parents?
A: Yes. In Stoic week, we do an exercise known as “values clarification.” It’s Socratic. Rather than saying “these are the values,” this approach asks you a bunch of questions. It asks you to figure out what you care about and reflect on those values. The Socratic method can expose contradictions between our beliefs and actions.
Another approach is the double standard strategy. You think about what you want for yourself. Then you make a list of what you admire most in other people. Then you ask: What if I did what I admire in others? What would it be like to apply that in practice?
We have a Stoic model for this: Marcus Aurelius. In Book 1 of his Meditations, all he does is describe others’ virtues. It’s a huge list.
As parents, we could ask: What do you spend most of your time doing with your kids? What are things you most admire about other parents? What if you could do what they do?
Q: Let’s go back to the source material for a moment. Much of the language and emphasis in ancient Stoicism is masculine. Discussions focus on “the wise man” and on “manly” attributes. How did the Stoics of Greece and Rome view women?
A: Stoicism’s founder, Zeno, wrote a book called The Republic that we only have fragments of now. It was a critique of Plato’s Republic. He said that everything would be equal in the Republic. That implies no slavery, and that men and women would be equal.
Ancient Cynics also seemed to have believed there was an equality between men and women. The idea was shocking then. And maybe only Cynics would think this—they were known for saying shocking and anarchic things.
We believe that Cleanthes wrote on the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women, but we know nothing about what he said.
Then 400 years later, Musonius Rufus’ lectures argue that virtues are the same in men and women, and he argues that girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys. Women should be able to practice philosophy.
Next time: ANGER rears its ugly head. And it is indeed ugly, as Donald Robertson tells us in part three of our interview. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments!
I talked to my 11-year-old daughter this weekend about ancient philosophy and how Stoic "slogans" can help us keep things in perspective. (My previous post offered up quite a few of these brief maxims.) She focused in on the biggie in Stoicism: "Some things are under my control and other things are not." And then, "What is beyond my control is indifferent to me."
The question she asked is a very valid one: What is really indifferent? Why shouldn’t you care about things you can't control? Even simple things like weather?
This is one of the biggest hurdles that we face as modern Stoic thinkers. How should we relate to those things that we can’t control, but that do affect us?
Just take weather. If it’s stormy and lightning fills the sky, we can’t realistically go out and swim in an outdoor pool. If the temperature is 105 degrees, maybe we shouldn’t run that marathon.
Or I could ask just as easily, how can I not care when one of my children starts screaming, ratcheting up emotional pressure on me? Or when another driver cuts me off in traffic, endangering us both? Or when a financial investment I made loses a ton of money, because of unpredictable market “corrections,” and now I can’t afford to move to a bigger home or even take a vacation?
For ancient Roman Stoics, the stakes were even higher. Rome was not exactly known for the stability of its leadership, despite its political and military strengths. Ancient men and women were subject to capricious banishment and summary executions. In the very first section of his Discourses, Stoic thinker (and ex-slave) Epictetus writes about men being sent to be beheaded, and how they face their end. (Literally sticking out their necks.)
Thankfully, most people today aren’t being sent to live on a rock in the Mediterranean, and the majority of governments don’t kill execute folks on a whim. Certainly, there are many perilous life circumstances out there. But even our regular old "first world" problems create plenty of situations where we are horribly disappointed and confused—when life doesn’t turn out like we expect it to.
That’s when we can try to fall back on the most basic principle of Stoic philosophy: Some things are in my control, and some are not. Whatever I can’t change, I have to accept and that means it is separate from me, indifferent.
Ideally, when things happen outside my control that seem pretty unfavorable, I could work to find ways to change my own behavior--and my own thought process--to make my situation better. So if it’s 105 degrees, no marathon, but maybe I can find an indoor gym with a treadmill. If my child is screaming, I could give her a pillow to punch and scream at, and go into another room. (I seem to recall that when one of my babies was colicky and hollering, someone told me I could put on noise-cancelling headphones to block out the constant sound of crying!) If my investment turns sour, maybe I could try a stay-cation this year and find a new source for investment advice, postponing the house move for a year. Not ideal, I realize, but these are just a few of the ways that we can adjust our actions.
Often, it's the emotional reactions we experience that are much tougher on us than the changed behavior itself.
That's because of a simple concept. It’s when our circumstances don’t match our expectations that we suffer. I’ve learned about this in my Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford, where we focus on how to bring compassion to the suffering of others and of ourselves. (More on that in an upcoming post.)
Perhaps the most important lesson of Stoicism is that we ought to adjust our expectations. We can try not be so quick to compare our situations to others' that we assume are more advantageous. Our endless wishes for money (and what it can buy), status, and power—so deeply infused in our competitive culture—can cause us pain when they don’t come true.
And even when they do come true it can result in problems for us, which the Stoics clearly recognized when they professed a mistake for fame, fortune, and prestige. Sadly, we are not "entitled" to perfect children, high-paying investments, pristine houses, and dream vacations. We’ll sure be lucky if we get them, but that won’t necessarily satisfy us--and, after all, we could lose them. It’s learning to be happy with what we have in front of us that is the real dream we all can strive for. (Myself included!)
We’re surrounded by advertising slogans. “Think Different.” “Just Do It.” “Eat Fresh.” “Stronger Together.” “Make America Great Again.” They get embedded in our brains. Heck, I still think of “Where’s the Beef?” pretty often despite its age (and general annoyingness).
How about some philosophical slogans instead?
That way, if they get stuck in your head, they might at least do some good.
I’ve been reading the 2016 Stoic Handbook as part of Stoic Week, a period of contemplation and an effort to “live like an ancient philosopher” being pursued by several thousand people worldwide. (If you register on the group's site, you should be able to download the handbook yourself. It offers some excellent instructions for using Stoicism in your life, including a week of readings and meditations.)
One of the first things that struck me in this book was a set of sayings from Stoic philosophy, words that can help people recall the philosophy’s basic precepts in shorthand. Here are a few to put to use starting today.
Here are a few more from me, inspired by Stoic teacher Epictetus’ writings:
These would make good Post-It reminders. Or they could pop up on our phones (Stoic iPhone notifications, anyone?)… Many of these are nearly short enough for Twitter.
The more you say them, the more they seem to sink in. It’s not exactly daily affirmations, but it could be a powerful way of reframing things in our chaotic world. To me, they rise above inspirational office posters, and help me access important ideas quickly.
Stay tuned for my next post. I’ll start to explore why these maxims matter today …and how they get at the root of Stoic thought.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, 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.