A few years ago, I staked out my spot as the first person in line in front of a university chapel. After a long time standing there in the dark, the doors opened and everyone rushed inside the cavernous stone building. I found myself in one of the front pews. Still, when the speaker appeared on the stage, it wasn’t easy to see that tiny figure. But as she began, her words were even more powerful than I expected—and despite her stature, she spoke with the dignity and intelligence of the giant that she was. It was worth the wait to hear Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about her work and the principles that guided her life.
The news this past week of Ginsburg’s death at age 87 launched a collective mourning among those who saw this Supreme Court Justice as not just one of the foremost jurists of our age, but also as a role model. She fought massive battles to equalize the sexes before the law in her early career. And despite illness, in her later years she worked tirelessly to interpret American law, moving it towards recognizing more civil rights and equality while on the Court.
In fact, I believe that Ginsburg should be viewed a Stoic role model, someone to pattern ourselves after while following a modern Stoic life philosophy.
I’ve thought about this idea for years. For me, Ginsburg not only served as a model of perseverance and grit in the face of bias, but also of an ethical and brave life. That rang true when I saw her speak that day at the chapel. Already in her 80s, she’d faced many scary things (on a personal level with her and her family’s illnesses, and on a professional level with exclusion and marginalization and judicial defeats). And yet she was brave, carrying on to achieve remarkable firsts.
Ginsburg’s approach was in sync with my own Stoic life philosophy, where the central pillars are to examine all our impressions and judge them by their wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline (the four Stoic virtues). To me, "the notorious RBG" was a powerful example of a life lived with meaning and purpose—accomplished with a Stoic-like sense of working towards these virtues in any way we can.
Ginsburg sought to enshrine equal justice into the interpretation of the law, stemming from her own experiences of inequality. She grew up keenly aware of the differences in opportunities and treatment in society of men and women. Later, she had the tremendous good fortune of a marriage that was an equal partnership in the 1950s. Her husband Martin encouraged her to pursue a law degree, an extreme rarity at the time—Ginsburg was initially one of just nine women in her law school class. She did earn her degree, while giving birth to and raising children (again, with support and help of her family), and caring for her husband when he became ill. And though she was a mother of two in an era where most mothers did not work outside the home, she and her husband shared responsibility for their children, allowing her to continue her own career.
When Ginsburg struggled to find traditional legal jobs at New York law firms who turned her down because she was a woman and a mother, she changed direction. Ginsburg persevered to become a law professor and legal advocate who argued before the Supreme Court in favor of eliminating sex-based discrimination.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Ginsburg was how she created change in a hidebound system. She found pathways into a legal world that was set against her as a woman working in the field, and set against other women (and some men) in laws and regulations upheld by long tradition and precedent.
Ginsburg was deft at appealing to others to see a lack of fairness. One of the remarkable things about legal cases is how they represent in concrete and human form our lofty abstractions about what’s right and wrong. But judges—even Supreme Court Justices—are humans, prone to biases and misleading “impressions,” in the Stoic sense. Those can cloud their reason and judgment. To shine a spotlight on the Golden Rule to these jurists, Ginsburg chose to argue cases before the Supreme Court representing male defendants who resembled, in a way, the justices themselves. This brought home the idea of “how would you feel if this happened to you?” and, from there, the essential “do unto others as you would have done to you.”
Here’s how a Ginsburg obituary described her approach in a key case:
“Knowing that she had to persuade male, establishment-oriented judges, she often picked male plaintiffs, and she liked Social Security cases because they illustrated how discrimination against women can harm men. For example, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she represented a man whose wife, the principal breadwinner, died in childbirth. The husband sought survivor's benefits to care for his child, but under the then-existing Social Security law, only widows, not widowers, were entitled to such benefits. ‘This absolute exclusion, based on gender per se, operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children,’ Ginsburg told the justices at oral argument. The Supreme Court would ultimately agree, as it did in five of the six cases she argued.”
About that case, she later said in an interview: “The aim was to break down the stereotypical view of men’s roles and women’s roles.” Ginsburg believed that both men and women should have equal opportunities to become full citizens and participants in society. This is an idea that I strongly support in my own life, and especially for my two daughters: I would like them to have every chance to become productive, brave adults working to make our world better.
Ginsburg worked towards equality of women and men before the law little by little. It’s hard to believe that there was, very recently, a time when women couldn’t sign up for a credit card, a car loan, or a mortgage on their own; when women couldn’t serve on juries, deciding cases of their peers; and when laws barred women from holding certain jobs. As Ginsburg and others argued cases to equalize the rights of both genders, the Supreme Court’s rulings began to shift the tide, knocking down these barriers.
