“Attitude is everything, take a good one where you go,
It’s up to you to keep a happy mood--
And everything depends upon your attitude!”
These are the lyrics of a song my older daughter learned in first grade and performed for parents and other kids. I loved it! Countless times I have sung this song to my two daughters when they were small, and I was just reminded of it again during the current coronavirus pandemic. Though the song is a bit over the top in its cheerfulness, the message rings true: Everything depends upon your attitude, especially in times of crisis.
When I first heard this song, it was shortly before I began my journey into Stoicism. At the time I was investigating psychology and mindfulness. I was learning self-awareness, but there was still something missing. And for me, what was lacking was the sense of balance and reason within, and the courage to take charge of my own responses to a world that often felt cruel and unfair.
I have experienced that sinking sense of the world’s cruelty since I was very young, when my dad first became sick. A kind, intelligent, and loving person, accomplished as a mathematician, Dad was in and out of medical care for years as I grew up. He died much too soon. It was a terrible thing to realize that I had no control over what happened to someone I cared about so deeply.
That creeping sense of the insecurity of life is back now with the coronavirus. The virus has actively spread in my Northern California county, where residents and visitors come from all over the world to work at/with Silicon Valley tech companies.
The heavily trafficked freeways have now gone largely quiet as a “shelter-in-place” order covers our region. My colleagues from work are holed up in their own remote locations, trying to limit any contact with the wider world. (It reminds me of people in Cold War bomb shelters… or under house arrest.) East Coast relatives are also staying home whenever possible, and temperatures are now being taken to enter grocery stores and offices.
I’ve heard from friends in France dealing with massive lockdowns, rarely able to leave their apartments. The stories coming out of Italy right now, where we have colleagues, are sad and shocking. China seems to be improving but is far from back to normal; a coworker from there says that in the US, we are about two months or so behind that country in dealing with this.
And I just heard about a college classmate in New York, a healthy marathon runner in his mid-forties, now sedated and placed on a ventilator. He is struggling to recover from Covid-19.
Every day brings fresh insults—new tidbits of information that, taken in a certain way, can be very traumatizing. If you’re an admitted news junkie like me, you find yourself obsessively scrolling though stories about how the virus is affecting every aspect of life in every corner of the world. And that’s just too much information for one brain to handle.
How do we determine what a reasonable risk may be in these circumstances? It may feel as if our sense of reason is askew or even broken at times. Who is to know what’s paranoid under these circumstances? Friends of mine won’t see foot outside their homes. Several have told me about elder relatives who insist on shopping, whom they are begging to stop going to Walgreens.
Our kids are another issue. How to help them depends on their ages, personalities, and school circumstances. It’s a time of crisis. How much do we direct our children to do in this time, to prompt them to continue their school work remotely, in some cases without a teacher or classmates to guide them? I read an opinion piece the other day written by a mom who refused to run a “homeschool" for her third graders. She allowed them to play and watch movies. I get it! Kids need downtime and can use the break, especially if they are surrounded stress.
But what if you have older students nearing high school, or ones already in high school—students who want to be sure to fulfill graduation requirements, and apply to college someday? That’s the situation I find myself in. I’m working to support my kids’ learning, while still working remotely for my full-time job.
As one of my coworkers pointed out, this is a difficult time because of the high uncertainty and the lack of control we are experiencing. For those very reasons, it is the right time to practice our philosophy.
Aside from the hygiene, distancing, and protective practices that can help isolate the disease, and aside from working to support our families, all we can really manage are our own attitudes.
So how do we keep it all in balance? It’s not easy, and a daily emotional roller-coaster is very normal, even as an aspiring Stoic (after all, I’m not a sage!). But I am seeking to approach this rationally as best I can, and to use strategies based on a Stoic-inspired life. To keep my attitude in reasonably good shape, I have a three-fold plan:
And one more note: Please don’t hesitate to write back about how you are coping, and any advice you have during this difficult time, or to share it on social media forums or posts. Our virtual community can be a great help to those working to live out this philosophy right now!
