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.
Times are tough in the sixth month of the pandemic. Gut-wrenching losses have set in: Friends and acquaintances have experienced the loss of loved ones from Covid-19; others are being laid off from jobs due to the economic impact of the virus. My children are bracing for months of online school and a continued lack of close contact with teachers and peers, as well as the disappearance of many school-based activities (sports, arts) that made their schooldays more palatable. On top of that, the fight for equal justice carries on in our communities in the US. And here in Northern California, enormous forest fires sparked by lightning have consumed towns and hillsides, and the smoke has made local air unhealthy to breath.
It is difficult, at times, to feel optimism. But carry on we must. As a friend recently pointed out, “If my grandmother could survive a genocide in Europe, I can survive this.”
True. Things could be worse. And for many of us, a refresher course in basic Stoic principles for self-improvement could help us bear up through this. Who knows, maybe we’ll even make a little personal progress in handling adversity in this awful time?
Lessons from Epictetus: How to Make Progress
This brings us to Epictetus. In Discourses III.2, he explores “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Let’s take a moment to dig into this text, and to see if it can help us gain perspective on our current situation.
Epictetus discusses “three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained.” Those three are the study of:
Epictetus says that most philosophers have focused on the third element, while neglecting the first two. So it’s to the first two that we must bring our attention. Let’s begin:
Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason. (III.2.3)
Starting with how to handle negative emotions: During this pandemic, we are constantly assaulted by our passions and our “desires and aversions.”
Social Humans Face an Inner Conflict
As we live in quarantines and lockdowns, we face a difficult inner conflict. Throughout human history, as Stoics and other ancient philosophers acknowledged, we have been a social species. Humans have banded together since prehistoric times to fend off threats. Humans have thrived on contact with each other, and on the essential social supports that parents and grandparents provide children, teachers provide students, friends provide peers, employers provide staff, generals provide soldiers. Cutting off our human contact—or turning it completely “virtual” on artificial screens—will inevitably have an impact on our inner life.
Put another way: We humans have a strong (and very natural) desire to congregate with our families and friends; we have a longing to go out and enjoy the restaurants, theaters, concerts, gyms, sports, and salons we know and love from the past; we enjoy travel, experiencing new things, and celebrating personal milestones out in the world with our peers and colleagues.
Here’s where the conflict comes in. On the aversion side, we wish to avoid disease and our loved ones falling ill. Clearly, we want to stay away from people and places that may spread infection. So our wish to be together and to support one another in our many roles clashes with the new imperative to “social distance.”
Let’s also acknowledge that many people have no choice but to live in this conflicted space: they need to avoid losing their livelihood in an essential or service job, and to do so, they have to expose themselves to situations that may harbor the virus. Or they are parents whose school is opening up: they want their children to learn, and to do so may require a risk of exposure.
All of these wishes create a huge battle in our minds, one that often overwhelms people and drives them to self-destructive behaviors. For instance, huge house parties have popped up in the Hamptons and in Los Angeles, despite the warnings of doctors and scientists that this can spread disease. And some people are making a political issue out of the imperative to protect ourselves and others, refusing to do one of the few things that could prevent the spread of Covid: wear masks in public.
Stoicism reminds us of the essential moral duty to master our passions. Rather than be led by our knee-jerk impulses or our stubborn desires, we have an obligation to look at the bigger picture and draw upon our sense of reason to develop a clear idea of the best path forward. We have to work to question each impression and each decision, to ensure that we have seen the whole truth of the matter. This takes both energy and discipline—both of which are in short supply in a suffering world.
It’s not straightforward, either. It’s about weighing risk, too, and unfortunately we still don’t know how much risk is involved in many activities today. For example, a local summer camp asked my daughter to attend in person, having gained permission for smaller groups to participate, with counselors wearing masks. Ultimately, we decided there would be an unknown amount of risk, and since we had little control over how the health policies would be enforced at the camp, we decided to keep our daughter home. Extra YouTube and Netflix time over the summer seemed a small price to pay for more certainty. On the other hand, my daughters have both been allowed to visit friends at the park, or on bike rides, in a socially-distant setting, where they have some control of the situation.
