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.
Can Stoic practice help you live a happier life? I say yes, and I've been writing about why.
I’m happy to highlight two recent posts featuring my work on Stoicism and happiness, and a free upcoming online event that can help anyone interested learn more about how to "live like a Stoic."
The first post, "Stoic Happiness in this Fleeting Moment," is a piece I contributed to the Modern Stoicism blog as part of a series on Stoic ideas and happiness. Please take a look if you haven't already done so!
Also, if you'd like to test your Romance language skills, some news: an Italian translation of the same article appeared as a post in The Notebook, an Italian language blog, where I’m known as “La Mamma Stoica.” (Thanks to the blog's author for translating and sharing this.)
Last, I'd like to spotlight Stoic Week. Every fall, the Modern Stoicism group offers a free chance to follow along with online educational material that helps you "live like a Stoic" for the week, and then to reflect on it afterwards. This year it begins on October 1. I recommend making the effort to try this if you can, even for just a few days. Participating in Stoic Week helped me start to internalize the practices of this highly practical philosophy!
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.
“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.
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.
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.