My husband and I like to tell our kids stories about times when things didn’t work out quite as well as we had hoped—in a funny way. Looking back, we realize that we could have made a better choice. But because the consequences were pretty minor, or even silly, these tales are entertaining rather than painful. They might just teach something along the way.
A favorite one we harken back to happened early in our relationship, when my husband picked out a “romantic” bed and breakfast inn from a small ad on the still-young Internet, located a stone’s throw away from a national park we wanted to visit. We were excited as we drove up late at night to a large house, finally arriving after facing a ton of traffic and a longer-than-expected drive.
We were soon confronted, however, with the reality that the place was far from romantic. We were ushered inside to a heavily decorated room in the basement of an older couple’s home, complete with a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” singing fish affixed to the wall, and a noisy laundry station right outside the room’s door. Clearly the wife’s “fun” retirement project, the bedroom was filled with mismatched chintz.
The mistress of the house, irked at having to wait up late for us, had just one burning question: Would we like eggs and sausage or waffles and fruit for breakfast in the morning?
The next day we were greeted by her in the kitchen while her husband, in a gray undershirt and little else, sat nearby watching TV, his bare feet and unclipped toenails propped up on an ottoman in full view as we tried to eat…. clearly intent on ignoring the intruders in his house.
We headed into the park and took a hike that inadvertently lasted well into the dark as we rushed to find our way back without flashlights. Our stay was topped off by my husband’s scary hypothermia that evening.
These kinds of tales are called “Epic Fail" stories by our daughters, who often try to run from the room instead of hearing them. They find them cringe-worthy. But the “fail” is actually the point. It’s a way of examining what we’ve done well and not so well, figuring out how we could do better, and teaching them some things to avoid too. My husband especially enjoys sharing these, and to me, they’re pretty funny, even on repetition. (I try to restrain myself from giving away the ending!)
The story above, for example, contains a lot of valuable lessons. Don’t buy a singing bass fish and hang it up to decorate your new basement B&B. Another: Don’t book a room—or, much more importantly, don’t go to a school or accept a job or travel to a faraway destination—on the basis of a small, cute ad you find quickly online. Do your research!
It’s a valuable takeaway: You need to do due diligence in life. And if you do, and you still find you're stuck in a basement listening to a fish singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy," do your best to laugh at it.
Also: Don’t plan an 8+ mile summer hike in the mid-afternoon without quick-dry clothing or flashlights. (We have since become big fans of synthetic athletic shirts, and of starting early.)
Time and experience have taught us many life lessons, and we try to share those with our children. Stories are an ideal way to do that, since they are memorable and relatable. With the distance of a few years, what was really frustrating at the time now seems funny.
And the act of framing what happened to us, and our role in shaping it, is best done at a distance—looking back from a safe perch to see the full context. It's a good way to sneak in a little teaching with kids of any age... and even to remind ourselves of what to do differently next time.
Socrates is famously quoted as saying, “the greatest good is daily to converse about virtue,” and “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato’s Apology). We humans do need to talk, to share our stories, to probe all our experiences and our thoughts—to understand the choices we have made and the personal tendencies and real-life situations that pull us away from virtue. We do need to examine who we are, and what we do, on a regular basis, in order to improve our understanding and our choices. (For an interesting take on these quotes, see this Vermont Philosophy blog post.)
And, within reason, it is beneficial to share this practice with our children. Children, especially as they get older, need to learn how to fail, and how to get back up again after a reversal. Also, since our culture often misinforms them about what they should value and how they should behave in a tough situation, hearing a parent or trusted adult rationally review a mistake or even a difficult misfortune can teach them something, too.
It's helpful to review our actions for ourselves, either in writing or in our personal thoughts. Ancient Stoics looked back to Pythagoras’ Golden Verses, where he advocated reviewing our own behavior daily:
“Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
And if you have done any good, rejoice.”