But the length of time of our pandemic restrictions is wearing on all of us. I’ve noticed that this is a time when many of us feel we are losing the motivation to do the kinds of things (get exercise, eat right, work hard in remote situations) that could benefit us in the long run. There’s a kind of fatigue that sets in dealing with the isolation, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, financial hardships, and, in some cases, medical issues, of the pandemic.
What Could Help Most: Preserving Our Relationships
So we can already see how difficult this situation is for our rational brains, and we need to think about our desires and aversions in a new light during a pandemic. Now moving on to the second “study” of Epictetus, I’ll quote him here:
The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. (III.2.4)
This passage makes clear that we need not become the kind of Stoic that Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock” represents—distant, unemotional, and stony. We are not statues, nor are we robots. I admire the way Epictetus weaves in personal relationships here, because I believe that’s what could help us the most during this difficult time.
Most of us have a relationship with someone: A parent, spouse or partner, child, close friend. Or perhaps you have a relationship with a spiritual element or God. Or with a country, company, university, or other institution. Do you feel interconnected with that relationship? If so, could you spend a few moments considering how your behaviors during this pandemic affect those relationships?
For instance, let's consider a set of actions during the pandemic: Not being consistent with mask wearing and practicing hygiene and social distancing. This action can affect not just you, but also the people in your relationships: you child, your husband or wife, and especially your elderly relative. And it can hurt your whole community—and ultimately your country.
The US has experienced a massive upswing in Covid cases, so our behavior as Americans matters deeply. There’s a not we are not getting right on behalf of our families and communities, according to the statistics.
For ancient Stoics, friendship was considered an inherently good thing (it may not be necessary for being a good person, but nevertheless it was seen as something we should all pursue—see Seneca on Stoic friendship). Honoring our relationships with our friends and companions is critical to our sense of virtue. And a core belief in our common humanity—the interrelatedness of all humans—is central to Stoic thinking. They can also help us remember why we’re living a life of purpose to begin with: To be that role model and that pillar of strength that our friends and families can lean on.
And now, despite our more typical ways of celebrating our fellow humans as social creatures, we must actually distance ourselves from each other as a way of helping one another through a disease-ridden world—a way of protecting each other.
Achieving Constancy: A Worthy Goal
As we move forward through this pandemic and however many months it lasts, we will do well to keep these Stoic values at the forefronts of our minds. Recalling and rehearsing how to make progress as a person will lead us to the consistency that Epictetus spells out in his third point:
“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)
We may indeed find ourselves depressed (or even drunk, as per Epictetus…and the recently rising statistics on alcohol sales in the US!) during this lengthy pandemic. Many of us wish we could sleep through it, and wake up in a better place. It is tough to deal with the chaos in our brains as we try to survive personal and societal crisis.
But maintaining our moral vigilance and cultivating good decision-making in a consistent way should be our goal, along with the sustaining our rational mind, as the Stoics promoted. Our inner geniuses may feel confused by a lack of information and uncertainty, but if we keep ourselves informed as best we can, and engaged in the support of our communities and relationships in a distant way—online, by phone, and text—we can hope these sparks of reason within us will serve us well.
As we examine our impressions Stoic-style, the twin weights of scientific facts and the needs of our common humanity should be our guides, despite the conflicts we face today. I won’t say I’m capable of that each day, each hour, as we are confronted with new challenges and difficult news on a personal, national, and international level. But it is a worthy aim.
American deaths due to Covid-19 have now reached 100,000. It’s a staggering toll.
My region in Northern California has seen a significant decrease in cases, fortunately. In my family, we have been doing what we can to slow the spread, while starting to emerge a bit more from our homes. When we go out, we think ahead and take precautions, wearing masks, gloves at times, and keeping our distance. We allow extra time for the new rules being put in place, much like the new security rules after 9/11.
