As I gave a presentation about my work on compassion recently, I heard myself saying several times, “it’s a practice.” I was trying to emphasize that learning to be more compassionate towards oneself and others doesn’t just happen instantaneously, and that we need to work at it over time, developing new habits.
Then a woman in the audience asked me this:
“You said it's a practice. But HOW do you practice this on a regular basis?”
In other words, how do you integrate your values around compassion into your everyday life? How do you reinforce it, and teach yourself to live up to your own ideals?
A great question. The same could be asked of Stoicism, too, the other pillar of my life philosophy.
(And if you are wondering about the connection between my compassion work and Stoicism: I believe that the common humanity emphasized in Stoic thought is beautifully complemented by the practice of compassion and self-compassion. Both emphasize the same thing: we are all human trying to live our lives with the least possible pain and the most possible peace, while also getting along with the people in our lives, in the most positive way possible. This is a hard, livelong practice because none of us are Stoic sages: As Seneca said, we’re all patients in the same hospital.)
To describe how I practice, I mentioned my long walks and runs, which I use to meditate (seated meditation is good, too). I talked about my attempts to raise awareness in myself, to stop myself when a random thought or first impression appears, and work to make a good and reasonable judgment. (This is also the Stoic practice at the heart of the philosophy. It’s the one that Epictetus speaks of when he says, “[We] should… train for impressions every day,” in Discourses, 3.8.1.)
What I did not bring up in the discussion, and realized after the session was done, is that I also practice through writing.
Writing is a form of the philosophical life for me. I write to make meaning from my experiences. I write to understand what I think, to analyze why some moments offer insights into the whole of existence.
In fact, through writing I’ve learned to value my role as a parent more than ever, because it helped me explore my underlying parenting beliefs and values. It also helped me to realize that some of the pain and struggle I’ve experienced has a deeper meaning—and that in many ways, it has taught me something.
Things as serious as my father’s death. And as minor as my children’s squabbles in the pool.
My family life is not just a laundry list of issues to deal with—it’s where I live my philosophy. And as such, it can (and should) be a source of rich strength.
As my kids get older, far from the baby stage, parenting has become more and more about applying practical common sense and ethical core values. That’s where my Stoic thinking, and compassion training, have served me in recent years. When a tough situation comes along, I’m more able now to take a step back, question the impression, and make a wiser judgment. The big picture and “accord with nature” prevail more often over knee-jerk reactions and high-flying emotions.
And writing about it, from my point of view on this blog, has given me a way to understand and explain some of that, to myself most of all. And I’m grateful for the opportunity and time (snatched between numerous obligations) to do it.
In a way, writing is an extension of the discipline of assent—of thinking clearly and agreeing to a rational interpretation of the world. After all: Once I write it, and especially after I blog publicly about it, I must really agree to it!
The ancient Stoics did write philosophical journals, at least some who had leisure time to make that possible. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were the thoughts recorded in his personal journal. Seneca kept a journal late at night analyzing his actions daily, and Epictetus told his followers that those who wished to “be a philosopher” should “write down every day” the most accurate philosophical interpretation of the world around them (Discourses 1.1.25).
I wish that all parents could find the time (and interest) to write about their experiences. Not just to record memories for our kids’ future reading or to remind ourselves of what it was like raising a child. But also to frame what we are doing, to understand it better.
This wish extends beyond parents too. Writing things down, and analyzing our own challenges and actions, can help us become philosophical people, realizing that the everyday work we do as human beings is much greater than the sum of its parts.
My younger daughter is obsessed with Hamilton, the modern musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the “founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton. Nonstop I hear it in my house, both in recordings and on her lips.
It started with my older daughter a couple years ago when she began middle school, but now my younger child is the super-fan, reciting raps rapid-fire on the playground with a few other Hamilton-adoring kids. She said she learned to sing better from this effort and was excited to be cast as a lead in her school play, also a musical. She spent her special spending money ordering Hamilton t-shirts online. So yeah, it’s big around here.
There are some fringe benefits. I, too, love the mashup of hip-hop, rap, pop, jazz, big band, and dance hall music. After hearing the musical, my daughters and I have explored the history of this period further, learning more about the Revolutionary War and the foundation of the national bank, as well as the historical Hamilton. Both of my kids have aced a few history projects thanks to the inspiration provided by this Broadway production.
Now that my daughters have exposed me to the musical so much that I’ve memorized my fair share of songs, I can say that a number of the show's concepts support my life philosophy based on Stoicism.
Aaron Burr, the lawyer and politician who was Hamilton’s greatest rival, serves as the show’s narrator. In a musical about Hamilton, we expect to dislike Burr, but it’s far more nuanced.
In the song “Wait for It,” Burr delivers a number of Stoic ideas, most notably this line: “I am the one thing in life I can control.”
The whole song is about self-control, in fact. Burr, unlike the frenetic, constantly moving Hamilton, is willing to wait for success, to wait for his destiny. (Unfortunately that destiny left him known primarily as Hamilton’s killer and as the loser in a presidential race.)
