Stoic life philosophy and others’ judgments
In the series Black Mirror, there’s an infamous episode where the main character is judged for her actions minute-to-minute by her peers, gaining and losing points via a social media-style app. A cascade of missteps, largely outside of her control, results in a lower score—and, as a result, a disturbing downgrade in her real life. The episode is called Nosedive, and it’s terrifying. (But apparently not so scary to those who turned it into a "fun" game sold at Target!)
This sounds like a futuristic nightmare. But it’s already happening in some countries. Artificial intelligence is quickly combining with facial recognition, social media, and crowdsourcing to become tools of social control.
I find this situation of great concern as a human being—and also as a follower of Stoic practices. It makes me wonder: No matter what scary impositions technology enables, how can we, as individuals, effectively cope with others’ judgments?
Ancient Stoics, with Epictetus the strongest voice among them, teach us that we have no control over what other people think or do, and therefore should ignore others’ opinions. In day-to-day life, this is hard. People’s judgments happen everywhere, all the time, and they can affect our lives in real ways. Others’ opinions cost us jobs, school admittances, relationships, and more.
At times, I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of criticism, and it’s toxic. As a student and a young professional, I would slave over projects trying to perfect them and protect them from criticism, trying so hard to please that my own unique imprint got lost. (In that way, worries about others’ judgments actually kept me from doing my best work.) I wanted my efforts and my external persona to be bulletproof. This tendency among girls, in particular, has been highlighted in recent media stories that try to explain why girls' high achievement in school does not always translate into success in the workplace: perfectionism is the enemy of more lasting, real-world accomplishment.
But critiques of my work (and of me!) inevitably happened, and though I tried to maintain a brave face, I was crushed inside. That was before I accepted that I couldn’t control or change others’ reactions, and that I could still live a good life no matter what they thought. Before I began practicing a Stoic life philosophy.
Now, as I have developed a more self-reliant idea about my own value and core principles, I’ve come to see interactions with others as a dance with an often-unreliable partner.
The ancients knew this. That’s the source of all the language about being able to “bear” other people. Marcus Aurelius had to do this as emperor, and I think he spoke most eloquently about what needs to be done: As humans, we are built to work together in society, so we have to balance our wishes and drives with those of others. That means we must put up with people who are separated from reason and their ruling center.
So we have to learn this dance. Even if our feet are often stepped on, bringing involuntary tears to our eyes.
This is a lifelong project. We can interact with our coworkers, gathering input, without letting their agendas penetrate too deeply into our ruling centers. We can learn from mentors, without being controlled by their point of view—asking ourselves, like Socrates, “Is it true?” We can share what we create, and hope that others, through our common humanity, will respond to the work as intended or will offer ideas to inform us—but we can’t expect this to happen. We can be close with family, yet still follow our own paths.
We could learn to view our work, and our relationships, not as finished, polished, perfect things, but as living entities, like trees in the forest, always expanding and shifting. That way, everything is a work in progress, like our own moral development, where there’s always room for growth ...that is, until we somehow become Stoic sages.
I’ve found I make more progress on this when I heed the advice of my daughters’ teachers, who inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You don’t know everything to begin with, and you learn through making mistakes. Mistakes are “expected, respected, inspected, and corrected,” says a classroom poster. The teacher reminds them: Your work won’t be perfect. If you’ve developed a new skill, you’ve won. (This is NOT how I was taught in school, where perfection was expected and the rest was disrespected.)
Where does that leave our “score”—in other words, how we are assessed by others?
The hard truth is that we must learn to ignore it and endure the consequences. As I feel myself being judged by peers or colleagues, I tell myself: This is yet another opportunity to exercise my core principles and hope that my truth will win out. After all, a good social or professional rank is not essential, but rather a preferred indifferent in a self-reliant life lived according to the virtues.
When she was about 6, my older daughter got pretty busy with school, activities, friends, and family. She wished she had more time.