And then when she was named a justice on the Supreme Court herself, in 1993, she worked to advocate for equality before the law from the bench. Exercising well-reasoned judgment, and insisting on correct procedure, were hallmarks of her work on the Court.
And even when the Court’s majority went in another direction and she found herself outnumbered on a decision, she still made a difference. This is a very Stoic attitude: even if we can’t change something directly, we can still seek the virtuous path and act in ways that influence others. So RBG couldn’t always win outright, but she could share strongly-worded dissenting opinions based on her vision of justice and wisdom, an act of courage—three Stoic virtues all in one action.
In fact, Ginsburg wrote lengthy dissents that made a major impact on the law—not through the court’s decision of course, but by prompting Congress to create new legislation. The most well-known example was her dissent on employment discrimination, which led to Congress passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Her dedication to long hours and hard work were well known. RBG’s ability to get by on just 2 or 4 hours of sleep (by her own telling) helped. Ginsburg’s perseverance in the face of illness stands out, too. She was still determined to do her job despite being sick, scheduling treatments so she could keep working.
Both the way she lived and her approach to influencing the legal world seem quite Stoic to me. She worked to change the things she could change. And by pushing on the definition of what she could influence, Ginsburg managed to make a difference for others despite the huge barriers raised before her. For all this, she is a remarkable Stoic role model.
RBG’s life shows how change happens in unexpected ways—which is why Stoics and those inspired by Stoic ideas should always seek out opportunities to provide virtue-oriented leadership, when possible.
In a recent interview, Ginsburg recalled a conversation she had with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now retired. As the first two women on the Supreme Court, both acknowledged that they had been denied a traditional corporate legal career due to their gender. Yet it was because of that fact that both ended up as Supreme Court justices rather than as retired law firm partners. Ultimately, from their seats on the court they were able to make a much larger impact on our country than they would from the offices of a “white shoe” law firm.
It’s our good fortune now that Ginsburg kept on pursuing her work for equality before the law, and I hope that my daughters will benefit from this even more than I have. As Stoics, we have gained a role model in RBG that we can continue to turn to when we need to remember to persevere, to keep chipping away at what we can change, and to stay true to the virtues and values we believe in, even when it’s hard… and even when we find ourselves as lonely voices, a minority opinion. We can exercise well-reasoned judgment and, whenever possible and in often unanticipated ways, make a difference in our world.
Times are tough in the sixth month of the pandemic. Gut-wrenching losses have set in: Friends and acquaintances have experienced the loss of loved ones from Covid-19; others are being laid off from jobs due to the economic impact of the virus. My children are bracing for months of online school and a continued lack of close contact with teachers and peers, as well as the disappearance of many school-based activities (sports, arts) that made their schooldays more palatable. On top of that, the fight for equal justice carries on in our communities in the US. And here in Northern California, enormous forest fires sparked by lightning have consumed towns and hillsides, and the smoke has made local air unhealthy to breath.
It is difficult, at times, to feel optimism. But carry on we must. As a friend recently pointed out, “If my grandmother could survive a genocide in Europe, I can survive this.”
True. Things could be worse. And for many of us, a refresher course in basic Stoic principles for self-improvement could help us bear up through this. Who knows, maybe we’ll even make a little personal progress in handling adversity in this awful time?
Lessons from Epictetus: How to Make Progress
This brings us to Epictetus. In Discourses III.2, he explores “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Let’s take a moment to dig into this text, and to see if it can help us gain perspective on our current situation.
Epictetus discusses “three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained.” Those three are the study of:
Epictetus says that most philosophers have focused on the third element, while neglecting the first two. So it’s to the first two that we must bring our attention. Let’s begin:
Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason. (III.2.3)
Starting with how to handle negative emotions: During this pandemic, we are constantly assaulted by our passions and our “desires and aversions.”
Social Humans Face an Inner Conflict
As we live in quarantines and lockdowns, we face a difficult inner conflict. Throughout human history, as Stoics and other ancient philosophers acknowledged, we have been a social species. Humans have banded together since prehistoric times to fend off threats. Humans have thrived on contact with each other, and on the essential social supports that parents and grandparents provide children, teachers provide students, friends provide peers, employers provide staff, generals provide soldiers. Cutting off our human contact—or turning it completely “virtual” on artificial screens—will inevitably have an impact on our inner life.
