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.
The human condition. I used to think the expression was reserved for pedants and philosophers. But now I know better. It's as important to children as it is to high-thinking adults. Perhaps even more so.
Sometimes I feel as if I can almost watch the thoughts happening, the neurons firing, in my daughters' heads. Those thoughts are getting more and more complex. Now they are both old enough and mature enough to question everything in a very grown up way. They ask more than just what and why, but how and when and what will it feel like.
As we sat under the stars on our last night visiting the island of Kauai as a family, we looked up and observed an incredibly luminous Sirius shining down on us. My younger daughter, age 10, asked a very serious question. "What happens after we die? What does it feel like?"
This is the biggest and baddest of them all when it comes to challenging questions. Not just for children but for every last one of us. None of us will escape our fate. As soon as we our born, when we gain consciousness, we realize we will someday die. And what does that mean? Also: What does it tell us about how to live?
I struggled to answer. I came up with platitudes. My husband and I veered onto shaky, nearly mystical ground, trying to reassure her while at the same time dealing quietly with our own terror. It's not the first time we've been asked this. I still have no response.
That, my friends, is the human condition in a nutshell. Trying to calm and reassure and guide our loved ones while feeling our own existential crisis boiling inside. Knowing that we don't know. Facing the scary uncertainty of life and the sure certainty of death.
She tried to get us to answer, to provide something concrete. I fumbled further.
In the end, I said essentially this: We know these explanations don't satisfy you, but this is this best we can do--and this is the human condition. We live, we enjoy a remarkable moment like this one surrounded by an amazing family that we have created, sitting outside at a patio table of a lovely restaurant, feeling the cool night air, under unusually bright stars and a nearly full moon, hearing the waves crashing onto the beach below us, just out of sight in the night's shadows.
This is what we have. All we have. And we are extremely lucky to have this. The rest is the great unknown.
In fact, often, the rest is us dealing with pain, loss, frustration, anger, resentment, sorrow, suffering, and not having any way to end it other than returning to the moment we have, and resting in it, taking any joy we can from it, keeping everything sad and tough and joyous and awe inspiring in our minds at the same time.
Sometimes it feels as if we might explode from it all, but generally we don't. We go on. As long as we can. And then we stop. But we hope that by then, we will have left something worthwhile and indeed precious behind.
And for us, that thing will be you.
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!
My daughters clearly have inborn body types. My older daughter was always around the 99th percentile in growth for her age. At 11, already she has grown to my height, with my wide shoulders and (relatively) powerful legs.
She is strong and healthy, and I am grateful. But I already know that she will not have the slim body type do some of her relatives. And in our culture, that will likely bother her on some level, since the slender type is so prized.
My younger daughter is a different body type altogether, one I don’t recognize quite so well. She was usually around the 55th percentile for growth for her age. She is average height and weight, also a very active kid whose friends ask how she can eat so much and still stay skinny. She’s only 9 and who knows how her body will change, but I don’t think it will mimic mine so closely.
Perhaps my children will be more able to accept their bodies, especially in this era of women’s fitness. I can dream, can’t I?
I have long had struggles with my body, especially after having two kids. When carrying my second daughter, I was put on bedrest. I lost muscle tone and put on flabby weight (more than I’d hoped), and I had to take medication that made me feel awful. Recovery was a long process, and with a two-year-old and infant it seemed to take forever.
Then when I returned to work part-time I found I was very sedentary, very busy, stressed, and had almost no time for exercise. I was surrounded (I almost said assaulted!) by free food at my office, which did not help my waistline. And I developed some seriously painful physical issues from the repetitive stress of carrying heavy babies around and (when I had a few moments to myself) hovering over a laptop and doing crafts to unwind.
It was a perfect storm for motherly physical un-fitness.
After some months (years, I guess?) of complaining about it, I finally decided to make a change and got proactive. I went to a good physical therapist, luckily covered by my medical insurance. Joyce's energetic persona made me feel old and bulky, but she helped immensely.
Putting aside a bit of budget for health matters, I found a female physical trainer, Mary, who did her best to whip me into shape over a few months. And a mom friend who liked running got me into weekend runs while the dads minded the kids.
I lost some weight and I got stronger physically. I built muscle tone and improved my posture, which helped my pain. I did what I could, given time and budget constraints.
Today, the journey continues with stops at the gym, speed walks, fitness biking, uphill hikes, dance “jam” classes, and all-encompassing eating plans. It feels like a constant battle and I expect it will get worse as I age.
Over the years, I have had a lot of trouble accepting my basic body type. It's not slender, not an hourglass, not an image of Hollywood perfection. It’s a type that’s hard to fit nicely into off-the-rack clothes, for example. But it's not all bad: I know I can look darn good in the right outfit, and I get compliments (especially from biased people like my husband).