It’s a practice I do in a sideways way, sifting through what’s on my mind through writing about my thoughts and challenges, especially by blogging. I also like jotting down a few lines of verse here and there in the evening, sometimes transforming a painful experience into a lyrical moment.
This all reminds me of a favorite possession in my family. When I went to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park several years ago, I got a baseball cap as a souvenir. The hat said “Seeker”—Harry’s position in the game of Quidditch. But for me, it held a deeper meaning. I’m constantly seeking to understand where we derive our value and moral worth, how we can examine and refine our intentions, and the way we live our lives. How we can be in harmony with our world, but also strive to bring good to our relationships and our communities. How to see things clearly in a world where emotional appeals (backed by cash) are used to constantly sell us products or even political candidates.
How to cut through the noise? By seeking the truth and pursuing the virtues in our daily engagements, and by recalling our “fails” and our successes through stories. Life is messy, and that's why this process will take all of our days. But that is what being human is all about.
I’ve since given the hat to my younger daughter, passing on this bit of wisdom.
Do you ever wish you could just KNOW what to say to your kids to guide and support them?
Lately, when I’m trying to help one of my daughters by saying something I think is supportive or giving some gentle guidance, it doesn't seem to go so well.
I don’t blame them for their frustrated responses. It’s all about perspective and how you interpret what’s being said.
For example, saying “You’re doing so well, that’s great!” when we were doing an athletic activity together sounded to my daughter like: “You’re a little kid who needs to be told how good she is.”
She asked, “Why are you so surprised I can do this? You don’t have to tell me that.” Good point. And I’m glad to see she wasn’t waiting for/dependent on my praise to know she’s got things covered.
“You’re kind of talking to me like a baby,” was her other comment. I know that for her, acting like a “baby” is probably one of the worst insults a person could throw at her. So I stopped to think. Maybe I hadn’t evolved how I talked to her to really meet her age, level, and self-reliant character?
And when I try to provide a little coaching about simple things like vocabulary words or piano practice, I get pushback. I thought I was helping. But I can see that my lessons on independence for my kids have actually sunk in, to the point where they really don't want that kind of intervention.
In general, my advice and “help” are not what my kids need to understand how they should think or feel about things. My daughters are in middle and high school now. They have to go through their own process of examining their impressions and discerning the right choices. They are of an age to internalize the lessons that I’ve shared with them about how to understand the world without blinders on—about how to question knee-jerk reactions and groupthink—and about striving towards virtues and moral guideposts such as courage, wisdom, justice, and self-control.
So my parenting now has to focus on teaching (and reinforcing) the PROCESS for how to navigate their world. It's a process that can enable teens to live without focusing exclusively on misguided externals, and to think through their choices using their "spark of reason" and good judgment.
You remember when you were taught to "Stop, Drop, and Roll" if you smelled smoke or a fire? The process is kind of like that, it just happens in our minds rather than our bodies as we respond to the world around us. Stop, drop, and question your impressions. Stop, drop, and tune into your reason and your ruling center, the part of your brain designed to help you navigate away from a deadly fire. Except instead of a fire, we're coping with an unhealthy emotion, or irrational belief, or any thought that just isn't in sync with reality and the nature of the universe.
Then, you can ask yourself: Is what I want to do next next wise, fair, brave, and common-sensical? Does it help others, not just me? Does it help me become the kind of person I want to be? Or does it just serve my own ego and my own biases?
These questions are a good place to start. It is undeniably hard for fast-moving children, but as they get older, they can begin to shape a well-informed process. And as I remind my daughters, a kind of shorthand for this: "Don't believe everything you think."
We can model that process in our own lives, and in how we talk through our own everyday activities and decision-making. None of this is simple for adults either! Personally, I find that I often let doubts creep in about choices… so I stay vigilant about what I say and do to undermine my own process.