Put another way: We humans have a strong (and very natural) desire to congregate with our families and friends; we have a longing to go out and enjoy the restaurants, theaters, concerts, gyms, sports, and salons we know and love from the past; we enjoy travel, experiencing new things, and celebrating personal milestones out in the world with our peers and colleagues.
Here’s where the conflict comes in. On the aversion side, we wish to avoid disease and our loved ones falling ill. Clearly, we want to stay away from people and places that may spread infection. So our wish to be together and to support one another in our many roles clashes with the new imperative to “social distance.”
Let’s also acknowledge that many people have no choice but to live in this conflicted space: they need to avoid losing their livelihood in an essential or service job, and to do so, they have to expose themselves to situations that may harbor the virus. Or they are parents whose school is opening up: they want their children to learn, and to do so may require a risk of exposure.
All of these wishes create a huge battle in our minds, one that often overwhelms people and drives them to self-destructive behaviors. For instance, huge house parties have popped up in the Hamptons and in Los Angeles, despite the warnings of doctors and scientists that this can spread disease. And some people are making a political issue out of the imperative to protect ourselves and others, refusing to do one of the few things that could prevent the spread of Covid: wear masks in public.
Stoicism reminds us of the essential moral duty to master our passions. Rather than be led by our knee-jerk impulses or our stubborn desires, we have an obligation to look at the bigger picture and draw upon our sense of reason to develop a clear idea of the best path forward. We have to work to question each impression and each decision, to ensure that we have seen the whole truth of the matter. This takes both energy and discipline—both of which are in short supply in a suffering world.
It’s not straightforward, either. It’s about weighing risk, too, and unfortunately we still don’t know how much risk is involved in many activities today. For example, a local summer camp asked my daughter to attend in person, having gained permission for smaller groups to participate, with counselors wearing masks. Ultimately, we decided there would be an unknown amount of risk, and since we had little control over how the health policies would be enforced at the camp, we decided to keep our daughter home. Extra YouTube and Netflix time over the summer seemed a small price to pay for more certainty. On the other hand, my daughters have both been allowed to visit friends at the park, or on bike rides, in a socially-distant setting, where they have some control of the situation.
But the length of time of our pandemic restrictions is wearing on all of us. I’ve noticed that this is a time when many of us feel we are losing the motivation to do the kinds of things (get exercise, eat right, work hard in remote situations) that could benefit us in the long run. There’s a kind of fatigue that sets in dealing with the isolation, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, financial hardships, and, in some cases, medical issues, of the pandemic.
What Could Help Most: Preserving Our Relationships
So we can already see how difficult this situation is for our rational brains, and we need to think about our desires and aversions in a new light during a pandemic. Now moving on to the second “study” of Epictetus, I’ll quote him here:
The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. (III.2.4)
This passage makes clear that we need not become the kind of Stoic that Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock” represents—distant, unemotional, and stony. We are not statues, nor are we robots. I admire the way Epictetus weaves in personal relationships here, because I believe that’s what could help us the most during this difficult time.
Most of us have a relationship with someone: A parent, spouse or partner, child, close friend. Or perhaps you have a relationship with a spiritual element or God. Or with a country, company, university, or other institution. Do you feel interconnected with that relationship? If so, could you spend a few moments considering how your behaviors during this pandemic affect those relationships?
For instance, let's consider a set of actions during the pandemic: Not being consistent with mask wearing and practicing hygiene and social distancing. This action can affect not just you, but also the people in your relationships: you child, your husband or wife, and especially your elderly relative. And it can hurt your whole community—and ultimately your country.
The US has experienced a massive upswing in Covid cases, so our behavior as Americans matters deeply. There’s a not we are not getting right on behalf of our families and communities, according to the statistics.
For ancient Stoics, friendship was considered an inherently good thing (it may not be necessary for being a good person, but nevertheless it was seen as something we should all pursue—see Seneca on Stoic friendship). Honoring our relationships with our friends and companions is critical to our sense of virtue. And a core belief in our common humanity—the interrelatedness of all humans—is central to Stoic thinking. They can also help us remember why we’re living a life of purpose to begin with: To be that role model and that pillar of strength that our friends and families can lean on.
And now, despite our more typical ways of celebrating our fellow humans as social creatures, we must actually distance ourselves from each other as a way of helping one another through a disease-ridden world—a way of protecting each other.