The point is: As much as I work out and lose weight or gain it, this will always be my body.
Stoic thinking is helpful here, if I can just remember to bring it to mind. Stoics in ancient times were known for their willingness to pass up fine food and drink, and even nice, warm clothing. They could deprive themselves of an awful lot, and they did not indulge when given the opportunity.
That’s a mindset I am trying to develop—especially when it comes to the abundant free food in my office (a "first world problem," I know!).
And the ancient Stoics were, above all, accepting of things outside their control. Surely body type and body chemistry/metabolism are things we are born with, as my daughter’s form shows.
Ancient Stoics were remarkably accepting of the body’s aging and its pain. For Stoic thinkers, possessing good health was not a given and was one of the “indifferent things” that did not determine a person’s worth, virtue, or joy in life. That's because we can’t help getting sick or growing old, and eventually we all lose our precious bodies and pass away.
But long before that (I hope), we should be clear: we must accept our bodies and ourselves. We should try to be the best person we can be, to be the fittest for our own well-being, but the rest is outside our control.
Perhaps I could come up with some new Stoic mantras for women struggling with this. I’ll think about that in the coming days, as I try to find ways to work exercise and healthy eating and stress reduction into my hectic life. Any comments on coping with this often-tough path would be more than welcome!
Stoic philosophy aims to teach us that nothing is truly “ours,” except our own thoughts and actions. Everything else is outside our control.
One key Stoic exercise is to picture ourselves and our loved ones dead and gone. We are asked to remember that our own life and body, and those of all the people we cherish today, could be taken away in an instant by death.
This ancient thought exercise, the memento mori, extends to our own children. As modern parents, we can hardly force ourselves to think about our children dying before we do. It’s simply the most devastating thing in our universe, and we resist the mere imagining of it.
Yet it does happen.
Two weeks ago, it happened to my close friends. Their only child, a vibrant, smart, beautiful 13-year-old daughter, was suddenly killed while crossing the street just a few blocks from my house.
I’ve been friends with her parents for 18 years, long before their child was born. My husband first met her dad when they were both in graduate school. His wife and I discovered we’d attended the same high-profile college. We also shared a somewhat renegade love of traditional crafts (renegade in the sense that our overachieving, academic-minded friends couldn’t understand why someone would “waste time” sewing, beading, knitting, or scrapbooking). Her dad (before he was a dad) was best man at my wedding, and we kept up ties as our careers evolved and we found ourselves living in the same Northern California city.
Not long after our wedding, their daughter was born. Seeing her grow from an infant to a toddler to a little girl helped us learn about kids before we had our own. Our daughters were two years and four years younger than she was. We met up frequently, and she was like an older cousin to my girls—someone they looked up to and who imparted helpful information about what older grades would be like. My kids attended every birthday party she had in recent memory and visited with her over numerous holiday dinners, skillfully prepared by her parents, who live far from their own relatives and treat us like family.
The last time I saw her was on July 4. She was turning tremendous cartwheels and doing aerials in the backyard, showcasing her tumbling skills to my kids. They played Wii games together, and we all ate BBQ outside on the patio. It was a normal summer day, a low-key celebration of the joys of family and leisure time and friends.
By the end of that month she was dead.
There’s simply no explanation for what happened. Witnesses said she walked into the street with the green light, in the crosswalk, phone safely tucked in her pocket. We haven’t found out how a driver in our suburban area could hit her at 12:14 pm in full daylight with such force—especially when, as a pedestrian, she was “doing everything right,” according to the police officer investigating the accident. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a reckless driver swung by. "A senseless accident," as her mother described it to me.
The unthinkable happened just a stone's throw away from me and my children. A wonderful girl is gone forever, and our friends’ lives are irrevocably changed.
This event has made the memento mori much more real to me. I still can’t actually imagine myself without my daughters and husband. It feels truly unnatural, horribly unfair, absolutely impossible. But despite our best efforts to stay safe in this world, and to protect ourselves with doctor visits and full-featured vehicles and security cameras and hand sanitizer, it can all be wiped away in the blink of an eye.
A couple days after the funeral I took my older daughter to see Shakespeare's Hamlet performed in a nearby park. (We invited our friends to join us but they declined, and I could understand why.) Hamlet’s diatribes on the meaninglessness of human life carried a weighty significance after the accident.
When something so awful can happen so quickly it makes a person question everything. As parents (or in Hamlet’s case, as a son), we devote so much love and care and effort and worry and… we can’t prevent the worst imaginable thing from happening in a mere second’s time? What is the point?
