Adjusting our expectations
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!)
Get a slogan and say it often
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.
I wanted to let you know about an opportunity to learn more about Stoicism: Stoic Week. It is starting tomorrow, organized by Stoicism Today, a group launched by folks at the University of Exeter, UK. (The group has gotten some cool media coverage.) You are asked to register online to start the program.
The premise of Stoic Week is to spend a week living like a Stoic today, and to see if it makes a difference for you. You are given daily readings and exercises to help you re-frame your thinking, inspired by Stoic philosophers.
Stoic Week is now in its fifth year. More than 3,200 people worldwide took part last year. Most people spent about a half hour participating per day, organizers say.
How do we know if Stoic Week does any good? Organizers ask participants to fill out an assessment at the start of the week, one that helps gauge how you feel about your life, how you make your choices, how you handle your emotions, and more. At the end of the week, you are asked to fill out a second survey, and that is when it will become clear if/how our mindsets have shifted. Many past participants reported positive effects.
Interestingly, the ratio of males to females who filled out surveys last year was 65 percent to 35 percent. It would be excellent to get more women (including moms) involved!
I’ve just begun the readings. Hoping to be more Stoic by week’s end…. And I will let you know!
We all need a philosophy
We all need a philosophy. I’m not talking about a massive belief system or a set of intricate logical precepts that takes decades to build; nor do I necessarily mean religious beliefs. I’m referring to a basic approach to the world, to the phenomena we experience day to day, to the burdens and joys of life as we know it.
That’s why everyone needs a philosophy. To handle our lives in the real world.
And moms—and dads—need this in spades. That is because we are not only responsible for ourselves, but for many years we are in charge of others’ lives. Not just the changing diapers part or the getting dinner on the table part or the driving to piano lessons part. I’m thinking much bigger than that.
It’s up to use what we teach and model for our children. That means extra pressure on us, both because of our added work (and rewards) as parents, but also because of the way we teach our children to live.
I’ve been pretty worried about that over the years. And worry does not help! I wonder: Does my anxiety as a mother rub off on my daughters? Are they learning to be fearful from me? Are they learning to be judgmental or put-upon? To be overly focused on material things? To be considerate to other people? Am I demonstrating how to have the confidence to speak their minds? The list goes on and on. It’s easy enough to just focus on the rat race of school, activities, and achievements, rather than our moral and emotional lives.
It’s only now, when my children are 8 and just-turned-11, that I’ve felt able to come up for air and really examine this moral and emotional side of parenting.
I started this journey towards a philosophy to help myself. I was finding myself increasingly irritable and frustrated, wondering how I’d get through the day and the week ahead when I was so filled with self-doubt, resentment, and fear. I dreaded basic and simple things.
And I could see that my daughters were suffering for it. It’s when they began looking at me and saying, “Mom, are you OK?” out of the blue that I knew something was wrong. My emotions were affecting them. And I didn’t want them to feel responsible for the burdens I felt. It was when I witnessed myself yelling at everyone in my household for leaving the house 10 minutes late for an appointment, how angry I was, how unnerved I became over a miniscule thing. And how responsible I felt for the mistakes my children made—and the frustration and upset that came with that. How could I be placing so much of a burden on myself and those around me? How could I quiet this state of hyper-reaction?
That’s when I began to investigate mindfulness. At the university where I work, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a class about applying mindfulness-based techniques to our emotional lives. It wasn’t a research or academic course, but rather a practicum on how to become more mindful through meditation, exercises, and discussions. I’ll always be thankful for the way this set me on my path to mindfulness, and now to Stoicism.
The class taught me to recognize the difference between what happens, and my reaction to what happens. To understand that things out there in the world do not have to affect me in the way they always had. That I could change my relationship to the events and people around me—for the better.
After beginning this journey, I’ve found that it’s a long one—life-long. But I’m very excited to be on the right path. And I’d like to share that with you, to help you benefit from what I’ve learned along the way.
In this blog, I’ll write about mindfulness. I’ll delve into the way it led me to Stoic philosophy. And in the process, I will explore how both of these things can make a tremendous difference for you, me, and everyone else you’ve ever met, if we just could stop and invest a little time in finding our own philosophies.
Welcome to The Stoic Mom
Thanks for visiting The Stoic Mom, where ancient philosophy and modern parenting meet.
My investigations into ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism allow me to say quite truthfully that I do appreciate you. I know that you could easily have done a million other things with your time rather than stop here. I'm picturing this website without you right now, and it is a very sad scene indeed. Which makes me grateful for you.
I will strive to make the most of our time together. I've just begun a year-long (or more?) investigation of how Stoic philosophy and the mindfulness that flows from it can impact the way a person lives today. In this case, that person is me--a mom to two daughters ages 10 and 8, a wife, and a writer and editor trying to juggle work and child-rearing/family while still maintaining a life full of art and philosophy. Please join me as I explore the fruits of this millennias-old thinking... which might just be an antidote to our modern world's flaws.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.