Achieving Constancy: A Worthy Goal
As we move forward through this pandemic and however many months it lasts, we will do well to keep these Stoic values at the forefronts of our minds. Recalling and rehearsing how to make progress as a person will lead us to the consistency that Epictetus spells out in his third point:
“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)
We may indeed find ourselves depressed (or even drunk, as per Epictetus…and the recently rising statistics on alcohol sales in the US!) during this lengthy pandemic. Many of us wish we could sleep through it, and wake up in a better place. It is tough to deal with the chaos in our brains as we try to survive personal and societal crisis.
But maintaining our moral vigilance and cultivating good decision-making in a consistent way should be our goal, along with the sustaining our rational mind, as the Stoics promoted. Our inner geniuses may feel confused by a lack of information and uncertainty, but if we keep ourselves informed as best we can, and engaged in the support of our communities and relationships in a distant way—online, by phone, and text—we can hope these sparks of reason within us will serve us well.
As we examine our impressions Stoic-style, the twin weights of scientific facts and the needs of our common humanity should be our guides, despite the conflicts we face today. I won’t say I’m capable of that each day, each hour, as we are confronted with new challenges and difficult news on a personal, national, and international level. But it is a worthy aim.
My family learned this week that our children’s schools will begin completely online this year. With the coronavirus on the rise in California as in much of the US, the circumstances just won’t be safe enough for in-person classes in late August. And we have no idea when the pandemic will be under control.
Along with the decrease in learning that most families anticipate with remote school, there are lost opportunities for the sports, arts, and social activities that make school more appealing to so many young people. My daughters sorely missed completing their sports seasons when the lockdown hit. That’s just one example of the rich school-based experiences that they can't pursue right now, because they could pose significant risks to students, teachers, coaches, staff, and their families. And on top of that, kids feel isolated from their friends, which doesn't improve their ability to cope.
So with the virus, what is also growing is a sense of frustration and, some days, sadness and anger. The situation goes far, far beyond school, of course. Frustration and anger at a raging pandemic. At so many suffering, often from things that could possibly have been prevented. At systems that seem broken, with deadly consequences. At a huge range of things outside our individual control.
While Stoic ideas have helped me manage my frustration as an adult, we also need to support our kids through this difficult time by focusing on their difficult emotions. Maybe this tough period could be a chance for them to grow their own resilience. Some kids are mature enough or self-aware enough to begin to understand when and why they become frustrated or angry, and to take active steps to cope.
In this post, I’d like to explore how to handle kids’ frustration and anger from a Stoic perspective as we continue to live under Covid-19 limitations. There are some simple ideas and actions that could help our children with frustration. These aren’t meant to be a silver bullet—there will still be lots of trying times, and this is just a brief overview. (This post won't focus on educating children at home during the pandemic, but maybe a future post will delve into that!)
Kids’ Proto Passions and Bad Passions
Kids are feeling the pain of lockdowns, and some are experiencing much more serious issues, such as people around them becoming ill or losing their jobs. Many children have spent months without the in-person support of peers, teachers, coaches, and extended family.
For all children, frustration builds quickly now that they are stuck in their homes so much of the time, and subject to new rules and restrictions.
Children often experience what ancient Stoics thought of as “proto passions”—involuntary emotional responses that arise from deep within. Young kids, especially those younger than 7, haven’t yet learned the tools for controlling these emotions. They can’t access their sense of reason effectively. Their strong feelings turn into “bad passions” much more readily than in most adults. Parents sometimes call kids’ rising emotions the “red zone”: When emotions run so hot that children start to have tantrums. This is not a teachable moment for any child. Words alone can’t resolve these kinds of overwhelming feelings.
Fortunately, many of the Stoic-inspired actions/approaches for coping with anger for adults can apply to children, too.
A Few Stoic-Inspired Strategies for Frustration
First of all, the Stoics believed that to deal with frustration and anger, we need to first notice it is happening. There are physical signs that we can pick up on, and we can help children learn to watch out for. For instance, tightness in our chest, flushing of our cheeks, tenseness of shoulder muscles, pain in our stomach, sweaty palms, dry throat or mouth.
Also, consider "naming and taming" big feelings, as some psychologists advocate. One of my kids began to pinpoint her negative emotions around age 7. She started to feel them physically and think of them as characters. She gave them names (kind of like in the movie Inside Out), and by identifying them, she made these feelings more manageable.
Second, many straightforward Stoic methods for coping with anger can help kids today. These include:
Essentially, children need a break to re-activate their reasoning mind. Even if you call this a “time out,” it should be geared to help calm the child’s racing brain and rising emotional temperature, rather than viewed as a punishment or painful isolation for a “misbehaving” youngster.