I remember one day when she said she wanted time to fit in an extra gymnastics class. After a quick conversation about how hard it would be to add another lesson to our packed schedules, my daughter piped up.
“I’ll do gymnastics on Washanzga Day,” she told me and her little sister on the drive home from swim lessons.
“What’s Washanzga Day?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s this extra day of the week. It's the eighth day. And it’s a day when you can do all the things you don’t have time for during the regular week.”
Maybe it was the day when she’d be able to meet up with her imaginary friends Cuppa or Layla—I heard a lot about how busy they were too--for an extended playdate. Or maybe she could do a few extra activities that her family’s schedule couldn’t accommodate other days. Or just play around, with a boon of free time.
She talked about it like it was a real thing. Her power of imagination was always strong, and her will to conjure this special day amazed me. I laughed at first, and then I started to think. What if we did have an extra day?
I’ve never forgotten Washanzga Day. In fact, I’ve longed for it.
I’m the kind of person who is very busy. As another mom friend once said, “we are all busy, but no one is busier than Meredith.” I took it as an extreme compliment!
I like to be busy—not doing “busy work,” but doing things that I love and that strengthen my interests and impact. In fact, I am pretty selective and exercise caution when it comes to long term commitments. But when I do commit, I don’t go by half-measures. I put in lots of energy and my full heart and soul.
Deciding what to do, and what attitude to bring, is central to the Stoic project. I love Epictetus’ discussion of the difference between times when we should use caution and those when we should be confident to forget ahead. It’s a bit counterintuitive:
“Nothing is impractical in the philosophers’ advice to ‘Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will’s control.’” (Discourses, Book II, II)
In other words: Be bold with—and untroubled by—the things you can’t control. After all, you can’t really change those things, so your actions won’t have significant impact. And it’s not the things in themselves that bother people—it’s the fears they engender. Epictetus puts pain and death in that category: don’t fear them, and they won’t trouble you. (Markedly easier said than done! Speaking from several weeks of dental pain, this is a tough principle to live by, though it is at the core of Stoic practice.)
On the other hand, he argues, be very careful with the things in your power. That is where you need to exercise your own judgment, and you have the opportunity to change your own thoughts and actions for the better. That’s the work that truly matters.
Maybe we'd feel less pressed for time if we all had a Washanzga Day for the extra things we might like to magically fit in to our busy lives. And if that day could expand to encompass everything we want to do. Making choices and living well is hard, and in the end, it is impossible to fathom the limit on our days. Our real lived days, not our Washangza Days.
We just don’t know when the Fates will stop us short.
Here’s where Seneca's writings on the shortness of life call out to us. As Seneca reminds readers, it is essential to keep control of how we devote our attention and—whenever possible—how we spend our time. Granted, we may need to work at jobs for income and we may have to change diapers and do daily kid pickups, just to keep things going. It’s not always negotiable. But when it is, it behooves us to make wise choices with our time. It’s our most precious resource. We’d better not waste it.
This brings us back once again to the question of how to figure out what’s worth our time. There is no easy answer.
Like Japanese organizing maven Marie Kando, we could ask: does this activity spark joy? Does this add value to me? Or even if I don’t love doing it and rather might not, does this add value to my community, my family, my job or organization in a way that promotes one of the key virtues? Am I acting with courage, justice? With compassion? If so: Is this more worthwhile than other ways to spend my time?
How do we know the right attitude to take when making commitments? Question your impressions, the Stoics would say. If everyone around you seems to expect you’ll be this year’s Cookie Mom for Girl Scouts, ask yourself, is this really how I should spend my time? Is it using my strengths and is it my choice, or am I doing this because of the way other people would judge me if I said no? Be cautious in proceeding, as Epictetus tells us. You could find another path—a role that suits your abilities and interests is ideal. If you decide to go forward, commit.
Let's recall Seneca's words (using male language, but this applies equally to women), "You'll find no one willing to distribute his money; but to how many people each of us shares out his life! Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it's respectable to be greedy."
