Even now as Stoicism has spread in a resurgence around the world, many people still think of it as a “stiff upper lip.” Some see it as a tough, uncompromising ideology that can turn us into modern-day Spartans, impervious to our own pain and unconcerned with the suffering of others.
But these views are narrow and inaccurate. In my vision of Stoic thinking and practice, it’s a way of cultivating our inner resources to make us stronger and better humans, more capable of living fully in the world, and more realistic and reasonable about our place in it.
And that’s why I believe that you can be a Stoic and cultivate compassion for the suffering of other human beings (as well as yourself). In other words: Stoic compassion is not an oxymoron!
I recently gave a talk about how the two approaches—Stoicism and compassion cultivation—can work together side-by-side for the Stoics Care conference. I’d like to share a few highlights of that talk here. You can also check out the video here:
Why Stoic compassion?
Why did I turn to both Stoicism and compassion cultivation, and combine them together in my own life? A number of years ago, I went through a period when I was very stressed. I experienced stress at work, the stress of family needs, financial stress, everyday life stress. And politics played a big role—the divisions and rancor that grew in the public sphere in the US in 2016 was off the charts, and this situation hasn’t subsided since. I felt disconnected and sad and wanted to have a more positive connection with other people. I started practicing Stoicism and then in fall 2016 I took a course on Compassion Cultivation that has influenced me ever since.
The word compassion comes from Latin for “with suffering.” It begins with acknowledging that people face pain, loss, and adversity. The core of compassion is “being there” for others, wishing them happiness and peace. Put simply: “Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of another, along with a desire to alleviate that suffering,” according to James Doty, a co-founder of Compassion Cultivation Training. This 8-week training program that originated at Stanford University in 2009 focuses on insights from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. It aims to build calm and resilience in the practitioner, and to give techniques to learn how to grow a compassion muscle in ourselves so that we can spread compassion to others.
Compassion allows us to be with another person’s pain without absorbing it into our own being—preserving our sense of inner strength. Compassion for others is a resource that won’t run out, as long as we take care of our own internal resources.
Some people think that if Stoics truly follow their philosophy, they won’t suffer themselves, and perhaps there is nothing that they can do for the suffering of others. I have two things to say to that: first off, we all know many other loved ones, friends, colleagues who are not Stoics and who suffer. And it is our duty as humans—and as Stoics who believe in common humanity, cosmopolitanism, and that need for pro-social interactions inborn in all people—to care about these others and to support them. Second, we ourselves are not Stoic sages and are imperfect beings. That means we are bound to feel negative emotions and suffering, and we must also support and tend to ourselves.
What do Stoicism and compassion have in common?
Now let’s get to the heart of what Stoicism and compassion cultivation have in common.
Both are inexhaustible inner resources. Once you build and maintain these mindsets within yourself, they will never run out! That’s really the key here. You grow Stoic approaches and compassion in your mindset, attitude, and personal practices. Through mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness practices, journaling to encourage and analyze your approach, reading to re-set your mind, and new ways of being with other people, you light this fire within yourself. I will share a bit more about some of these practices at the end of this post.
I like to think of my Stoic and compassion practices like a flame within me. I can use that flame to improve relationships with other people and myself.
In this way, compassion can be the “missing piece” that connects your Stoic practice to other humans. In other words, you can unite your Stoic ruling center with a compassionate ability to support other people and yourself through adversity.
To build Stoic compassion, keep in mind these Stoic and compassionate concepts:
In a future blog post, I’ll dive deeper into self-compassion. For now, I’d like to briefly address how Stoic compassion is different from our typical concept of empathy, and why it is preferable.
Stoic compassion vs. empathy
Most often, people approach others’ suffering through the lens of empathy and emotional identification with pain. It sounds OK in theory, but empathy has flaws. Empathy (or emotional empathy) usually means putting yourself in the shoes of the suffering person. It can lead to feeling emotionally drained and experiencing “empathy fatigue”—especially for caregivers or medical professionals.
Often, empathy leads to entangling your response with negative emotions stemming from the other person (fear, anger, hurt, remorse, jealousy, etc.). You try to help but feel yourself becoming overwhelmed. You may experience a sense of powerlessness or guilt when you realize you can’t fix the other person’s problems, or make different choices for him or her. Ultimately, this could lead to you withdrawing from the suffering person due to frustration, fatigue, or despair.