Instead of Taking It Personally, Take Back Your Power
Another lesson from Stoicism for our kids: To try not to take things too personally. This is extremely hard for children as well as adults. Yet it is a critical lesson, if we’re to avoid having a victim mentality as we go through our days.
For instance, if a child is losing a game, she might think: “Other people are cheating. This game is rigged. It’s not fair.” But in fact, she might just be having bad luck. This is how the world often works, too (although if you see genuine bias or prejudice, you should call that out).
The essential idea that we can emphasize to our children: Even when things don’t go your way, you control how you respond. Take back your own power to react to a situation in a way you can feel proud of, rather than let it take over you and hijack your emotions.
And one more tactic to remember for frustrated kids. When something goes wrong, try again. Failing at a game, sport, activity, or test is not a sign of a personal shortcomings as a human being, or an indicator of low personal worth.
Many factors outside our control create failures big and small. If we can have the self-compassion to pick ourselves up and try again, we train ourselves to become more resilient. It’s a major indicator for success in life overall, one that’s discussed in Grit by Angela Duckworth and other books.
My daughter was baking a cake the other day, and she was experimenting with multiple layers of cake and frosting. While placing frosting onto the outside, the whole thing began to crumble. Queue the tears, and a completely understandable outburst of sadness and frustration. Her perfect plan and several hours’ work was being destroyed right before her eyes, through no fault of her own! The chef in my family, my husband, stepped in to provide moral support and actual advice for how to fix this “failure.” The cake could be remade differently, and the crumbling might even be stopped with more refrigeration.
Not all failures are as “sweet” as this one. Many have serious consequences. But by starting small with minor failures at home and school, kids can learn to handle failure. They could move on, motivate themselves to understand better, and try again in a new way in the future. The concept of cultivating a “growth mindset” rather than a fixed notion of a “talent” or “ability” in an area can also encourage kids to keep trying and learning rather than giving up (this approach was made popular by psychologist Carol Dweck, who distinguished a growth mindset from a fixed mindset).
Frustration and Reason
In today’s pandemic, parents of younger kids are the ones juggling the most intense parenting, with the fewest breaks. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel as young ones get older: At around ages 7 to 9, kids begin to lay down the structure for reasoning in their brains, and these areas grow significantly at age 13.
As children are able to use their rational brains more effectively, the Stoic guidance for frustration centers around building self-awareness and taking a break from proto emotions to return to reason. Kids, as they get older, can train themselves to spot problems before they enter a full-blown meltdown. Older kids, especially teens, can also keep this in mind: The virtues can always be our guide. Before you do something, ask, "Is it wise, just, brave, and demonstrating self-control?"
All of these approaches could help break down frustrations into smaller packages, that can be flagged and managed with increasing skill. Most often, it is parent role models who can make the difference in showing kids how to deal with big emotions. I’m not at all perfect here myself—I am definitely no Stoic sage!
Still, I think that gentle reminders that we can handle our frustration calmly, and demonstrations of how to do so, can provide a healthy reality check for kids who may view their problems as both enormous and permanent. Try to think back to a time when, as a kid, you felt that “everything is terrible and nothing will ever change.” Do you remember how overwhelming that seemed?
Fortunately, Stoic ideas can also help us recall that all things are fleeting in our much bigger universe, including those that frustrate, annoy, or anger us. Whether we view it as a positive or as a negative, change is the only constant. Which means that ultimately, this pandemic will also pass. And no matter what comes our way, we can look forward to more opportunities to practice our Stoic approaches with new challenges.
“No justice – no peace!” This was the rallying cry as more than 1,000 demonstrators filled the streets in my suburban city this weekend. My teenage daughter and I were there, along with many other community members. The demonstration for Black Lives Matter was peaceful, purposeful, and filled with energy. Demonstrators held signs honoring and mourning George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black people killed by police. Despite the pandemic, we’d decided to come together for this public act against racism, hatred, violence towards black people and other people of color—and to advocate for equal justice in America. As we marched through wide suburban roads, we saw people of all ages and backgrounds walking beside us, chanting the same words. The same image of protest was repeated all across the US and the world this week.
We know there’s a very, very long way to go. But it's time to do what’s in our power: to read, listen, reflect, learn, write, donate, speak out, protest, vote… to work to change ourselves... and to find new ways to act to support justice.*
In Stoic practice, the word justice carries great weight. It’s one of the four Stoic virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Self-Control. Right now, we need to employ all of these virtues to fight a system that is not living up to any of them. Justice, for Stoics, was rooted in the golden rule; it is represented by the reciprocal nature of "do unto others what you would have them do unto you" or, put in the negative, “don’t do something to another person that you wouldn’t want done to you.” That rule spans many belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies. But we need to make it a reality in the way our cities and towns are organized and run. We need to re-consider what justice means in a society where many feel threatened by, and are harmed by, those designated "officers of the peace."