Burr, like Hamilton, is also keenly aware that death is always lurking, unpredictably, for all of us, no matter our achievements or goodness:
“Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes…”
The song creates sympathy for a man that you might otherwise despise. Burr is thoughtful, emotional, and very human, and he draws on Stoic ideas to stay balanced in a time of war and upheaval and impassioned rivalry.
Hamilton, too—though the most un-Stoic of men—is a very sympathetic and appealing character whose tremendous productivity is motivated by his impending sense of death and the potential for failure before he’s done. He puts it this way in “The Room Where it Happened”:
“God help and forgive me
I wanna build
Something that’s gonna
Hamilton’s character is summed up by the song “Not Throwing Away My Shot.” (Yes, there is a lot of irony there, given his final duel.)
Hamilton’s key idea: “Just act.” It’s not good to wait for someone else to make things right for you. Instead, go ahead and take action, and push for your point of view. You might just make history.
The script depicts Hamilton's main critique of Burr as centered around the idea that Burr lacks principles. He doesn't "stand for" anything, and politics has consumed him (I hear echoes of Epictetus' dislike of amoral politicians in this script).
Hamilton views Burr as an opportunist and supports another rival, Jefferson, for the presidency because "Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none." That leads to their deadly last dispute.
Of course, Hamilton is also the story of a man who destroys himself because he lacks a specific virtue: Self-control.
He’s got a lot of courage and a keen sense of justice, but his wisdom fails him in a few important moments. The show demonstrates how his infamous extra-marital affair and angry sense of self-justification brings about his undoing in politics and in life.
Sucked in by bad passions and insults, guilty over his son’s demise in a duel after receiving his unfortunate advice, Hamilton is not able to recover the sense of honor that he has lost. He seems obsessed with proving his own righteousness to others, especially his fiercest rivals. With an almost suicidal intent, he enters the duel with Burr that he doesn’t survive.
Despite Hamilton's ill-fated end, we can take away a few key ideas to live our own lives better.
Stoic life philosophy and others’ judgments
In the series Black Mirror, there’s an infamous episode where the main character is judged for her actions minute-to-minute by her peers, gaining and losing points via a social media-style app. A cascade of missteps, largely outside of her control, results in a lower score—and, as a result, a disturbing downgrade in her real life. The episode is called Nosedive, and it’s terrifying. (But apparently not so scary to those who turned it into a "fun" game sold at Target!)
This sounds like a futuristic nightmare. But it’s already happening in some countries. Artificial intelligence is quickly combining with facial recognition, social media, and crowdsourcing to become tools of social control.
I find this situation of great concern as a human being—and also as a follower of Stoic practices. It makes me wonder: No matter what scary impositions technology enables, how can we, as individuals, effectively cope with others’ judgments?
Ancient Stoics, with Epictetus the strongest voice among them, teach us that we have no control over what other people think or do, and therefore should ignore others’ opinions. In day-to-day life, this is hard. People’s judgments happen everywhere, all the time, and they can affect our lives in real ways. Others’ opinions cost us jobs, school admittances, relationships, and more.
At times, I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of criticism, and it’s toxic. As a student and a young professional, I would slave over projects trying to perfect them and protect them from criticism, trying so hard to please that my own unique imprint got lost. (In that way, worries about others’ judgments actually kept me from doing my best work.) I wanted my efforts and my external persona to be bulletproof. This tendency among girls, in particular, has been highlighted in recent media stories that try to explain why girls' high achievement in school does not always translate into success in the workplace: perfectionism is the enemy of more lasting, real-world accomplishment.
But critiques of my work (and of me!) inevitably happened, and though I tried to maintain a brave face, I was crushed inside. That was before I accepted that I couldn’t control or change others’ reactions, and that I could still live a good life no matter what they thought. Before I began practicing a Stoic life philosophy.
Now, as I have developed a more self-reliant idea about my own value and core principles, I’ve come to see interactions with others as a dance with an often-unreliable partner.
The ancients knew this. That’s the source of all the language about being able to “bear” other people. Marcus Aurelius had to do this as emperor, and I think he spoke most eloquently about what needs to be done: As humans, we are built to work together in society, so we have to balance our wishes and drives with those of others. That means we must put up with people who are separated from reason and their ruling center.
So we have to learn this dance. Even if our feet are often stepped on, bringing involuntary tears to our eyes.
This is a lifelong project. We can interact with our coworkers, gathering input, without letting their agendas penetrate too deeply into our ruling centers. We can learn from mentors, without being controlled by their point of view—asking ourselves, like Socrates, “Is it true?” We can share what we create, and hope that others, through our common humanity, will respond to the work as intended or will offer ideas to inform us—but we can’t expect this to happen. We can be close with family, yet still follow our own paths.
We could learn to view our work, and our relationships, not as finished, polished, perfect things, but as living entities, like trees in the forest, always expanding and shifting. That way, everything is a work in progress, like our own moral development, where there’s always room for growth ...that is, until we somehow become Stoic sages.
I’ve found I make more progress on this when I heed the advice of my daughters’ teachers, who inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You don’t know everything to begin with, and you learn through making mistakes. Mistakes are “expected, respected, inspected, and corrected,” says a classroom poster. The teacher reminds them: Your work won’t be perfect. If you’ve developed a new skill, you’ve won. (This is NOT how I was taught in school, where perfection was expected and the rest was disrespected.)
