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.
In fact, coping with other people’s behavior, and taming my emotional instincts to get angry, frustrated, or disappointed, has been a major focus 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.
Nothing focuses the mind better than a pandemic.
The novel coronavirus landed in my California county in late January, and the second person to die from Covid-19 in my state passed away in a hospital just a couple miles from my home. The illness is now spreading in my community. Events are cancelled; my husband and I were told to work from home. It’s just a matter of time until our kids are told to stay away from school and continue their studies on their own.
It’s a taste of the experience that ancient people felt regularly—life threatened by a menace outside their control, whether it's disease, starvation, war, or other violence. Life does not feel secure, dashing the illusion we hold onto most days that it is.
We can hope for the best, but considering how easy it seems to be to become infected, we know we’re at the mercy of outside factors. And we can’t change our age, or our pre-existing conditions, the people we encounter, or the area in which we live. All these things can cause vulnerability, as can random chance.
This all serves as a potent reminder of the conditions that prompted the rise of Greek and Roman philosophy, especially Stoicism. This philosophy teaches that many things that happen in the world are outside our control, and what's most important is the way we respond to them.
There ARE certain actions that are in our control, of course. We can practice “social distancing,” and follow the recommendations of our local health department (which caused a cascade of event cancellations last week, and the mandate to work remotely) and CDC. We can wear gloves if needed, wash our hands often, use sanitizers, clean shared surfaces, try to stop touching our own faces. We can stock our pantries (and help others do the same by donating to local food banks).
But what about working to strengthen ourselves both inside and out? To build our toughness and resistance has much as possible?
For inner strength, the Stoics are an excellent guide. First, examine those impressions. When a newscaster or social media post makes you start to panic, think twice. What's a reasonable course of action? Taking precautions with hygiene and stocking up on prescription meds and food basics = great; buying every last can of beans and toilette paper roll in the store = going overboard.
Next, think of a key virtue: courage. A sense of bravery is not an old-fashioned luxury. It is something many of need to conjure everyday. And this pandemic is bringing it home to all of us.
Now, more than ever, is a good time to share that bravery with our children. After they do the common-sense things of practicing clean hands and germ avoidance, their goal—like ours—is to live well within the confines of dangers and uncertainty. Perhaps this is a great opportunity to model how we can still life our lives surrounded by fear. A minor triumph was a trip out shopping a couple days ago with my whole family, visiting the near-empty farmer’s market, the busy food store, and the less-busy-than-usual small shops.
Another key Stoic approach is standing up to our fear. Building our character. Stoicism at its core promotes a sense of self-mastery. That’s the crux of Marcus Aurelius’ project in his Meditations: to remind himself how to manage his impressions and responses, to keep the big picture in mind, and to recall what truly has value—good moral intentions and the actions that result from them.
Fear of dying is primal in humans, and as a survival mechanism, it prompts us to work hard to protect ourselves from dangers. The message of the Stoics is quite foreign to our modern ears, accustomed to trying to prolong life as long as we can with tools and technologies. But we find that sometimes, we aren't in control of how things go.
For a 'shot in the arm' filled with truth, let’s listen to Epictetus: “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” Epictetus faced death with courage and a sense of control over his emotional response. Epictetus again: “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”
These concepts are more easily digested as one gets older; for my kids, I try to explain that dying is a part of living, a critical step in the 'circle of life' of all creatures. That doesn't help cure young ones' fears by any means, but I think it is better than sweeping the idea of death under the rug completely. It's what we do with our time that matters, and I'd rather not spend each moment quaking in fear and sadness. That, too, they can understand. And heck, now that they're being forced to stay home from school for a few weeks, maybe they'll have more time to learn about philosophy (LOL!).
For physical strengthening in this trying time, we can strive to make healthy choices every day. I am not a doctor, but lots of healthy living advice that I've read is pretty much common sense. Science shows that good habits can help us be more resilient to disease. Resilient people may get an infection, but they can over come it. Of course, hygiene is critical; we’ve been told so often to wash our hands. I’m a germaphobe and that’s not new to me, nor to my kids, who hear that refrain constantly... And who have been getting doused with Purell regularly since their toddler days!
Also: Try to get a good night’s rest. This is obvious, but it's also really, really important, for kids and grown-ups alike. With all our 24/7 entertainment, our busy work lives, and all our childcare and housekeeping responsibilities, this can be hard for many adults. But now more than ever let’s make it a priority.