The ancient Stoics understood the pitfalls of empathy and taught a form of compassion that avoided emotional over-identification. Both Stoicism and Compassion Cultivation acknowledge that only certain things are up to up and that we need to stop trying to control or fix other people.
Epictetus said that “you should not disdain to sympathize” with people who are suffering, “at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” He then added: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.” (Enchiridion, Chapter 16)
This sounds harsh to our ears, yet I think it’s a reflection of a form of compassion, one in which we share sympathy and loving expressions, but we do not give our soul over to the other’s pain. We maintain the integrity of our own hearts in order to stay strong for others in a more sustainable, long-term way.
Exercises to build Stoic compassion
Here are a few exercises for building Stoic compassion:
Mindfulness meditation is not specific to compassion cultivation training, but it is a practice widely accepted to calm and center the mind. We sit quietly, follow our breath, and let our chaotic thoughts flow out of our minds. (You’ll still have thoughts occur to you, of course, but you’ll be able to let them go more easily—and observe them less judgmentally—if you practice this kind of meditation regularly.) Once we are more grounded and relaxed, we are more open to experiencing compassion.
Loving-kindness meditation is a classic practice derived from Buddhism (where it is called metta) that plays a strong role in encouraging compassion towards ourselves and others. The focus is to feel compassion without any sense of judgment, and without wanting anything in return. Here is a quick review of how it works:
A more advanced type of compassion-oriented meditation is called tonglen, which originated in Tibetan Buddhist practice. It’s not recommended for beginners because it can sometimes bring up tough emotions or negativity.
Here’s a quick explanation of tonglen, if you feel ready to try it:
In addition to meditating, journaling is another excellent way to combine compassion training and Stoic practice. It’s a Stoic tradition dating back centuries.
You can write in your journal how your meditations are going and what aspects are hard for you, exploring why. You can investigate challenges in your life and share supportive thoughts to “be there” as a friend for yourself.
You can also use your journal to cultivate gratitude, recognizing what you love and appreciate about other people. You can also write about aspects of their lives that you’d like to build compassion for, even if you disagree with the person’s decisions or approach. A more advanced practice would be to journal about those who are tough to feel compassion for, and imagine their inner struggles.
All of these are ways to grow connection and feelings of kindness, benevolence, and support for others—in other words, compassion—in alignment with your Stoic mindset. When combined, these two practices are incredibly powerful to the individual, and to all those around her/him who benefit from that bright flame within.
They say that in the old days, people cursed their enemies with this wish: “May you live in interesting times.”
Today, we are surely living in “interesting times.” That has been made clear in the pandemic and now the advent of the first major land war in Europe in decades. On top of that, to those of us here in the US, there often seems to be more to divide us than unify us. We hear constant partisan battles raging across our media (both traditional and social) and our politics. Everywhere you turn, it seems that someone is judging you for what you do or how you think or who you are. The atmosphere is filled with negativity, and hate is spewed for even the smallest of transgressions.
But despite all this, we carry on. Throughout history, people have looked for inspiration during difficult or dark periods. As things grow bleaker we need this even more. So now, I think it’s time to look at life a different way.
I was inspired by a friend to propose this new approach: Rather than being dragged down by everyone’s flaws and shortcomings, let’s try turning to our friends and family as role models.
My friend points out that her own circle of friends have demonstrated remarkable strengths. They are capable of doing hard things, and showing the way—inspiring others for how to live, if you just take a look.
For example, one friend coped with the illness of her parent, while still taking care of a young child. Another friend found herself with a tough diagnosis while enduring a stressful job and a teen struggling with depression. Another friend re-entered the workforce after a break for raising her family, and took on new responsibilities. Other friends have endured personal losses and difficult training programs and housing issues and more.
There are also so many examples in the wider world of people doing extraordinary things. Right now we are seeing brave regular citizens standing up and fighting for their sovereignty on the streets in an unprovoked war they didn’t want. They are willing to sacrifice everything.
This idea of learning and being inspired by others struck me as the polar opposite of how most of us view our friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues, and classmates. We’re usually so competitive. Our thoughts and comments dwell on someone not doing well enough or not doing what we would do. Failing us in some way, in how to live well.
