Remember that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future. The space of each person’s existence is thus a little thing….
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3, Section 10
How much time have I wasted mulling over mistakes of the past? Thinking about unfulfilled hopes from younger days? How many moments have I squandered worried about the future: about what would happen later today, about next week, next month, next year? Anxious that I might disappoint other people or let myself down?
I realize I can’t eliminate these kinds of thoughts, but these are things that I strive to notice. I want to at least be aware of them. I would like to recall Marcus Aurelius’ lines continuously, but it’s very hard to make my brain think that way.
Marcus’ wisdom resonates with what I’ve learned about mindfulness and Buddhist meditation practices. By focusing on the current moment, by just being present now, we can (even briefly) escape our “stories” about ourselves (often filled with insecurities, defensiveness, and misjudgments), the litany of fears that have governed us in the past, the bad habits we find hard to break, and the anxieties that plague us about tomorrow. This is a difficult practice for someone steeped in concerns, cautions, and sometimes-unrealistic expectations (about myself and my world), but very much worth trying.
I’ve been pouring over Marcus Aurelius’ work recently to try to re-ground myself in a time of stress in my job. And I’ve found another book that offers a different kind of grounding. It’s Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, a study of how reason and science have led to an enormous amount of progress throughout the globe since the Enlightenment period in the late eighteenth century.
The book is filled with pragmatic wisdom and actual facts about improvements in the standard of living, health, education, food availability, women’s rights, and more. This knowledge needs not only to be written about in smart books, but also to be verbalized much, much more in society today. The anti-progress people, those who decry reason and science and say that the world is getting worse, seem to be winning for the moment on our public stage for the time being. But it need not be this way in the future.
Look how far we have come in terms of laying the groundwork for more and more people to live a good life. We can quibble about exactly what values we should subscribe to, but knowing that reason, science, and humanism have yielded a world in which things have gotten a great deal better—so much better that more of us can afford to spend time thinking, reading about, and practicing practical philosophy, among many other good and useful things—is eye-opening.
It’s far better to be a woman and a mother today than in past generations, however rose-tinted our backwards-looking glasses may be. And I’m even more optimistic for my two daughters. They are living in a time when people are working hard to expose and diminish bias, fight against harassment, and offer the best education possible for girls as well as boys.
There’s much more work to be done, surely. In fact, education is one of the most problematic areas today in terms of inequality and issues of access. But knowing that something’s not perfect doesn’t mean we should decry it, or give up on it. Letting go of the past and remaining cautiously optimistic (though realistic) about the future, we can carry on today.
And as for me, I’ll try to use whatever time I have given to me in the now to live in accord with nature--and to make my best efforts towards wisdom, justice, and self-knowledge.
When my future boss was interviewing me, she asked me how I liked to be managed. How could I best work with a supervisor to be successful in this role? My answer: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
I had given this a lot of thought, though I didn’t dream I’d be asked about it in such an open way (and I viewed the question itself as a very good sign). I had worked before as a writer and editor, both on staff at publications and freelance. I felt that I knew what it took to get the job done independently.
In fact, that’s what first drew me to working as a journalist.
You might start with an editor’s tip or an idea, but then it was all on you: the reporter goes out, finds sources, gets the story, and writes it as she thinks it should be written. Then after I produced a first draft, an editor might come along and change some things, but usually the story turned out better with a wise hand gently guiding it at the end. That was the check-in. Someone was there to question your assumptions, to make sure you’d thought through your sources’ potential agendas, to ensure you weren’t leaving out a crucial piece of information.
(Very often, stories I read in publications today are missing something: a date, a figure that would flesh out the story, even a quoted source’s first name or title or relationship to the information. News orgs have ceased employing both writers and especially editors at alarming rates.)
So when I was asked by my potential employer about my ideal management style, I was quite clear. “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
This approach resonates with my practice of Stoicism. Stoic thinkers emphasized that we are only truly responsible for—and in control of—our own choices, which emanate from our sense of reason. Using our autonomy to its fullest is an opportunity to embrace the things we can pursue on our own and feel pride in achieving, without waiting for others to recognize our good works.
Autonomy is a key concept in ancient Stoic texts. Princeton professor John M. Cooper has written about the Stoic view of autonomy and compared it ideas advanced by later philosophers such as Kant. He points out that “autonomy” is a classical Greek term. Ancient Stoics, he says, believed autonomy meant adhering to laws of one’s own making, “not mere self-direction or self-governance, which might, of course, be quite arbitrary, unprincipled, and inconsistent.” Rather, autonomy has as its heart “reason itself.”