In addition, doctors remind us to reduce sugar and processed foods (though I think just a little stress-eating of Girl Scout cookies, especially after reading about coronavirus, shouldn’t cause too much guilt!). Consuming veggies, fruits, and lean proteins is always good, and other things in moderation. Easing children's love for sweets isn't easy, but reminding them "that's a dessert food" seems to help confine sugary foods to fewer instances.
Exercise helps, around 30 minutes a day or more; if weather permits, head outside for a burst of fresh air and movement. Maybe even consider meditating. Even if it’s just 10 minutes of deep breathing, it helps soothe the mind and body and bring us back to what’s important, rather than a frantic ratcheting-up of fear. I like to sit on a cushion, turn on some gentle sounds (rain, waves, Tibetan bowls!) and breathe slowly, clearing my mind of aggravating or stressful thoughts.
And finally: We can accept that our lives are forever in danger, and that we are ultimately mortal beings, while also striving to live a values-driven life RIGHT NOW. Life is not meaningless because it’s unpredictable and finite—we can MAKE it meaningful.
This was a lesson I learned from reading existentialist Albert Camus many years ago, and I’ve also found that this concept motivated many Stoics to make themselves and their existence better. That including Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: ”Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.”
Over three years ago, I was new to Stoicism. I had decided to learn all I could about this life philosophy, devouring books and readings to find out how Stoic ideas could reshape my mindset.
One thing that propelled me forward was Stoic Week, the annual event where participants can “live like a Stoic philosopher” for 7 days. It includes free learning materials and an online course. I wrote about it here in 2016, when Stoic Week was in its fifth year.
Mark your calendars for October 7, because Stoic Week is back for 2019!
It’s an opportunity to question your knee-jerk reactions and tap into your sense of reason… To give your ruling center a tune up… To focus on what really matters, and what’s in your power to change. You won’t be on your own: The free online class spearheaded by Donald Robertson offers daily advice and reflections, as well as a chance to monitor progress.
The organizers have this to say about Stoic Week: "Stoic Week is a global online experiment trying to see if people can benefit from following the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Since its inception in 2012, over 20,000 people have signed up and so far the results have been consistently positive."
For further Stoic Week reading, I’d suggest checking out a recent book that’s on my desk now: A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez.
This book could serve as a steady companion for the Stoic Week journey and beyond. It contains a wealth of lessons and exercises—52 weeks’ worth. The book begins with a very short but helpful introduction to how Stoicism can help in everyday life, and continues to focused explanations of the ideas and how to put them into practice. Stories of people’s real-life problems offer examples of how to make Stoicism work for you.
So does explanation of the philosophy in a concise and conversational style, delving into the origin of some of the most foundational Stoic ideas. Take one example. In explaining why labeling things “good” or “bad” is questioned in Stoicism—an idea I’ve grappled with understanding—the authors harken back to Socrates’ thinking:
"Socrates argues that the only thing that can always benefit us is virtue, and the only thing that can truly hurt us is the lack of virtue. But wait a minute, you might say. Surely wealth, power, or fame is also good, no? Not really. They may be used for good or for bad. Being wealthy may be a conduit for doing good for humanity, but it may also be what enables you to do harm. The same goes for all other preferred or dispreferred things. As Epictetus puts it: “What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions.” That faculty is reason, which tells us that virtue is the only true good."
The chapter goes on to offer a challenging exercise in using the words “good” and “bad” to only refer to one’s character, and to change your vocabulary and thinking when it comes to other kinds of judgments. It’s a good way to wrap your mind around a concept that seems counter-intuitive in our money- and power-driven culture.
Multiply that chapter by 52 and you have a lot of wisdom to draw from.
On September 10, 2001, I was scheduled to fly back to the West Coast from New York City. I’d attended my friend’s wedding, and I recall strolling around Manhattan on a warm afternoon with a sense of leisure the day before.
At the airport that morning, I boarded the United Airlines plane normally. But then, with that beautiful late summer day just outside the oval window, we sat stuck on the tarmac for hours, waiting for the go-ahead to take off for San Francisco.
Eventually, people on the flight became so restless and annoyed that they started getting up. The pilot announced that those who didn’t want to stay on the plane could get off and board a later one.
“Air travel has reached a new low,” I remember thinking to myself, a veteran of cross-country flights.
Little did I know. In the wee hours of 9/11, I landed in San Francisco safely. Just a few hours later disaster struck in the form of terrorists on planes just like the one I’d been on.