Yesterday was our first time visiting a local historical site’s gardens since the virus hit, and offers a case in point. We had to make an advance reservation, not necessary in the past. We also learned new protocols about standing in marked boxes to wait our turn, checking in at a distance from the staff, keeping our masks on outdoors on a hot day, staggering our journey to wait for others to pass, and adhering to one-way paths marked with arrows on the ground.
Going out again reminded me of a very odd fact: The reasons to be locked down are deadly serious; but if you are fortunate enough not to be ill or in dire need, you may discover that a break from the usual running, doing, and competing with others can be beneficial.
Typically, my family is constantly moving, and where I live, that means constantly driving through constant traffic. Usually, each kid has her own school schedule (different schools), social engagements, sports, and classes; each adult has many hours of work alongside other commitments, including volunteering, family gatherings, and performing arts events. It’s an exhausting existence that we have chosen. We were privileged to have it, but now, we’re privileged to not have it, because we can re-examine our attitudes to busy-ness generally and to dealing with crowds of people.
(We’re also fortunate to be together during the lockdown as a family, and to still have jobs so that we can continue to pay our bills; I know that’s not a given.)
I am surprised to say that once I accepted the lockdown was happening, I didn’t miss events such as big concerts or in-person conferences that much. Mainly, I didn’t miss the anxiety that goes with confronting crowds, and the feeling I have to compete with others for access or for resources (think parking, seating, food, restrooms!).
I’d like to leave that feeling behind entirely. But for me, it’s a challenge. I still notice that my stomach tightens when I am faced with a big crowd. I’m not good at waiting in line; I’m too apt to compare my line to the next one over, and ask, “why is that one so much faster and better!?!”
I had a great opportunity to confront this anxiety during my family’s last-gasp-of-summer mini vacation in 2019: A trip to Disneyland. Despite a number of frustrating moments, I worked hard on calming the inner competitor who kept stressing about lines and wait times for rides or food. That was NOT easy. In fact, my two daughters often were more patient and calm about waiting in long lines than I was! They were good at not fuming about "how long have we been in this line now??" I was impressed.
In fact, coping with other people’s behavior, and taming my emotional instincts to get angry, frustrated, or disappointed, have been major focal points of my Stoic practice. I’ve learned over the years to pay less attention to others’ comments, behaviors, and comparisons between myself and everyone else—and to take those things less personally. But I still find myself beginning to boil over when people around me don’t follow the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you!) or act self-centered.
As Epictetus would advise me, I have to take the time to question my impressions when it comes to coping with groups of people, crowds, traffic, and any situation that pits me against a bunch of others. I often harken back to the reminders from Marcus Aurelius about dealing with people who display “ignorance of what is good and evil” in their behaviors and attitudes. (Meditations, Book 2) Despite others’ less-than-perfect actions, we still need to work with them. After all, as Marcus points out, we are social beings living in a cooperative world.
For example: Why do I care about getting served at the restaurant in the exact order in which I arrived (rather than after someone else who came later than me)? Is it due to my sense of fairness? If so, Stoic thinking would tell me that I can’t guarantee others will act fairly. Is it because of a feeling that if I don’t get my food, I’ll be uncomfortable and hungry? That I will feel disrespected, even, as others are put before me? All of these things pop into my mind.
And why should these things matter? I can remind myself that they do not, really, unless I choose to let them matter. It’s not in my power to force others’ respect or fairness towards me, only to carry out respect and fairness myself. In other words: I can only work to live by the virtues on my end. And do my best to stay calm and cool when others don’t or can’t follow the same virtues.
I believe this approach can help as we re-integrate into a more anxious and unpredictable world now that the quarantine restrictions are starting to ease up. This is, for me, still a work in progress. I hope that this break from so much interaction will help me gain a more profound sense of inner tranquility that comes from fewer perceived conflicts and competition.
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.”
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.