Encouraging this process is analogous to our schools trying to teach students HOW to analyze and think for themselves, not WHAT to think or just memorize. Critical thinking and questioning are what philosophy is all about—we can recall how Socrates encouraged these things in his followers and students, and then Epictetus, and many other ancient philosophers. Don't wait for a teacher to guide you, Epictetus said: Once you've mastered the basic ideas for how to live, just go out there and do it.
And the same holds for adults, too.
As much as we might like to KNOW what to do, we cannot ask our philosophy for ALL the answers, written out for us to follow. Ultimately we all need to cultivate a powerful ruling center to help make choices, and to live with the choices we have made.
And that's hard! There's just no way to know all the ideal choices, all the right ways to approach our complex world. We have freedom, and we must make the best of it even when it feels like a tough burden to navigate our lives. Philosophy helps us find illuminated checkpoints in the fog... but the fog remains.
Even Stoic role models such as Marcus Aurelius would probably have been the first to admit that they didn’t know everything. And I think they would have been careful to avoid giving unwanted or unwarranted advice. Can you picture Socrates telling you which car to buy? Or which job to apply for?
No life philosophy is a decision tree showing specific steps. There's no flow chart with spelled-out answers for always doing the right thing. Anything that proscriptive would not allow people to be individuals, to think for themselves, or to get to know their own ruling center.
Instead, our life philosophy should equip us to discern the path towards eudaimonia... and with that process, we can bring a conscious, thoughtful faculty of choice to our decision-making, avoiding fires and other dangers along the way.
The girl was dressed for a princess party, in a red flouncy gown. She and her family swept into the theater a few seconds into the musical opening of the first act of the performance I was attending with my family. About 5 years old, the girl, seated directly behind us, immediately started talking at full volume as the singing began. I think she was asking for a complete translation and explanation of the plot, characters, and songs. The sound of her and her family’s voices responding to her carried to the dozens of people seated around them in the large theater—each of whom had paid handsomely for a big night out to see this touring production.
Although this girl and her parents seemed to think that they were going to a princess show, in fact, the performance we were seeing was the musical Wicked. It is a re-telling of the backstory of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz book and movie. She's mysteriously born green in a world that does not like "her kind," and she experiences hatred on an epic level. The plot focuses on what it means to be good, evil, and the whole range in-between, featuring infidelity, birth defects, parental emotional abuse, bullying, murder, discrimination, torture, friendship made and broken, popularity, teen love, betrayal, evil magic, deception, and more. Not exactly right for young kids.
All the people seated around this family said “shhhhh” with no real impact. Eventually, after the first hour, the full-volume talking became loud whispering, and then crunchy eating. Oh, and there was also the moment when they also seemed to laugh and joke about not making space for a smiling young woman to pass by them to get to her assigned spot, and their teen son constantly kicking my husband’s seat. Hmmmmm…
That’s certainly not an isolated reminder of people’s everyday lack of consideration for their fellow humans. Recently we took a family trip to Disneyland, and we all experienced encountering folks who didn’t show much respect for other people. The mothers looking down at phones or maps while pushing strollers right into oncoming pedestrians, and the motorized scooters that nearly took my toes off in a busy walkway. The woman in a crowd who jostled and called my 13-year-old daughter the “b” word (seriously?). The boy sitting next to me in a ride, who raised the middle finger at the Disney camera as it snapped a photo of us, earning him a big black spot over his hand in the final image. The young girl, around 8, glued to an iPad who refused to move over 5 inches to let my mom share her shady bench on a very hot afternoon, despite her own grandmother’s admonitions. Mature adults shoving over other people to capture photos, or angle their way ahead in line.