This is a time of reflection, too. A time to learn about others' experiences. Even if I can't fully understand what people of color have lived through, I can listen, learn, and stand with them. I can see more and more how entrenched the problem is, and how I benefit from clear advantages in my society that others lack. Recognizing this is an initial step against racism.
One example: For a long time, I’ve been interested in cognitive behavioral therapy and other techniques for dealing with anxiety. One that I’ve learned is called “worry postponement.” Using this method, a person puts off the worries on her mind, choosing a limited time and place to allow her brain to focus on the anxious feelings. This type of approach was advocated by ancient Stoics, too. I have tried it and found it can be effective.
What I’ve realized is that worry postponement is a luxury and a privilege that many people do not have. My own worries can be confined to a small portion of the day, if I really concentrate. Much of the time I am not directly confronted by triggers of my anxieties or fears. But this week, I’ve been thinking of all the people who can’t do that, because dangerous threats confront them constantly.
The point was brought home by mothers. A black colleague wrote that she was concerned that her son, out for a hike, wouldn’t come home safely--not due to the dangers of the natural environment, but the dangers of other people. Many cannot wrap up their fears into a specific time and place. After all, we have seen that killings could happen in homes while people are sleeping, or playing video games with young relatives… or out jogging... or walking home... or paying at a convenience store.
We know, as the ancient Stoics pointed out, that we are living in a constantly changing universe. Yet the history of racism is so deeply embedded, it feels nearly impossible to uproot. Dare we hope that the actions we can take—those that are in our control—could actually make a difference?
From a Stoic perspective, three things tell me "yes":
The only constant is change, as I mentioned above. Change can be gradual or quick. The problems of racism and unequal treatment by law enforcement are deep and longstanding, they are structural, and they won’t be solved easily. I would not claim to know the answers and turn to communities of people of color for guidance and teaching. What's clear to me is that this kind of change that is both institutional and personal. Each person has to examine herself or himself, and find ways we can behave differently.
We’re starting to see remarkable shifts in response to protests. This morning, when I opened up the newspaper, I saw that the city council in Minneapolis—where George Floyd was killed by police—has publicly promised to disband the current police department, and to try another way of approaching public safety. There were other changes, too: Congressional Democrats introduced a new bill designed to curtail police misconduct and excessive force. New York City’s mayor said he’d cut the police budget and put more money into social services. Human rights groups are calling for a UN investigation into US racism and police brutality. More communities are considering adopting some of the "8 can't wait" recommendations for reforming public safety and policing from Campaign Zero (you can check where your own city's police department's policies stand on the linked site).
For those of us wondering what we could do, I learned from black colleagues of a short list of suggestions on being an ally in an Instagram post by Mireille Charper. Also recommended were videos posted on Instagram by Light Watkins, including “For White People Who Are Asking What You Can Do?” and “Acknowledging Racism: How to Do It and Where to Start.” I especially liked this quote: “…Thinking that racism is exclusively a black problem is like thinking that sexism is exclusively a female problem.” I am learning about many other excellent resources and books on anti-racism and racial justice. Those include: How to be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning, both by Ibram X. Kendi; Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad; White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; Just Mercy (a book and recent film) by Bryan Stevenson; and many more. In addition, numerous organizations need contributions not just today but in the long run to further racial justice and fight inequality; Bryan Stevenson runs the Equal Justice Initiative, a remarkable nonprofit, to name just one group that deserves support.
These resources could help us to observe and question our own views and knowledge on race, and to pay attention to the part we are playing in racial issues. Recognizing the severity of the problems we face in this country is just the first stage; much more work will need to be done to change not just in how power is used to control, but also how access to influence and authority is granted, how voices are heard, and who has a seat at the table.
I'd like to add that my daughters’ generation inspires me. Many young people have developed a more nuanced and critical awareness of racism and bias, and of all the ills of our societies. My kids are growing up in a world of more diverse voices than I did, a world where these topics are being discussed more openly and honestly. I can only hope that they and their peers will be a part of the massive change we need.
* Note: If any readers would like to offer suggestions on how to explore these issues, how to learn more, or what kind of wording/language to use--especially from the perspective of people of color--please share your thoughts.
American deaths due to Covid-19 have now reached 100,000. It’s a staggering toll.