Yet somehow, we go on. And it would be worse to give up or to become paralyzed by grief, self-pity, and vengeance, like Hamlet.
We can take one lesson forward from this experience: enjoy anything and everything to the greatest possible extent while we can. Try to relish the moments of being a parent, even the tough ones, because there’s no predicting the future. Do our best to be thankful for it.
In a recent radio interview, actor Jeffrey Tambor said that the best advice he ever got about entering his profession was this: “Adore everything.” Even the dull, disappointing, or stressful parts, like drawn-out auditioning or waiting around for shooting to start. Adore it all.
In my family, we have a new motto this year: “Always be enjoying”—a play on the Glengarry Glen Ross catch phrase made famous by actor Alec Baldwin in the 1992 movie version: “Always be closing.” My mom and I have repeated “always be enjoying” ad nauseum ever since the spring, much to the annoyance of my kids. “ABE” is the short version and now we text this to each other as a reminder to take pleasure in our days.
Of course, it’s MUCH easier said than done—my own anxiety ratcheted up to an alarming degree after I heard the terrible news. I told my daughters they were not allowed to walk by themselves around town, at all. I conveyed my own (preexisting) paranoia about cars and roads and traffic. I couldn't help it.
I love our friends. When I see them, I will always think of this loss. But I will also think about what it means to face the worst and to continue living and loving and trying somehow to find peace and joy in our unpredictable world.
When my husband was a boy, he’d get frustrated about competing with other students at school or in activities—as we all do. He remembers what his dad used to say in response: “There will always be a quicker gun.”
This Wild West metaphor is very apt today (minus the actual gun, I hope). But while the quicker gun concept is meant to be vaguely reassuring—reminding us that we can’t always be uniquely excellent at difficult things—I’m finding our situation more and more disconcerting.
Sure, I can’t expect to always be able to best other people when it comes to, let’s say, doing vector calculus or piloting an aircraft or dancing a pas-de-deux. I get it. Those things take a lot of focused learning and training, plus some native ability that not everyone has.
But now, with instant and constant access to the Internet, the examples of quicker guns hit us square in the jaw like a rubber bullet whenever we go online to research something we are interested in doing, exploring, learning, etc. There’s always someone out there already doing it much, much better than we are—and ready to tell us all the things we have to do to approach their level of greatness.
This “quicker gun” idea applies even when you consider simple and fun activities, things we used to think we could just do here and there in our spare time without getting enmeshed in a competitive race or an intense learning process.
Consider colorful Fimo (or Sculpey) polymer clay. As a kid I used to make little animals, fun shapes, and simple jewelry out of many vivid hues of Fimo, and I considered myself pretty good at it. I gave my pieces away as gifts and I even had my own exhibit of polymer clay objects I’d crafted at our local public library.
Now, when I looked up polymer clay online to get a refresher on how to do simple, fun clay projects with my daughters, I am shocked. Immediately, dozens and dozens of tutorials and articles on advanced techniques by highly-touted clay "experts” pop up on my screen.
For a perfectionist like me, this situation presents a terrible quandary: “Why do it at all if you can't be great at it? Or at least, pretty good. You should have something decent to point to when you are done.”
We can now see just how far short we fall with the click of a mouse. You’re not only comparing yourself to people on your street or in your town or state or country but to people around the world. Now you're just the millionth person to search techniques provided the by “experts.”
Is this part of the reason why there’s been such a backlash against expertise in the national mood lately? Are people getting increasingly tired of hearing those who claim to know more lecturing them on how to improve?
Especially when it comes to highly subjective pursuits like art and crafting, maybe expertise isn’t really what’s needed. Following some 18-step process we see online to learn a technique won’t improve our creativity or our love of the craft. It might just make us feel like crap—like rank amateurs who don’t know a thing about “real” art or pro techniques. What’s more, seeing images of the perfect clay (or the perfect scrapbook, quilt, watercolor, knit sweater, etc.) could just dampen our interest and our love for doing our creative pursuit our own, individual way.
And as to my daughters, I want them to try new things. I want them not to care if they are following all the rules and “getting it right” the first time, or really any time. I don’t want to see them suffer under the crushing weight of having to execute everything—even hobbies and extracurriculars—perfectly, according to someone else’s yardstick.
Here is where my Stoic mom approach comes in. I’ve got to let go of the constant desire to compare. Rather than focusing on what I lack, think of what I can actually do and enjoy.
And as I search online, I stop to remind myself: Stoic philosophy teaches that we can’t control what others do and say. Nobody has all the answers, and my reaction to the “perfect” online people is up to me. Supposed experts could talk all day and all night—if we did not listen and if we did not pay attention, they’d have no audience. We must be our own audiences, our own believers, if we are going to steer clear of all those “quicker guns.”