But what if we could be less judgy of others—while still staying focused on our personal virtues as individuals?
What if we could think of each other as naturally good and at least at heart reasonable people? That’s at the core of Stoicism. We are social beings, and we are all endowed with reason.
To build on this is: What if we could focus on Epictetus’ concept that the only thing we can control are our own judgments? So by resisting the urge to judge and condemn people for small failings, we could actually train our own sense of choice and recognize the good more clearly? And instead, we could valorize other people's practical wisdom, for our own benefit?
There’s so much potential in this approach. Instead of tribalism and looking at other people as the other or the enemy, we could view them as fellow humans who are struggling to do what they think is right.
Socrates famously said that some people act wrongly because they possessed wrong-headed judgments and ill-conceived ideals, not that they were “evil.” They were mistaken and misled. The Stoics took that up, with Epictetus reminding us that when we disagree, to recall that a person did what he or she thought was right. What's more, Stoics believed in finding a mentor to learn from; why not a friend or a person you admire in your own world?
Of course, I reserve the right to identify and fight against unjust people who are harming others and making others’ lives worse. But everyone else should have a chance to live out their own ideals, as long as no one is being hurt.
I have some amazing family members, friends, and colleagues—and they are and continue to be my role models for how to:
I want to learn from them. I want to treasure them and admire them. Not compete with and judge them.
Even kids can be role models this way. They certainly show great examples of emotional intelligence, and my children, in addition to my mom and husband, help me gain a sense of perspective. We can seek the good in all our interactions.
“Say no” to using moral righteousness to bash people in our lives. That’s what social media is for ;)
Instead, let’s say “heck yeah!” to building true and real connections with other people—and learning from them.
“What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated–tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom [or philosophers] who say that only the educated are free” ~ Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.21-23a
Most of us remember panicking before taking a test in school. The stress made these kinds of questions pop into our minds: Did I study enough? Did I study the right things? What if I forget what I learned? What if I get confused and make mistakes? What if I get a headache and can’t focus? What if my brain is too tired to do this?
My kids experience this kind of stress daily, especially my high schooler. And some tests are bigger than others. My 11th grader is getting ready to take the SAT, and even though some schools aren’t requiring it anymore, it’s been an anxiety-producing right of passage for college applicants for decades.
But what if you didn’t have to “do” school and testing this way? What if the high-stakes testing approach taken by most high schools isn’t working for the bulk of the students… and what if there were a better way?
I’m no expert on education, but I’ve spent a while observing my children’s public school experiences, and I’ve reflected on my own schools. I’ve also worked in the past with education professors, to learn about how they teach teachers and what kinds of teaching methods they promote.
What I’m coming to see is that so much of the current system is just not functioning for so many students. During the pandemic, a lot of failures in the way students are taught and assessed came to light, especially for those in underserved or underfunded districts and those dealing with challenges at home. Students got report cards filled with Ds and Fs, and were forced into summer school. They hadn’t learned the material, but then again, the teaching approach hadn’t given them much of a chance once they fell behind or missed tests due to tough online learning conditions.
That’s why teachers and school districts are starting to downplay testing and even grading via rigid points systems. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, teachers and administrators described the changes they were making as the pandemic and school closures severely affected student performance—and as they began to see academic differences among groups. The story describes
… a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Los Angeles and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined—have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines.
My kids got a taste of this kind of approach in their middle school, when their math teacher offered them a chance to retake tests to improve their scores. It greatly lessened their stress about individual tests without dimming their desire to learn the material. In fact, they learned more overall by retaking tests that at first seemed daunting, and by studying the material for longer, in greater depth.
Unfortunately, in the local high school, courses don’t work this way. Students are thrown into midterms and finals and high points value final projects where they don’t even know how they’re being assessed until their semester grades are entered into the official grade book—too late to change anything or learn anything new for that particular unit.
It’s painful. It’s arbitrary. And it doesn’t give students a chance to actually improve if something goes wrong.
My high school daughter explains that many of her teachers are “teaching to the test.” She says they want students can do well enough to pass final exams—but that they are not teaching in a way that prepares her and her classmates for the next class in the series. That’s been particularly tough with the unevenness of teaching and class environments during the pandemic.