I’ll never know what happened to those people who got off my flight. Did some of them end up on one of the West Coast-bound planes that were hijacked and crashed by the 9/11 terrorists? Or did they stay overnight and get stuck in NYC when the government shut down all flights after the attacks?
What about their families, their friends, people in their communities? How many people lost someone that day?
Stoic philosophy teaches us that death could strike at any minute and to be prepared. 9/11 happened long before I discovered this approach. I wouldn’t have been prepared in any possible way.
The acceptance of our mortality is a lifelong effort, one that we keep working on every day we are alive. It’s a reality that we’ll never fully understand.
Epictetus was quite sharp in his admonitions about death:
“Sooner or later, your poor body must be separated from its scrap of vital spirit, just as it was formerly. Why be upset, then, if it should come about now? If it is not separated now, it assuredly will be.”
- Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.17
But it is Marcus Aurelius’ words that I find more helpful as a way to inch towards acceptance. Indeed, many of his writings seem intended to urge himself to embrace the concept of mortality. This one sticks with me:
“That which has died falls not out of the universe. If it stays here, it also changes here, and is dissolved into its proper parts, which are elements of the universe and of thyself. And these too change, and they murmur not.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VIII, 18
It is poetry, but more than that, it is an idea that may give us a shred of hope, or balance. It expresses the unity of all nature. That's central to those who seek to live in accord with nature, the basis of Stoicism. And it reminds us of the constancy of change for us and all things.
On this 9/11, I remember the tragedy, and those who died. I like to think that they did not fall out of the universe.
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!
Many of us feel under stress, facing competition to “succeed” in a society increasingly divided into winners and losers in terms of economics and social status. To me, much of Stoic practice is about unwinding this deeply-rooted impulse to compete and prove ourselves superior, and to cope the emotions we feel about status.
The work of Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and Stanford professor, helps to explain how very important this issue is. Understanding what he has uncovered about stress and society can help us find a new path forward both as individuals and as a culture—one that strongly resonates with Stoic practices.
Sapolsky has spent much of his career studying baboons in Africa. Baboons have a strict social hierarchy. Sapolsky discovered that male baboons with low social status, who were picked on and attacked by other males, were suffering from high levels of stress hormones. These biological molecules have a terrible impact, causing a higher rate of a disease.
This linkage extends to other primates, including humans, Sapolsky indicates. Humans, too, crave high social status, and those who lack it, suffer stress and, potentially, disease. Here’s how a WIRED magazine article on Sapolsky summarized this connection:
"The power of this new view of stress — that our physical health is strongly linked to our emotional state — is that it connects a wide range of scientific observations, from the sociological to the molecular… And now we can see, with scary precision, the devastating cascade unleashed by these [stress] chemicals. The end result is that stress is finally being recognized as a critical risk factor, predicting an ever larger percentage of health outcomes."
There is a silver lining to this knowledge: once we understand it, we are motivated to find new approaches. It’s hard to change, however, because our evolution primes us to climb social hierarchies based on strict forms of judgment about each other. We need retraining to practice respect for others, to see the human being behind surface appearances, to respond with reason, and to ignore insults to our egos.
For me, the key is Stoic practice. This approach is an antidote, if we are able to internalize its ideas no matter the consequences. (We should be aware that the consequences of not striving for/conforming to social status can be vicious, as the ancients knew.)
Stoicism offers guidance. A core principle is that we should not jump to value judgments, about ourselves or others. We can pause and question our impression. Recall Epictetus’ way of talking back to our initial reactions: “You are but an impression, and not what you appear to be.” We turn to our ruling center.
Epictetus explained how to handle with insults this way:
"What does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to an insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?" (Discourses, 1:25:28)
Interestingly, certain baboons have also found a way to manage stress—and improve their situation. And it’s remarkably similar to what Epictetus advised.
From WIRED: "Sapolsky found there was a set of personality traits linked reliably with lower levels of stress hormones. One of these was the ability to walk away from provocations that might send a normal baboon into a snarling hissy fit. Interestingly, this less aggressive personality turned out to be exceedingly effective: The nice baboons remained near the top of the troop hierarchy about three times longer than the baboons who were easily provoked into a fight."
If we can conquer our ego-driven and status-motivated reactions, if we can learn to respond to insults “like a rock,” if we can find peace in our ruling center, we too can combat stress and the risks that go along with it. Stoic ideas offer an antidote if we can remind ourselves of their power and benefits, rather than being sucked into the endless competition and status jockeying all around us.
This post first appeared in The STOIC magazine. Learn about it here and see an archive of issues here.
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.