My region in Northern California has seen a significant decrease in cases, fortunately. In my family, we have been doing what we can to slow the spread, while starting to emerge a bit more from our homes. When we go out, we think ahead and take precautions, wearing masks, gloves at times, and keeping our distance. We allow extra time for the new rules being put in place, much like the new security rules after 9/11.
Yesterday was our first time visiting a local historical site’s gardens since the virus hit, and offers a case in point. We had to make an advance reservation, not necessary in the past. We also learned new protocols about standing in marked boxes to wait our turn, checking in at a distance from the staff, keeping our masks on outdoors on a hot day, staggering our journey to wait for others to pass, and adhering to one-way paths marked with arrows on the ground.
Going out again reminded me of a very odd fact: The reasons to be locked down are deadly serious; but if you are fortunate enough not to be ill or in dire need, you may discover that a break from the usual running, doing, and competing with others can be beneficial.
Typically, my family is constantly moving, and where I live, that means constantly driving through constant traffic. Usually, each kid has her own school schedule (different schools), social engagements, sports, and classes; each adult has many hours of work alongside other commitments, including volunteering, family gatherings, and performing arts events. It’s an exhausting existence that we have chosen. We were privileged to have it, but now, we’re privileged to not have it, because we can re-examine our attitudes to busy-ness generally and to dealing with crowds of people.
(We’re also fortunate to be together during the lockdown as a family, and to still have jobs so that we can continue to pay our bills; I know that’s not a given.)
I am surprised to say that once I accepted the lockdown was happening, I didn’t miss events such as big concerts or in-person conferences that much. Mainly, I didn’t miss the anxiety that goes with confronting crowds, and the feeling I have to compete with others for access or for resources (think parking, seating, food, restrooms!).
I’d like to leave that feeling behind entirely. But for me, it’s a challenge. I still notice that my stomach tightens when I am faced with a big crowd. I’m not good at waiting in line; I’m too apt to compare my line to the next one over, and ask, “why is that one so much faster and better!?!”
I had a great opportunity to confront this anxiety during my family’s last-gasp-of-summer mini vacation in 2019: A trip to Disneyland. Despite a number of frustrating moments, I worked hard on calming the inner competitor who kept stressing about lines and wait times for rides or food. That was NOT easy. In fact, my two daughters often were more patient and calm about waiting in long lines than I was! They were good at not fuming about "how long have we been in this line now??" I was impressed.
In fact, coping with other people’s behavior, and taming my emotional instincts to get angry, frustrated, or disappointed, have been major focal points of my Stoic practice. I’ve learned over the years to pay less attention to others’ comments, behaviors, and comparisons between myself and everyone else—and to take those things less personally. But I still find myself beginning to boil over when people around me don’t follow the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you!) or act self-centered.
As Epictetus would advise me, I have to take the time to question my impressions when it comes to coping with groups of people, crowds, traffic, and any situation that pits me against a bunch of others. I often harken back to the reminders from Marcus Aurelius about dealing with people who display “ignorance of what is good and evil” in their behaviors and attitudes. (Meditations, Book 2) Despite others’ less-than-perfect actions, we still need to work with them. After all, as Marcus points out, we are social beings living in a cooperative world.
For example: Why do I care about getting served at the restaurant in the exact order in which I arrived (rather than after someone else who came later than me)? Is it due to my sense of fairness? If so, Stoic thinking would tell me that I can’t guarantee others will act fairly. Is it because of a feeling that if I don’t get my food, I’ll be uncomfortable and hungry? That I will feel disrespected, even, as others are put before me? All of these things pop into my mind.
And why should these things matter? I can remind myself that they do not, really, unless I choose to let them matter. It’s not in my power to force others’ respect or fairness towards me, only to carry out respect and fairness myself. In other words: I can only work to live by the virtues on my end. And do my best to stay calm and cool when others don’t or can’t follow the same virtues.
I believe this approach can help as we re-integrate into a more anxious and unpredictable world now that the quarantine restrictions are starting to ease up. This is, for me, still a work in progress. I hope that this break from so much interaction will help me gain a more profound sense of inner tranquility that comes from fewer perceived conflicts and competition.
The lockdown continues. My family is now into our 6th week of working from home, and our daughters’ 5th week of school from home.
Here in my county in Northern California, around 50 cases of Covid-19 are being reported daily. Fortunately my family and friends are OK so far. (To learn more about what I’ve been up to, check out the Stoic Psychology podcast – described at the end of this post.)