On top of the mercurial and stressful nature of testing and grading this way, there’s the added element of the many inequities in education that are now being put under the microscope. For both reasons, a new approach is needed. It’s something that I think Epictetus would agree with: He was clear that all people deserved to be educated to become free in their minds—not just the few. All people should have a chance at liberating themselves through learning… no matter the circumstances.
Standardized tests have also been a thorn in the side of teachers for decades, as teacher performance as graded based on testing. To quote Daniel Koretz of Harvard Graduate School of Education,
To undo the problems created by test-based accountability, teachers must refocus instruction on teaching the underlying knowledge and skills that any good test should reflect, rather than spending time preparing kids for the specific test used for accountability.
Again, the argument comes down to helping students master a body of knowledge and skills, rather than assessing a single snapshop of what students memorized and could spit back out onto the page on a specific day.
Side note: This is not to say that student behavior such as tardiness or attendance issues, missing assignments, etc., shouldn’t have any impact or any measurement. In fact, some schools working on mastery approaches are adopting a “citizenship” grading system to capture some of these elements, separate from the typical transcript. It wouldn’t be part of students’ GPA.
Here in Northern California, a local independent school near my home uses a “mastery-based learning model,” which they explain this way: “Students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of all competencies and skills identified in a course before moving on, thereby reducing the number of ‘gaps’ in their education. Academic progress in a discipline is decoupled from age… While the time it takes a student to finish a course may vary, the depth of mastery remains constant.” When their students apply to colleges, they submit a mastery transcript, rather than one full of As, Bs, Cs, or Ds.
In some California schools, districts expect students to know 80% of the material before they can move on from a unit; they aren’t allowed to pass through without demonstrating competency.
This approach is already well underway far outside of California, too, and larger districts or even states have already adopted it—showing it isn’t only an option for small or private schools.
Mastery-based education, also known as competency-based education, has taken root in the state of Idaho, for example. The Idaho state department of education website says that the Idaho legislature voted to move towards this style of teaching in 2014, and that
Mastery-based education empowers students, personalizes learning, supports the demonstration of competencies (the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that lead to success), and recognizes mastery by allowing students to advance as they demonstrate their knowledge and skills regardless of time, place or pace.
With Mastery-Based Education, failure is not an option. Mastery systems give students the opportunities they need to demonstrate their competency with appropriate pacing and supports. Assessments are purposeful and demonstrate what students can do, not just what they know. Learning is flexible, self-paced, engaging, and focused on building skills critical to college, career, and life…
The most promising thing I’ve taken away from this approach is the quote above: "Failure is not an option."
This way of thinking, to me, embodies a Stoic message: It’s through adversity that we can learn the most, and that we have the chance to build and deploy our virtues. It’s by learning skills for the sake of understanding and growth that we better ourselves and exercise our human excellence, not simply cramming to prove ourselves to others or compete with them. It’s when we fail that we see we could do better and keep going, acting on what is in power at any given moment. It’s our intention to learn and improve as humans that powers us forward.
This idea of working at it until you master something is difficult for many students, and it may seem easier to assign a grade (even if it's low) and move on... but shouldn't we give students the chance to build real skills?
This is a timely concept. In a period when many, many students received Ds and Fs during online learning in 2020-21, and when many classes and instructors weren’t able to adequately help students understand the subject matter, we have to re-think what it means to “fail” students.
What are the most valuable Stoic ideas to keep in mind on a daily basis as a parent?
I thought about this question as I spoke with The Scotland Stoics recently. You can listen to my interview with host Robert Keenan on the podcast here (or anywhere you can find podcasts!):
In this post, I'd like to expand on three general concepts I mentioned in the podcast, ones that I turn back to over and over again to maintain balance and sanity. First, the dichotomy of control and acting on what’s in my power; second, using my spark of reason; and third, not taking things personally.
What’s in our power, and what’s not—as parents and kids
The dichotomy of control is a core principle of Stoic thought. Epictetus begins his Handbook—a manual of short summaries of Stoic ideas, also called the Enchiridion—with this:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Handbook, 1.1, Robin Hard translation)
Let’s add something to this list: our children’s behavior and actions are not within our power. We can guide them and teach them, and we have a duty to do so in our role as parents or guardians. But in fact, children of any age are not strictly under our control. And in fact, we owe it to them to try to help them learn as they grow to use their OWN power with wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Take a very small example of how little power we have: I have one child who is a night owl, and one who is an early riser. Did I choose for my one daughter to stay up late ever since she was a youngster and have trouble falling asleep at night, so she feels tired in the morning? And my other child to wake up at the crack of dawn? No. Similarly with all the other physical and personality/temperament elements of our children. We don't have that choice.