I can be greedy with my time, but I love to spend on my favorite things. In my free time, I gravitate towards immersive “flow” activities and try to squeeze them in as often as I can.
For me, these are the creative pursuits or activities with my family where I lose track of time completely. Perhaps that is a tiny way to defeat time’s dominance over our lives. It’s a way of maximizing the moment by being completely enveloped in it.
I find "flow" when I’m working on an artistic project. Or hanging out with my daughters dancing to pop music (for which I’m mercilessly mocked!). Or learning about the latest research in my field in an online seminar. Or playing piano. Or writing this blog.
How do you decide how to spend your time? What would you do if you had a Washanzga Day?
Last weekend, 11 people were killed by a hate-filled shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The news devastated far more than one community. People across the country and world were filled with horror and disbelief.
There are many ways to become unmoored in modern America. Every day, people are alienated from family, friends, workplaces, communities. And in their quest to connect somehow with other human beings, their minds are twisted into a victim mentality fueled by hate.
Hatred makes people feel powerful. In our society, people are being constantly told they are powerless victims (of conspiracies, of immigrants, of other religious, ethnic, or racial groups, of women's rights and Me Too, and more), and in the public arena, limitless power is craved, praised, and ruthlessly pursued, no matter the means or the cost. Combined, these things motivate people's horrific actions against other human beings. And with easy access to weapons, they can do massive harm.
Stoic thinkers spoke of a very different approach, centered around actively practicing justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, and self-control. All of these things are lacking in a meaningful way from our public discourse, especially the rhetoric of those currently in power.
I personally hope to live by those virtues. It is a lifelong effort, and not easy. I’m reminded of Epictetus’ quote about the “real good or evil” of human beings. He was asked if there is a difference between a human and an animal, such as a stork. “Yes, surely,” he responds. "How so?" he is asked. He says:
See whether it be not in rationality of action, in social instincts, fidelity, honor, providence, judgment.
"Where, then, is the real good or evil of human beings?"
Just where this difference lies. If this distinguishing trait is preserved, and remains well fortified, and neither honor, fidelity, nor judgment is destroyed, then he himself is likewise saved; but when any one of these is lost or demolished, he himself is lost also.
-Epictetus, Discourses, 1.28 (in a historic translation)
Those virtues and practices define humanity. We must work to “preserve” them always, even when it feels more appealing to give in to the latest conspiracy theory. There’s a beauty in those lies, of course—they feed on people's worse fears, confirming our anxieties, and they make us feel better about ourselves. But we must cultivate courage, refusing the psychologically-easy fix that extremists proffer to make some people feel superior to other people…. and the slippery slope of falsehoods that they are built on.
Stoic philosophy demonstrates distinct ways that you can shift your way of thinking. You can say no to sellers of hate or discord. You can refuse to participate in name calling or in demonizing people who are different. You can choose to value other people, no matter their background, as members of the human family.
Just as important: In Stoicism, you are never a victim. That’s one of its greatest appeals. If you adopt this life philosophy, as long as you have breath left in your body you can be a virtuous person pursuing and growing the good and a role model for others. In so doing, you are a part of forces for good throughout our world. That is especially important during dark times.
Even people who are victims of crime or persecution or disease (or in ancient times, banishment or political execution) have used Stoic thinking to endure and to fight and to stand for what’s right. They do not let being victim define them.
Instead they use their freedom of thought and judgment to take back power from people who try to insult, harm, or even kill them. Consider Socrates, Seneca, or Cato in ancient Greek and Roman times. In modern times, one might think of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks.
Even closer to home, we can find the power within ourselves to cope with daily trouble large and small. Take the example of a recent post on the Facebook Stoicism group. A woman described how she used Stoic ideas to help her endure longterm physical illness and disability. She found the strength to keep going, to say "this doesn't define me."
Sometimes hate starts almost imperceptibly. Prejudiced "dog whistles" can have an impact. But people who aren’t conditioned to feel like victims, constantly under threat by "the other," are much less likely to respond to such calls for bias, racism, and anti-Semitism. They know better. They know their own inner freedom. They live their own power, exemplifying what’s best about humanity.