My younger daughter slightly injured my older daughter in the pool today. The injury faded very quickly—but the daughter responsible had much more trouble with the emotional consequences of her mistake.
She immediately apologized for the minor pain she’d caused, but she did not like the response she received. “That hurt,” her older sister said, “Ouch… why did you do that?” It wasn’t the “I accept your apology” that she wanted.
My younger child acted like the one wronged and in pain, crying furiously.
I knelt poolside and tried to impart some of the wisdom of the Stoic philosophy I’ve been studying. “You can’t control how other people react to you,” I said to her. “Even if you think you’re doing the right thing, people will respond in ways you don’t appreciate or even understand. It may seem hurtful. But you can't make her change how she feels or what she says.”
“But I want her to forgive me, I want her to be OK with me, and to not be angry with me,” she said between sobs.
“Unfortunately, It’s not possible to force someone to be OK with you.” I tried to get past her tears. “It may feel hurtful, I know. But the only person who can change that hurt is you. You have to try to learn how to act when you make a mistake. We all make them," I said.
"To me, all you can do when you make a mistake is to apologize. To try to make it better and fix whatever you caused--like if you spilled all the milk, clean it up, and then go out and buy new milk. After that, work on moving past it.
"Others' emotions can't be controlled or fixed. You can’t make her happy with you right now. And as hard as that is to accept, it's just how things work.”
Eventually the sobbing subsided. And soon they were friends again, doing a vague semblance of synchronized swimming together.
In our perfectionistic society—our culture that privileges flawless behavior and looks, and that celebrates outward success that appears immune to criticism—mistakes are simply not accepted by many people.
In my experience, you can have one or two reactions to a mistake. Either deny it completely (a la our president, who never acknowledges doing anything wrong), or say you’re sorry and try to make things whole again as best you can.
When you apologize and try to make it right, you hope to start fresh. But that is the tricky part. You want to make sure you are still loved and accepted by those around you—but you simply are not in charge of other people’s thoughts and feelings.
That’s where my daughter fell apart. And maybe that’s why so many people deny their mistakes, errors, failings to begin with.
Stoicism offers a good way to frame how to respond when we make a mistake, do something wrong, or when others see us fail at something. In our usual fantasy of control over the world, it's hard to acknowledge a basic fact: that we can only master ourselves.
Do you remember when you were a kid - and you constantly asked ‘why’? Most children do.
Fun questions about the world, like,
Why is the sky blue?
Why do clouds look like cotton candy?
Why do fish open their mouths underwater?
Why do bees sting?
Or questions about everyday things, like,
Why do I need to take a bath?
Why do I have to eat vegetables?
Why do I need to clean my room?
Why do I have to wear a jacket outside?
Why can’t I eat all my Halloween candy at once?
Why do I have to change my socks/underwear/clothes every day?
The list goes on and on.
I’ve tried to bring reason and logic to my kids’ lives by explaining why in many, many cases. It’s time consuming and sometimes even annoying. But I think it is worth it.
That's based on my own experience. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have explainer parents, not “because I said so” parents. This made me a more independent and responsible adult than I might have been otherwise. I kept asking questions, but as I got older, I always tried to do my own thinking to come up with reasonable answers.
I’m going to call this “why” parenting. I think the Stoic philosophers would heartily approve of this style of relating to kids. Ancient Stoic thinkers believed that we all have a “share of the divine” within us—and that is our reason. It is what provides us our ability to think logically. We can use it to understand our world and our actions in it.
“Why” parenting helps kids—and the adults they grow into—become more rational and willing to use their own internal power of reason to figure things out. Rather than blindly look to authority figures or tradition or habit as the source for all knowledge and action, asking why grows a person’s ability to think things through and decide what’s right. And, I hope, the backbone to stand behind that decision.
So the extra minutes a parent spends explaining things to a kid are valuable. So, too, are those times when adults let kids just try out things to discover the "why" themselves. (Within reason, of course. Nothing too dangerous!)
If I explain that you need to wear a jacket because you’ll be freezing cold outside…. Well, it’s OK if you try going outside for a few minutes and see what it feels like. Or if you want to eat all your Halloween candy at once…. You will likely feel a stomach ache after the first pile. Or if you think your dirty socks are just fine…. Maybe try smelling them closely. That’ll wake up your inner germaphobe!
As kids get older, they understand cause and effect much more readily. But starting young doesn’t hurt. It develops the mind. And that’s really the point of all this philosophy and education stuff, isn’t it?
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.