If we make efforts to understand at a deep level who are our children are and acknowledge their nature-given characteristics, we can work with them on their level—so that THEY can begin to understand what’s in their power. When they are old enough to realize that they are making choices and that their actions impact others, we can begin to teach them how to behave in a way that strives for the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
I think this is actually an act of “taking back our power” as parents and as children too. Stoic ideas can help us maximize our agency (according to modern Stoic thinker Lawrence Becker). I work regularly to figure out what’s in my power with my kids, and what is not; what’s within their power, and what is not.
Online learning is a good time to recall this. So much is outside of our control here in California, where public schools have been doing distance learning for about a year now. The situation is not in our power, but the way we respond is. As Epictetus said, “It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them.” (Handbook, 1.5)
That’s not to say that there aren’t many mitigating factors for students who are not equipped to manage this situation. A myriad of things from age to learning differences to family situations and economic hardship impact what kids are going through right now.
My children are teens, and they have learned how to handle lots of screen time (both for fun and for school, activities, and volunteer work), so my husband and I leave it in their hands to organize their learning and their days. We know online learning at school is typically not very motivating, or fun. All the aspects of school they liked are missing (social interaction, sports, cafeteria pizza that looks and tastes like cardboard in my opinion!). But: they have it in their power to follow through in this learning situation.
If they ever say “I can’t do it,” I’m right there asking, “OK. Let’s think about what CAN you do? How can you make this work for you? How can you take back your power over what you can control on your end?”
(Sidenote: I hear lots and lots of alarms and dinging reminders going off in my house, among all the various online classes and schedules we have to adhere to these days! Also, isn’t it crazy how easy it is to lose your cell phone in your OWN house? “Find my Phone” is a favorite app.)
And when it comes to seeing our kids making mistakes or making us crazy by not following our guidance, we also have the power to say, “I did the best I could in that situation… I’ll talk to my child about how to handle this better when she calms down/is in a better mood/is more rested, etc.” (Of course, if the mistake is truly dangerous, we need to take quick action to stop it.)
I realize this sounds much easier than it is. But honestly, it’s the one thing that’s made me much less irritable and frustrated as a parent. And it’s helped put my children in the driver’s seat of their own futures.
Using our spark of reason to break through emotional barriers
On another note: Have you watched Frozen 2? Parents of younger children might be raising their hands right now. My daughters weren’t little anymore when it came out, but we still wanted to see it on the big screen because of all their memories of the first movie in the series from 2013. We went to the theater (pre-pandemic) and noticed a huge cadre of older teens and young twenties viewers who probably felt super nostalgic about the original Frozen movie.
In Frozen 2, there’s a particular song that stood out to me. Not just for its musical qualities (though it was good, and was sung by Kristen Bell, whom I love), but for its Stoic messages: “Do the Next Right Thing.” The Anna character feels abandoned. She has been left alone to find her path, and she’s scared and uncertain. But she figures out that one step at a time (literally, as she walks out of a deep cave-like hole), she can make good choices and carry on with her quest to find her sister.
Even when things are really rough, we can always “do the next right thing.” Even when we don’t know what lies ahead. Or when we’re dealing with awful things from the past. Stoic thinking is very much about the present, doing what you can in the current moment. Releasing the emotional baggage of what’s come before and just doing the next right thing.
My role as a mom is to try to guide my kids to learn for themselves how to decide what is the next right thing for them, how to assess their impressions, how to not make knee-jerk reactions but to judge their impressions with accuracy and wisdom. How to avoid getting weighted down by troubles and be able to keep acting in the present. We have a lot of conversations about why they do the things they do, and what they could do next.
This is a good lesson for kids and parents too. It’s easy to get carried away into cognitive distortions like catastrophizing about how a situation could play out badly. Those of us who get anxious do it constantly. It can paralyze our decision-making. If this had happened to Anna, she might still be stuck in that hole.