I repeat: All the best elements in us—justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, self-control—are lacking in a meaningful way from the rhetoric of those currently in charge of our nation. I strive to live by those virtues, to teach them to my children, and to express them through writing, speaking out, teaching (as a volunteer), parenting, and voting. We must find a way to turn people away from hatred-based beliefs, actions, and power-seeking through violence. And we must remain rooted in the good.
It was a hot June day when we made it to the top of the ruined French castle. The giant hunk of medieval stone sat high on an ancient hill perched over the nearby “valley of hell” that inspired Dante’s descriptions in the Inferno. We paused to survey countryside below. Together, my family of four had, at least briefly, conquered our fears of heights and falls.
It was a moment of satisfaction. Why? Because we chose to do it, and it was not easy (by our standards, at least). And because it brought us to a spot where we could see the world for what it is: physically huge, historically immense, and indescribably beautiful.
Our moment in that world is tiny. And yet we persevere—and we can find joy. That scene made me think of two elements of Stoic philosophy that can lead to a happier and more meaningful life, namely freedom and courage.
For me, freedom is not being “free from,” but “free to.”
It’s not having zero social or communal obligations. I cherish my family ties, and my daughters and husband are the most valued and positive things in my life. I realize that they connect me to non-optional support tasks and challenging emotions, and I’m OK with that. Unlike Henry David Thoreau, who felt he had to escape human ties to find authentic life experiences on his own at Walden Pond, I want to live enmeshed with family, friends, and loved ones.
Finding a sense of freedom within family life, and even at work in a large organization, is still possible. As I have written before, autonomy and the ability to make choices is key to my approach to work and to raising my kids.
My Stoic practice has helped me build my capacity for freedom by ensuring that I commit to making my own choices. Ancient Stoics taught us that even in the worst of circumstances, we can always choose how we respond. Epictetus began life as a slave, and suffered a terrible injury during his younger years. His seminal idea was that we should approach the many things about which we have no control with the knowledge that we can decide for ourselves how they affect us.
The example of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the Navy fighter pilot who held captive in Vietnam for more than seven years and became a well-known proponent of Stoicism, is instructive. Despite torture, he maintained his will to live and resist by relying on Stoic ideas, exercising the power to choose and experience inner freedom even in captivity.
Courage, of course, also kept Stockdale going. He didn't shy away from physical discomfort and pain. Stockdale inflicted injuries on his head and face to avoid being used in enemy propaganda, staying true to his own ethics. He said later that he knew he’d get out eventually, and that he’d view that time as a defining moment.
Yet he also accepted his situation while he lived it, practiced endurance, and didn’t expect to emerge quickly or unscathed. (I don’t know if I would be that strong in the same situation—and perhaps none of us do until we experience something so brutal.)
He did get out, recovered, began researching, writing, and teaching (on Epictetus and Stoic philosophy, among other topics), and eventually gained a national stage as the running mate of independent candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992's presidential election.
Ultimately, Stockdale showed in living color that we need courage to accept difficult things and still make the best choices possible without guilt or fear.
In Stoic practice, we are reminded that many incomprehensibly sad and difficult things—our loved ones’ deaths and our own mortality, illness, emotional pain, and other challenges—are outside our control. We can nevertheless work to manage our own personal reactions to hardships, and that’s where courage comes in.
The castle climb was a happy moment. Many other less beautiful things confront us daily. But drawing on our internal freedom to choose and apply reason, and our courage to carry on, much is possible for each of us.
“Those whose bodies are in good condition can endure both heat and cold; and so, likewise, those whose souls are in fine condition can endure anger, and grief, and every other emotion.” – Epictetus (Fragments, 20, Robin Hard translation)
My husband took part in an event that put runners through extreme challenges and obstacles—including climbing walls, rolling barriers floating in pools, and electrified wires dangling down through your path. You work with others to overcome everything the course throws at you to reach the finish line. And in this case, you run through lots of mud along the way.