Cooper explains that ancient Stoic autonomy is somewhat neglected by scholars and deserves more study. After all, it is “a deeply interesting conception of human nature, human rationality, and the basis of morality.” (For more on this, see Cooper's book Knowledge, Nature, and the Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy.)
Of course, practicing Stoics (ancient and modern) such as Marcus Aurelius knew full well that as soon as we go out into the wider world with our ideas and choices, we will inevitably encounter resistance from others. People who think they know better will try to block you. As the famous quote from Marcus’ Meditations, Book 2, Section 1, goes:
"Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad." (Robin Hard translation)
But if you have a solid life philosophy on the one hand, and a mentor or role model, a strong friend, a caring spouse, or close-knit community on the other, you have the means to check in. These are the critical ingredients we need to fall back, no matter what befalls us.
“Autonomy, with check-ins” is also how I try to parent my children, especially now that they are 10 and 12.
When they were very small, it was mostly all check-ins from me and their dad, with a lot less autonomy for them. But even then, we tried to give them limited choices. Peas or carrots? Sandbox or swing? It gave us a chance to figure out their likes and dislikes. They could try new things and make decisions about their activities and the time they spent on non-essential pursuits, ones where they could have a choice.
(Granted, I wouldn’t overwhelm them with more than two or three options in most cases. More than that could prove tough. I saw the paralysis that picking from a whole toy store elicited on birthday shopping trips.)
And as time has gone on, we’ve reaped the benefits of this approach. My daughters are growing up, and I feel I can trust them—in public, to get information, and to speak confidently with people they don’t know… in school, to perform to their best in academics, respect the learning environment, while navigating the complex social situations they encounter… after school, to decide which extra-curriculars to do, and to help get to said activities on time and prepared (at least minimally)… in life, to develop their own interests, whether it’s in pop music, guitar, piano, coding, animated movies, theater, Lego, running, writing, art, basketball, constructing with glue guns, or Tae Kwon Do.
I could never have been a “Tiger Mom.” I have no interest in constantly making decisions for my kids and propelling them forward towards “success” with high-pressure activities. That kind of management may seem to work in the short term with certain (pliable) kids, but in the long term, I’m not so sure. It’s certainly not how I want to connect with my family, my relationships, or my own career.
My kids’ sense of autonomous responsibility has mushroomed over the past year. Both my daughters took the initiative on a few things lately I never quite thought I’d see. Each may be small, but the overall effect adds up. They quite thoroughly cleaned out their bedrooms when my husband and I were busy with other projects one afternoon, much to our astonishment. They went from dawdling over the smallest things (like putting on shoes—I can’t count the number of hours I have wasted waiting for my kids to put on shoes!) to being very concerned about arriving to their classes on time. When teachers allow it, they voluntarily make up or re-take tests that they’ve made mistakes on to earn more points.
But we still check in on them all the time, offering guidance and help and love and unsolicited advice and exposure to super-old movies that every American should know.
So next time you think about how you’d like to relate to your boss or even your kids, consider this: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
My daughter made a brave choice a couple weeks ago. She deleted Instagram from her phone.
The intelligence of her decision was brought home just a few days later. Police showed up at her middle school class one afternoon to interview students about—you guessed it—their use of Facebook-owned Instagram. Someone spoofing one girl’s account had been asking for nude pictures of 12-year-olds and using them to blackmail students. Police are trying to track down who did it and what they gathered.
My daughter had already decided to remove the app not out of fear, but because of its impact on her moment-to-moment thoughts. Despite the fun of keeping up with her friends’ activities, it was becoming a constant distraction.
Her phone was clogged with buzzing reminders and flashing updates featuring all the things she was missing. She also had an unwelcome conflict with a friend. The seventh-grader called out my daughter and a classmate in an Instagram “story”—replete with shaming words.
That’s not to say that communicating online is all bad—it’s central to our lives in good ways, too. For middle schoolers today, reaching each other using mobile devices is part of the social fabric. It’s how they make plans and share memories. I wouldn’t want to deny that to my children.
But they do need to learn to set limits. Ultimately, it’s up to them to figure out those boundaries, which is why my daughter’s choice to end a social media distraction made me proud.
We are all tasked with serving as our own gatekeepers—and the stakes are high. Recall Marcus Aurelius’ words in the Meditations:
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
Online, we are exposed to masses of “thoughts” that can shift our minds. It turns out that many of these expressions are not even real: they are propaganda distributed by people trying to shift public opinion.
The news about Cambridge Analytica misusing Facebook data and the indictments surrounding fake news and profiles on the social network have been extremely troubling. It’s been a problem for a long time that’s only now being increasingly exposed. We are seeing the consequences of an online world where people can stay anonymous, create false personas, and wield tremendous influence.