How to figure out the next right thing? In moments of uncertainty—very often during this pandemic—I try to recall that I have a spark of reason deep inside my brain, according to the Stoics. If I pause, I can figure out the next right thing, in most cases. Somehow, I can leverage my own sense of “is this really true? Is this wise? Is it brave? Is it just and fair?” and make those criteria for decisions.
It takes some of our unintended irrationality out of our choices. The irrational side of things is usually based on fears about things spiraling out of our control, or forms of anger or insecurity—bad passions in a Stoic sense.
I hope my kids can do this too.
Not taking it personally
This is another tough one, but critical. I’ve noticed that parents take dealing with their kids “too personally” in two circumstances: First, when we think our child’s actions are a reflection on us and our value as people; second, when we feel a sense of being disrespected or even disliked by our kids. I’ve often found myself doing this and I’m trying to be self-aware about it. This is another facet of taking back our power to decide how we want to feel and act.
What I’m getting at is the idea that we shouldn’t take it as a personal offense or affront when our kids don’t behave how we want them to... and we shouldn't view it as a failure on our part.
In a social setting, I recall being really embarrassed when my toddler had a meltdown in a public place (and this happened multiple times, naturally). But looking back, that was just a young kid being immersed in emotions, proto-passions that turn into raging negative feelings. My child was too young to control it. And I did the best I could: Taking my kid out of the situation where the tantrum would affect other people, explaining to her why this behavior isn’t the way we get what we want, and giving her time and tools to calm down.
The tantrum wasn’t a reflection on me or my parenting. And it wasn’t really reflective of anything important about my child, who was at a very typical waystation on a journey to learn how to manage negative emotions (like the rest of us, but just not so far along at that age!).
An added layer here is what happens on social media. We feel encouraged to share parenting experiences online, but then we are often judged for sharing. For example, a mom posts a question about her tween sneaking around with friends without her parents’ knowledge in a mother’s group; she then gets a lot of backlash and judgment from others about her concerns. Or a dad posts that he wants to learn about sleep training for his baby, and people start to question his parenting. These are the kinds of forums for judgment that I recommend avoiding.
There's another reason why we should ask ourselves if we are taking something that our kids do too personally. Some moms and dads grew up in homes where it wasn’t permitted to go against their own parents, and where they were supposed to be “seen and not heard” as kids. It's possible that, if you are used to that mindset, any kind of disobedience from children could raise a red flag.
We can use our reason to discern if a kid’s behavior is truly a worrying act of defiance that could cause serious consequences, a pattern of behavior that shows bad intentions and unethical tendencies—or just a minor or fleeting issue.
A case in point: Does it make sense to get super angry if your kid is rude to you? I have been there, and it’s not a good feeling. Expressing a ton of anger will likely backfire, as Seneca would surely tell us. We will get better results (and model better behavior) if we can say something calmly and firmly about everyone deserving respect and common courtesy. Rational consequences, such as privileges being lost temporarily until behavior reflects our values, may also be appropriate.
When the going gets tough, here are words from Epictetus:
With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it… if hard work lies in store for you, you’ll find endurance; if vilification, you’ll find forbearance. (Handbook, 1.10)
When our children are older, there may even come a time when we’ll look back and laugh at what went on when they were kids, as the cliché goes. Let’s do our best to make it to that moment together, relationships and sanity intact.
Here in California, we have entered our second lockdown.
We have a 10 pm curfew. Kids’ socially-distant meetups at the park are put on hold. Local cafes packed up their outdoor chairs and tables this week. Haircuts have to be done at home again, and grocery stores have outdoor lines building up, so the interior space won’t surpass reduced capacity. For the holiday season, we won’t host family who don't live with us, or attend in-person parties. Anything and everything involving other people will be done online, or not done at all.
All this is to say that right now, our choices about many externals are extremely limited. That's not something we're used to dealing with in the darkest months of the year, the times traditionally brightened by holiday and New Year celebrations.
If we can avoid the many pitfalls of the pandemic - illness, extreme isolation, job loss, and lack of income - there could potentially be an upside. We can practice acceptance, and, if we are fortunate, we can spend more of our time and energy focused on developing our inner faculties, our mind, and our character.