Though I didn’t participate, I applauded him. Both my husband and I have tried to get into better shape physically in the past few years. He’s taken on a regular training routine at a gym. Though my athletic activity is less regular, I’ve worked at staying active. Training matters, as any gym-goer could tell you.
You’ll find tons of websites, books, and magazines devoted to physical training, and numerous regimens for how to stay physically fit are being hawked to the American public. Seems that every celebrity has her or his own workout. I recently watched Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg do her gym exercises with comedian Stephen Colbert, and I heard Tom Brady interviewed on NPR about his book on how to train and eat to be fit.
What we don’t hear about in our popular culture is how to train your soul.
Certainly, religious institutions have much to say about it from their own particular points of view. There is great value there, but it often hinges on accepting a certain faith and a set of beliefs. That's not what everyone choses to do.
For the large group of secular Americans, there’s a big gap in what we’re reading and hearing about on a daily basis and our souls’ well-being.
In fact, much of our news and culture seems to drain rather than restore our inner resources. And even our friends are often no help, if we relate to them on social media. I’m really tired of being directed to Facebook updates that seem targeted to generate jealousy, competition, and a feeling of being left out. How to strengthen our souls? How to prepare them for life’s ups and downs?
We will all have challenges, up to and including our own demise. To quote Michael Crichton, “no one escapes from life alive.”
I have tried a bunch of approaches, from Western to Eastern spirituality, from organized religion to mindfulness classes, from psychology study to counseling.
Right now, I think the answer is Epictetus. His words can help us train for the real run, the run for our lives and our moral character. It’s not a run we can “win,” exactly. And it lasts our whole lives.
In his Discourses 4.6, the Stoic thinker delves into politics versus philosophy. He is having a discussion with a student who complains that he is not respected—even pitied—by powerful men in political office. Why can’t he play an important role in politics, too? Epictetus points out all the effort that the politician has gone to in order to achieve his “success” in government. He callsmout the attention the politician has given to flattering, pleasing, and lying to get ahead with others.
Those who care about their souls have a different approach, he says. The follower of philosophy should ask herself upon waking up,
"What have I still to do to achieve freedom from passion? To achieve peace of mind? Who am I? Surely not a mere body? Or possessions, or reputation? None of these things. But what? I’m a rational living being."
From there, her daily training begins. She questions herself further, “’Where have I gone wrong’ with regard to achieving happiness? ‘What did I do’ that was unfriendly, or unsociable, or inconsiderate? ‘What have I not done that I should do’…?”(Discourses 4.6.34 – 35, Robin Hard translation)
The very act of asking these questions of ourselves is a way to keep ourselves nimble in our ethical lives. Self-reflection creates the right circumstances for improving how we treat other people and ourselves.
Stoic exercises can also help us cope with the many sad things we’ll be confronted with in our daily lives. In my study of Buddhism, I’ve encountered the idea that life is suffering. There is truth there.
As Stoics, we can strengthen ourselves by training our inner rational being to prepare for the tough times.
We can train by imagining being strong facing difficulty. We can picture looking down, as if from above, on our lives. We can try to keep a broad perspective on each little moment, knowing it is one of many moments lived by many individuals across many lands.
And every day, we can question our own thoughts, knowing that these “impressions” so often lead us down the wrong path. That is true all around us, both for our unavoidable difficulties and for our personal challenges. If everyone just relied on their first impressions of the Spartan-style run’s course, the place would be a ghost town. Instead, people ask themselves, “How could I train to do this? What skills would I need? Why shouldn’t I crawl through mud to get that cool T-shirt (and to know I have achieved finishing this thing)?”
I personally would still avoid the mud. But I won’t shirk from working on my inner “genius”—as the ancients called it.
And ultimately, I will keep on striving to do my best to represent courage and wisdom, and to privilege that rational part of myself. I know I won’t always succeed and will stumble. But that’s not the point. I’ll still keep running.