As we navigate the treacherous waters of the Internet, we should remain mindful of our souls—and I’m glad my 12-year-old sets a pretty good example.
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.
“Let the goddess within you be in charge of a person who is mature, womanly, strong, brave, a leader, a ruler.… In brief, you must hold yourself upright, not be held upright.”
- Adaptation of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Part 5
Here is an uplifting thought: that we, as people, women and men, parents, and citizens can derive strength, energy, and--above all--reason from within ourselves.
Where exactly does this goodness spring from? From part of us that Roman emperor and Stoic thinker Marcus Aurelius calls “the god within," and sometimes refers to as an inner genius or guardian spirit.
I’ve been studying Marcus’ Meditations, and this element stands out over numerous pages. Although it’s unclear whether Marcus believed in a single, powerful deity, or in pantheistic gods, or thought it was impossible to know the nature of the spiritual realm, it does seem that he held fast to the notion of a divine spark within us all.
This piece of ourselves is the source of our reason and intelligence as humans. And it is that which we must preserve by following philosophy and living a good life.
It's not easy. Modern Americans are struggling with the many pressures inherent in a highly individualistic and judgmental culture, the swirling mess of work, home, housework, family, politics, finances, and an increasingly self-absorbed and self-indulgent society that seems more likely to alienate and embitter people than to care for them.
From my vantage point in Silicon Valley, I often see precious little community and pitching in for the polis; it’s a very “I got mine” vibe. I am guilty of being overworked and overcommitted, too, and lacking time and energy to take on more. I worry about my kids seeing so much self-centered behavior. The bright spot for them is that their school environments are one potential source for coming together, and I've found a handful of good friends in the parent community here (supportive for me and potential role models for children).
The question is: Can you be strong and self-sufficient without being cut off from other people? Can you cultivate that wisdom and logic within, share it, and use it to participate for the good in your community and world?
And can we teach this to our children?
I do not have a certain answer now, and I am seeking one actively. There are some rays of hope. I know that both my daughters want to pursue “take action” projects in our area with the girls in their Girl Scout troops. I’m waiting expectantly to find out what that means. Can they channel their energy into something useful and create change?
As for me, I’m engaging in helping my friends and fellow humans with their lives and issues, my colleagues with collaborations on innovative, creative work, and my world with supporting causes I care about. My company offers matching grants and I have recently been busy directing donations to local, national, and international efforts I want to advance.
But much more needs to be done. Spreading ideas inspired by this philosophy and the primacy of truth, justice, and service could help. My younger daughter serves as an example. She has started the school year strong, working to form a "stop stereotypes" club with a handful of other students. These fourth graders don't like kids getting pegged by gender, and they want to see change within classrooms and on the playground, as well as in the wider world. (I was disappointed, though, when her school principal declined to meet with the group, despite their hope to be taken seriously on the highest level available to them.)
Her enthusiasm is inspiring. We could all learn to do more, and to grow in wisdom and leadership, propelled by our inner spark.
Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
With so much violence and death in the news recently—both human-made and nature-made—it’s hard to comprehend so much suffering.
I sometimes wonder if there is a threshold to witnessing so many things that are out of control—and out of OUR control, as the Stoic thinkers have shown us. Perhaps there is a point beyond which we just break down and turn away. (If that is true, the ancients must have experienced it, given the scale of war and disease at that time.)
After I heard about the mass shooting in Las Vegas that claimed 59 lives, my sense of despair and disconnection went into overdrive. The unthinkable cruelty hurt me on a personal level. I went through the motions of my day, trying not to discuss the horror with my kids. I didn’t want them to see my alienation and sadness. And I did not know how to explain what had happened.
We are seeing these kinds of staggering acts monthly, weekly, and daily if you look at violence on the local level around the country. It makes me ask: What values do we share in common as Americans—as human beings? How can we live “in accordance with nature” in our modern world? So many people seem to have forgotten what it means to tap into the logic of our brains and the spark of virtue, kindness, and joy within.
Human life is much more than an instinct to survive. Nor is it just material comfort or a set of serial goals, like “graduate from school," “get a job,” "get married," and “buy a house." There’s a deeper spiritual element. To feel connected, valuable, and good, the Stoics tell us, we must try to live a virtuous life, in harmony with the best elements of our natures.
Maybe by attempting to live a good life—a caring and thoughtful existence supporting those around us—we can somehow serve as a bulwark against acts of violence and terror. At the very least, we can continue to promote and protect the core virtues that make our lives meaningful while we are on this planet. Stoicism means living far from despair even in the worst circumstances, and I try to keep that thought in the forefront of my mind.
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.