I do want to say this first: Steering clear of the many terrible problems facing Americans and people around the world is not easy. I now personally know more people who have contracted Covid-19 (some are better, some are still fighting the virus). I know others who have lost jobs, or had to leave jobs to take care of children at home. And then there are those who have to work in essential or retail jobs where they could be exposed to illness, a risk that they didn't choose. And yet others are isolated, home alone without social contact aside from video chats.
In my case, I am lucky. My problems don't rise to that level. I'm not facing severe isolation. I have avoided the virus so far. I've kept working remotely. My kids are older and don't need constant supervision. And though my children have a lot of valid critiques of online learning, they are still participating in school virtually, absorbing what they can and spending lots of time on homework.
It's hard for children outside of their classes and learning, too. Both my kids are now teens, a time when seeing and relating to peers has a huge significance. But reality has set in for them, too, and they are old enough to understand what's going on. Both my daughters have learned about the science of the Covid-19; my younger daughter is even planning a webinar about kids’ health with her Girl Scout troop aimed at teaching younger students ways to stay safe.
And now, as we cope with another severe lockdown, they are practicing acceptance.
My younger daughter remarked: “We have been through it before, and we can get through it again. We know how this works now.” In other words: No need to panic. We can do this. We know at least that we are fortunate to have a home with heat, wifi (when it works), and food (and, I think, enough toilet paper) to get us through.
I’d thought that she’d complain that her friend’s upcoming outdoor party was cancelled. But instead, she’d taken quite a different approach, dare I say a Stoic one?
(Granted, I do hear periodic moaning from my kids, and also myself, filled with frustrated comments about 'when will this end?!' ...but at least some sense of resilience seems to have taken hold!)
All this to say that in fact, even in this time of limited choice, we do still do have choices.
We have choices about how we react to the situation we are in.
About how we help our kids find healthy outlets for their energies and, yes, their frustrations. About how we treat other people when we see stride towards that last bottle of hand sanitizer on the shelf. About how we find ways to support distant family and friends who are experiencing isolation. About how we do our work while staying home, collaborate with colleagues remotely, and fulfill all our roles and responsibilities.
As always, these are the really important choices, ones that can improve our character and moral progress, and they are still available to us. They are not dependent on externals but on ourselves and our character, something we can work on no matter the circumstances.
With these efforts, we can focus on determining for ourselves what we “wish for” in this holiday season—so often focused on material goods—and how we aim for a virtuous life.
And while kids can’t be expected to fully grasp the impact of all their choices or their assent to impressions yet, they can start to explore this fundamental Stoic idea: It’s not the things that happen to you that matter, it’s how you respond to them.
Explaining the reasoning behind how we react and think about life under lockdown is a powerful means of educating our children, and guiding them on how to behave in both the best and worst of times. The best way to do so is to try to serve as a rational role model through this difficult time.
And in the absence of get-togethers or outings, maybe we can find renewed opportunities this December to improve ourselves on our own. I've been focused on learning more about Stoic philosophy and other new ideas. In the past few weeks, I have read about psychology / psychotherapy as well as speculative science fiction, expanding my perspective on life and my role in it. This is just one effort to make progress. There is a wide potential for others.
I include a few quotes for inspiration in getting through this dark winter:
“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.”
“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”
“Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.”
Viktor E. Frankl:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Stay strong, and stay safe, my friends!
This past week was Stoicon 2020, the biggest annual gathering of the modern Stoic community. As I tuned in to this year’s virtual talks – and as I gave one on Stoic Parenting at Stoicon-X Midwest (video coming soon!) – I thought about the core principles that first drew me to this way of thinking and living.
I’d like to share my intro to modern Stoicism here for anyone just getting started or as a brief review for anyone who has practiced for a while. And this quick summary could potentially help older kids or teens get a sense for what Stoic life philosophy is all about.
Here are the Stoic ideas that I use to stay grounded in my family life, confident in my work, and resilient in coping with my challenges:
First: Remember what you can and can’t control. Take the time to discern the difference, and then act on what is within your power.
Stoicism’s most famous principle is the “dichotomy of control”: some things are in our power, including our thoughts, choices, judgment, actions, and beliefs; some things are not in our power, basically everything else, including our health, wealth, physical appearance, and reputation, as well as how other people behave. Mixing up what’s “our business” with the externals that we cannot control is crazy-making. It causes us to place our focus and sense of personal worth onto things that don’t really matter for a truly good life, in the Stoic sense of accessing human excellence.