Never in history have humans lived in a time of more plenty. In modern America, we are surrounded by food, drink, entertainment (of the wholesome and non-wholesome varieties), drugs (legal and not), and much more.
The great good fortune of being born in a well-off country in a prosperous time has a dark side, though, as people indulge in and even become addicted to the things that in small doses give them pleasure. It takes a strong effort every day to resist, and to stay on course with a Stoic-inspired life where reason prevails (rather than our unthinking desires).
In this world, sometimes even the smallest things seem destined to be my undoing, especially when I’m out and about in the suburbs with my two tween daughters.
Latest case in point: They have become obsessed by bubble tea, that sweet concoction filled with fruit flavors and sugar, and often with milk and “pearls” or “boba” or “bubbles”—small chewy balls of tapioca or other jelly-type substances.
It’s a satisfying indulgence on several levels. The sweetness feeds the sweet tooth. The bubbles, nestled inside the bottom of the cup, give you something to chew on and consume. The fruit flavor brings freshness. And of course the caffeine adds a lift. My kids aren’t allowed to consume caffeine on a regular basis, but the green tea of a bubble tea seems fairly innocuous, when you think about how watered down it is with ice, water, flavor, pearls, etc.
We used to have just one bubble tea place nearby, Tea Era, and every time we drove past it out on errands or on our way to a class, the kids would pipe up, “Can we stop, can we stop?” I usually said no, but I did pull over now and then. The mango green tea with pearls called out to me, especially on hot days.
But now we have several new bubble tea establishments in my area, one of them in walking distance and the others not much farther away. And the girls’ requests to stop are much more frequent.
(To me, this shows that one element of addiction has to do with how often you are exposed to something, how easy it seems to get/do, and how normative it feels in that environment. That’s discussed in a book I’m reading, Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Bubble tea is now becoming completely ubiquitous in my neighborhood, at least.)
The latest addition to local tea offerings is Gong Cha (translated as “tribute tea for the emperor”). A chain of tea shops originating in Taiwan, Gong Cha has a tried and true way of capturing fruit flavors and infusing them into the drinks. I have to confess: it is really good.
My girls gave me an extra Gong Cha straw last time we went, and I just came upon it in my purse before writing this. Like Pavlov’s dog, I found my mouth watering. It’s time to turn to Stoic thought to guide my path before it’s too late.
How can I find new inspiration to avoid calorie bombs everywhere I turn?
Epictetus, in Discourses III, 12, described the need to train oneself. “Since habit has established a strong predominance… we must set a contrary habit to counteract the former… [and] employ training as an antidote.” He describes “the man who trains” as a person “who practices avoiding the use of his will to get [things].”
Despite the man-centric language, any of us could do this. We could experiment with ways that train our minds to go in a different direction.
Training. This is a much more positive path forward than merely decrying that I lack the self-discipline to refuse delicious drinks or foods, quietly sobbing to myself. That’s what I used to do. It got me nowhere except deeper and deeper into a pit of self-pity filled with self-recrimination.
Instead, the Stoic advice is to find a way to train, to learn to find the strength through practice. A good lesson for me and for my kids, too. It reminds me of the growth mindset that they have been hearing about in school: we need to believe that we can all learn and grow, not that we are “fixed” in an unchanging situation.
Some training is in order for me to break the sweet tea habit before it becomes too strong.
Maybe it's a good idea to try driving down alternate roads that don't remind the family of tea. I could try harder to suggest other snacks, or seek out calorie figures and comparing those to what else we eat. Maybe it's about training ourselves to try the unsweetened or less-sweet versions and to accustom our taste buds to a more balanced sugar level. And then as we watch others drink the super-sweet, milky-rich drinks, we'll recall that we are in training, and that a simpler and less indulgent version could be (almost) as satisfying.
So every time I drive by a bubble tea shop, I’ll remember that it takes effort to resist, and that it is training that will allow me to harden myself. But it won’t be easy.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.