All this got me thinking. And then something popped up in my Facebook feed: In a Stoic parenting group, Brittany Polat asked this question:
Are you making the world better by being a Stoic parent? Seneca says, “It is not only the person who presents candidates for office and defends the accused, and gives his judgments on war and peace, who benefits the state; instead, whoever encourages the young; whoever, given the great scarcity of good instruction, instills virtue in minds... this person is doing public business in a private role.” (On Tranquility of Mind, 3.3) What do you think—are we helping not only our own families but also society when we teach our kids about virtue?
Though I may not be able to have an impact on whole swaths of society—or even on the inconsiderate people sitting right next to me—I still think I can make a difference as a Stoic mom. At the very least, I can have an influence on my children and on the other children I teach, lead, or mentor, and I can amplify that by volunteering.
I work with Girl Scouts and have also done other kinds of teaching in the schools with an anti-bullying program. Those two organizations work to instill virtues around honesty, fairness, compassion, courage, self-control, so I view them as in line with my life philosophy. (Check out the Girl Scout promise and law, and you can see for yourself how you think it relates to Stoic ideas or your own ethics.) My daughter worked with other scouts this year to complete a project designed to teach younger kids about pedestrian safety around cars, hoping to influence their community in a positive way. Their video was shared by our city's police and public safety departments, spreading the message much farther than they and their parents alone could do.
I think these organizations are influencing kids’ lives, and I can see clearly that the anti-bullying educational program launched by the YMCA, Project Cornerstone, has positively affected the thinking of local students. I have heard the kids walking out of class or hanging out on the playground using the language they learned in Project Cornerstone, such as “don’t take the bait” (don’t let a taunt get to you, and don’t respond on the same level) or “I was an Upstander today” (I helped another person who was being bullied or disrespected, by standing up for that person or helping somehow).
Kids aren’t born understanding/practicing the virtues, and we all (adults too) have a lot to learn. As the ancients pointed out, this is an ongoing process throughout our lives. In Girl Scouts events, for example, I’ve noticed some kids pair up, and other girls can feel left out. Parents can’t control this, as volunteers or as moms and dads. But we can continuously work on building a community of respect, fairness, caring, and mutual support in many other ways as kids work on service projects for their local neighborhoods, and as they learn about how to lead and project-manager towards larger goals outside of themselves.
So my thought is that if working with your own kids isn't completely overwhelming and draining (especially as they get older), and you have a bit of time, check into what other groups you can contribute to. Any groups or programs that teach and share basic messages about self-control, managing our wants and desires vs. others’, and being considerate human beings in society would be beneficial, since they focus on important elements of character that have an impact on other people.
When it comes to inconsiderate parents and/or children affecting others' experiences in very public places where we share the space—places where I am with my own children and trying to be a good influence on them—I often stop to think about how this behavior creates new generations of folks who don't respect others' common humanity.
We can’t solve the world’s problems by ourselves, and we can never force others to behave how we want them to (a bedrock Stoic principle). Of course I sometimes think about how great it would be if I could do more to influence those around me, and there are days when I despair of the direction our whole society is going. It can be tough and isolating to keep teaching the value of good character and of social service in a selfish era, when so many focus only on "I, me, mine"... It reminds me a little of the uphill battle that the Wicked Witch experienced in the show we saw, as she tried to help others and make the world better in her own way, while ultimately being labelled "wicked."
In fact, as a Stoic parent, you may feel isolated and misunderstood, much like the witch in Broadway's Wicked. These challenges are no reason to give up. It is valuable to keep working towards greater civility, respect for others, self-control, honesty, justice, and human wisdom within our spheres of influence, and to attempt to expand those spheres as much as possible… however our circumstances allow.
How about you? Do you have any suggestions for how to make a difference? Let’s brainstorm about how living our life philosophy, and sharing it with others, can contribute to our world.
It’s back-to-school season in my house, and my two kids are each starting at a new school. My family will have a lot to figure out, and we’ll be working on new routines soon. This prompts a question: How do you feel about time-bound routines?
All my life, I have avoided them. I have never really had a very fixed time for doing anything—not even getting to school when I was a student myself.