Not being able to control an outcome doesn’t mean we can’t do something about a problem. We can “act with a reserve clause” as Marcus Aurelius pointed out: The reserve clause tells us that we may not succeed in having an impact, but we can still do what’s within our own power to try to make a difference. So we should go full-speed ahead on what is within our control, even if things may seem nearly impossible to change. Also, we need to be able to steel ourselves to ignore or forget about the rest: the fear, anger, guilt, frustration, put-downs from others. I try to tell myself: “This is my life. I’ll what’s within my power to make it an excellent one.”
Second: Question your impressions and focus on making good moral judgments.
What are impressions? They are the knee-jerk reactions to what we experience in the world. We all have them. It’s what we do with those reactions that determines our future. If we could stop and think, and tap into our inner spark of reason that the Stoics believe we all have inside of us, we could make better choices—ones that are free from anger, hate, fear, anxiety. At every step, with everything we’re about to say or do, we have to question it on some level. And this approach is reflected in modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – questioning our misguided beliefs and our thoughts. CBT derives many fundamental ideas from Stoicism.
Thankfully, humans can access their reason to question these instantaneous reactions, and we can learn to tune out a lot of the distractions and temptations around us, to focus on making good judgments.
How can we tell if a judgment is good? We ask ourselves if it aligns to the Stoic virtues. The key virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control or moderation. These are our yardsticks for how we’re developing our character… and for what’s truly good in this world. With each action or behavior or statement, you ask, does it meet the standards of the four Stoic virtues: Is it wise? Is it just? Is it brave? Does it demonstrate moderation / self-control? All of these concepts are open to interpretation. But our personal moral progress/development demands that we try to answer these questions. The more practice we have in thinking this way, the more we’ll learn. This is our Stoic education!
Put another way: In Stoicism, happiness or well-being (eudaimonia in Greek) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct,and aiming to practice the virtues (aretê, which can also translate as excellence) provide the skills and character development needed to attain it.
Remember the importance of choice here too (the Greek prohairesis). By exerting the power of choice, it is possible to make virtuous choices, aiming towards an overall moral good. Epictetus said: “You yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.”
Third: Focus on the facts.
You may have heard that living “in accord with nature” is a Stoic goal. For ancient Stoics this meant living in sync with our own human nature, including heeding the spark of reason that’s inside each human, and connecting with and helping other people as our brothers and sisters. More modern interpretations, for instance by the late Lawrence Becker, that say living in accord with nature means following the facts, and making fact- and science-based judgments.
Although our abilities to research and understand the facts of our universe have greatly increased since ancient times, we see that the facts of science are still being disputed in some quarters. We should elevate facts whenever possible. We can ask: Is it true? What’s the evidence?
Let’s take a real-world example: If some people say they don’t believe the latest scientific research on coronavirus, and don’t think there’s a reason for social distancing, here’s a way to think about it. First, you could conclude that they are separated from their reason and can't analyze the facts in a rational way. Second, as a Stoic, you could still express compassion for those people as human beings, despite their misguided beliefs: you can recall our common humanity, try to be a good role model, and keep doing what you can do to make things better. Inside us, there is potential to become a fully realized, excellent human being, and there is also an inborn, constant connection to our common humanity with other people.
Fourth: Make peace with mortality.
I include mortality because of its central place in Stoic thinking. Ancients Stoics believed that if you accept death and aren’t afraid of it, you won’t act out of fear and anxiety in your life.
This principle isn’t easy; everyone wants to keep living as long and as well as we can. It is particularly tough to talk about in a society that worships youth and hides or diminishes death. But if we can acknowledge and accept the reality that there’s a beginning, middle, and end to life, we can become more capable of living in the present, less burdened by anxiety about our trajectory in this world.
A parting thought: I use these principles of Stoic life philosophy as a framework to guide me forward. I’m no Stoic sage, so I can tell you that I don’t always adhere to all these ideas in my daily life—but they give me something to aim for, to work towards. When I succeed in applying these concepts, I feel a sense of progress; when I don’t, I recall that I’m doing the best I can. For me, the act of living is a way of learning, 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.