One of the weirdest things about this lockdown is the consciousness whiplash I’m experiencing on a daily basis.
For me, my awareness of the Coronavirus crisis comes in waves. One minute I remember it, and fully know how bad it is for many people in many places. Another moment, I lose track of what’s happening and why I’m home.
My knowledge of the crisis temporarily lapses when I participate in a videocall for work, or even more, as I sit under the live oak tree in the backyard with my kids and take in the springtime air, scented with jasmine and lilac. Then I turn to a news website or Twitter and am confronted with the seriousness of things again.
Going back and forth this way is exhausting and strange, and extremely distracting. It’s as if something is always eating away at the edges of my consciousness.
I realize that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to put the crisis aside periodically in this way, but I feel a pit in my stomach when I recognize, once again, how difficult this is for many people who are sick or caring for the ill, or who are in essential jobs that put them at risk.
We are indeed the lucky ones, for now. I’ve heard from friends, too, that it’s difficult for them to enjoy the luxury of not having to commute through dense traffic, or the benefit of seeing their family more, while others are dealing with a pandemic much more directly and with dire consequences. And how we worry about not just those who are ill or treating them, but the many people who have lost their jobs and income.
Even for those not directly fighting the virus, there is a tremendous challenge. We are now all tasked with taking care of each other and ourselves on a new level. We are the direct caregivers of the young and the elderly in our households, and we are responsible for them, as well as for trying to keep ourselves well and sane. It’s a bit how I imagine life was like in small, remote homesteads in the old days: People cut off for weeks or months from contact, in charge of their own food supply, cooking, house work, brain work/education, and leisure activities (if indeed they had leisure). The amount of child care (or elder care) varies greatly from one household to another, but in any case, it’s new for many people to be providing an all-day supply of food, toilet paper (!), education, and activities around-the-clock.
Weirdly, another casualty of this lockdown is, temporarily, time. It’s not that time has completely lost its meaning. Rather, how we count time has changed because of the new way we’re living. A single day can feel very long, or very short, depending on how we spend it.
The silver lining in all this, for me, is time with family. Family that is usually too busy to spent much time together talking and cooking and playing and chatting during the week.
My husband and I are fortunate, now, to both still work full-time remotely, and our children are staying busy with online school assignments that they complete and hand in remotely. The chores do pile up—as one of our cousins put it, the lockdown has turned us into full-time restauranteurs at home, with a teen and tween needing frequent nourishment and no restaurants, diners, or school lunches on the horizon. So yes, despite this lockdown, we are busy!
Nevertheless, I think this time is one to re-assess what gives our lives meaning. Naturally, we all need to try to keep putting food on the table (literally, and in the sense of staying financially solvent). But beyond that, it’s important to have a purpose. Outside of work (housework or job-work), what motivates our days when all the busy-ness of the daily run-around goes away?
For my kids, it’s been a time of renewal, in a sense. They are developing and re-discovering interests that they never had a chance to explore as much before, when they were spending most hours at school or in sports/activities.
Some examples: Skateboarding. Learning pieces on the piano. Doing jigsaw puzzles. Creating a teen-oriented website. Throwing a virtual party for a friend who missed out on her birthday celebration due to the lockdown. Playing non-competitive Appleletters (a form kind of Scrabble). Baking bread, cookies, cupcakes. Preparing and serving tea with little sandwiches. (Did I mention eating was big at my house right now? Trying to avoid the "quarantine 15" though!)
And for me: I have more time to reflect and to sit quietly, not having to constantly be on the move. The stress of traffic and shuttling kids and making it to in-person work meetings is relieved.
Just one sign of that is that now, I’m finally getting a chance to participate in a podcast. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but couldn’t squeeze it into my schedule of full-time work, full-time parenting, and part-time writing/blogging.
Recently, I was interviewed for the Stoic Psychology podcast by Alex MacLellan from London. If you have a chance, please take a listen! Alex is doing a multi-part series with my interview that also includes his own introductory thoughts, along with his book discussion, and then features selections from my conversation with him. We touched on numerous aspects of being a Stoic parent and how Stoicism can best be shared with kids, and we talked about strategies for making it through the lockdown with our sanity and our life philosophy intact.
Speaking with Alex across continents felt, in a way, like a radical gesture of connection in this time of enormous interpersonal disconnecton. It reminded me that I am thankful for this Stoic community for continuing our links, our writing, our sharing, and for so many people’s efforts to forge ahead with this much-needed life philosophy in a difficult and unusual time. Fortune willing, things will brighten as spring ripens into summer.
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.