I was the one who caused my younger sister to get numerous “tardies” to class in high school. You see, I was old enough to drive her to campus, but not disciplined enough to get her there before the 8:10 am bell rang. Lucky for her, she had the benefit of a kind and not super-strict art teacher as her homeroom advisor. She didn’t suffer as many consequences as I did, a senior whose homeroom was led by a lovely English teacher whose patience was so tested that she eventually referred me for disciplinary measure for “excessive tardies.”
I was sent to a series of "breakfast clubs" as a result. (My school formed the model for the large institution depicted by director John Hughes in the 1985 Breakfast Club movie. But in real life, breakfast clubs happened at an excruciatingly early hour on weekday mornings, not during the weekend as shown in the movie. So in a sense, the timing of it was punishment enough for me.)
But even that did not stop me from showing up late some of the time to high school. I did well in many things, but not in setting my bedtime, waking time, time for getting to class, etc. You get the picture.
Now, I’ve organized my life so that at least in some ways, I can continue to control elements of my own schedule. But one of the ones non-negotiables nowadays is getting my KIDS to school and picking them up as needed. I’ve finally grown up enough to realize that making other people late is not OK.
Happily, my husband drives the kids to school most mornings, and as the years have passed, I’ve accepted the fact that you actually have to wake up at a specific time (which means getting to bed at a specific time) to get everyone on schedule, myself included. Driving factors surrounding school, my job, kids’ extracurriculars, volunteering, family needs, etc., keep me a lot more honest with my time these days.
And as I’ve adopted a Stoic-inspired life philosophy, I’ve come to see more virtues in a routine. I might even consider trying to follow more of them.
Ancient Stoics looked favorably on habits meant to cultivate the good. According to Epictetus, “every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.”
For me, what’s most difficult about a routine is how limiting it feels, how freedom-draining. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know that I love autonomy and making my own choices, and allowing others the same ability.
The more standing meetings that get built into my schedule, the more time-bound obligations, the more stressed I feel.
The way to counter that feeling appears, at least intellectually, to be simple: CHOOSE your habits. Find your routine by using your reason and ruling center. Assent to it, and then accept it, rather than constantly experience an inner sense of rebellion and frustration that motivates the lateness, forgetfulness, lack of preparation, etc.
For instance, if I want to keep my job, I need to attend regular group meetings. My boss has set meetings certain days, at certain times. If I did not agree to attend or just didn’t show up, that would make it clear that I didn’t really agree to doing the job. In the Stoic sense, my “discipline of assent” would be deactivated, and I should move on! In my case, I’ve assented, I understand the obligation, and I attend the meetings regularly and contribute as productively as I can.
I think it’s the inner rebellion over losing freedom that triggers a great deal of hatred towards habits and routines of all kinds, not just about school and work. But even small habits can make a difference and I’ve seen it happen with less-consequential examples, like snack foods. At one point, I decided to cut out a range of snacks, to form a new, healthier habit. I stuck with it for a long time and was happy with the results (a few pounds shed!). Several recent books, such as Atomic Habits, have struck this theme: small conscious habits can tremendously change lives.
Because let’s face it: We all have habits and routines, even if we don’t want to name them as such because they are based in chaos. In high school, for instance, my habit was to wake up at the latest possible minute necessary to “get to school on time” (in fact, a gross underestimate of the time needed). Naturally that created problems. I needed a new habit, part of a larger routine of getting ready for school.
As we prepare to start a new school year, both of my daughters are entering new institutions because of their changing grade levels. One will begin high school, and one middle school. We’ll have to get used to whole new routines and new sets of issues—and opportunities. One such opportunity: a chance to find—and choose for ourselves—good habits, to assent to them, and to create a “good flow of life,” worthy of Zeno. (If only it were that easy!)
I welcome your thoughts and comments on habits, routines, school, and work—please share!
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
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.