Where does that leave our “score”—in other words, how we are assessed by others?
The hard truth is that we must learn to ignore it and endure the consequences. As I feel myself being judged by peers or colleagues, I tell myself: This is yet another opportunity to exercise my core principles and hope that my truth will win out. After all, a good social or professional rank is not essential, but rather a preferred indifferent in a self-reliant life lived according to the virtues.
When she was about 6, my older daughter got pretty busy with school, activities, friends, and family. She wished she had more time.
I remember one day when she said she wanted time to fit in an extra gymnastics class. After a quick conversation about how hard it would be to add another lesson to our packed schedules, my daughter piped up.
“I’ll do gymnastics on Washanzga Day,” she told me and her little sister on the drive home from swim lessons.
“What’s Washanzga Day?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s this extra day of the week. It's the eighth day. And it’s a day when you can do all the things you don’t have time for during the regular week.”
Maybe it was the day when she’d be able to meet up with her imaginary friends Cuppa or Layla—I heard a lot about how busy they were too--for an extended playdate. Or maybe she could do a few extra activities that her family’s schedule couldn’t accommodate other days. Or just play around, with a boon of free time.
She talked about it like it was a real thing. Her power of imagination was always strong, and her will to conjure this special day amazed me. I laughed at first, and then I started to think. What if we did have an extra day?
I’ve never forgotten Washanzga Day. In fact, I’ve longed for it.
I’m the kind of person who is very busy. As another mom friend once said, “we are all busy, but no one is busier than Meredith.” I took it as an extreme compliment!
I like to be busy—not doing “busy work,” but doing things that I love and that strengthen my interests and impact. In fact, I am pretty selective and exercise caution when it comes to long term commitments. But when I do commit, I don’t go by half-measures. I put in lots of energy and my full heart and soul.
Deciding what to do, and what attitude to bring, is central to the Stoic project. I love Epictetus’ discussion of the difference between times when we should use caution and those when we should be confident to forget ahead. It’s a bit counterintuitive:
“Nothing is impractical in the philosophers’ advice to ‘Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will’s control.’” (Discourses, Book II, II)
In other words: Be bold with—and untroubled by—the things you can’t control. After all, you can’t really change those things, so your actions won’t have significant impact. And it’s not the things in themselves that bother people—it’s the fears they engender. Epictetus puts pain and death in that category: don’t fear them, and they won’t trouble you. (Markedly easier said than done! Speaking from several weeks of dental pain, this is a tough principle to live by, though it is at the core of Stoic practice.)
On the other hand, he argues, be very careful with the things in your power. That is where you need to exercise your own judgment, and you have the opportunity to change your own thoughts and actions for the better. That’s the work that truly matters.
Maybe we'd feel less pressed for time if we all had a Washanzga Day for the extra things we might like to magically fit in to our busy lives. And if that day could expand to encompass everything we want to do. Making choices and living well is hard, and in the end, it is impossible to fathom the limit on our days. Our real lived days, not our Washangza Days.
We just don’t know when the Fates will stop us short.
Here’s where Seneca's writings on the shortness of life call out to us. As Seneca reminds readers, it is essential to keep control of how we devote our attention and—whenever possible—how we spend our time. Granted, we may need to work at jobs for income and we may have to change diapers and do daily kid pickups, just to keep things going. It’s not always negotiable. But when it is, it behooves us to make wise choices with our time. It’s our most precious resource. We’d better not waste it.
This brings us back once again to the question of how to figure out what’s worth our time. There is no easy answer.
Like Japanese organizing maven Marie Kando, we could ask: does this activity spark joy? Does this add value to me? Or even if I don’t love doing it and rather might not, does this add value to my community, my family, my job or organization in a way that promotes one of the key virtues? Am I acting with courage, justice? With compassion? If so: Is this more worthwhile than other ways to spend my time?
How do we know the right attitude to take when making commitments? Question your impressions, the Stoics would say. If everyone around you seems to expect you’ll be this year’s Cookie Mom for Girl Scouts, ask yourself, is this really how I should spend my time? Is it using my strengths and is it my choice, or am I doing this because of the way other people would judge me if I said no? Be cautious in proceeding, as Epictetus tells us. You could find another path—a role that suits your abilities and interests is ideal. If you decide to go forward, commit.
Let's recall Seneca's words (using male language, but this applies equally to women), "You'll find no one willing to distribute his money; but to how many people each of us shares out his life! Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it's respectable to be greedy."
I can be greedy with my time, but I love to spend on my favorite things. In my free time, I gravitate towards immersive “flow” activities and try to squeeze them in as often as I can.
For me, these are the creative pursuits or activities with my family where I lose track of time completely. Perhaps that is a tiny way to defeat time’s dominance over our lives. It’s a way of maximizing the moment by being completely enveloped in it.
I find "flow" when I’m working on an artistic project. Or hanging out with my daughters dancing to pop music (for which I’m mercilessly mocked!). Or learning about the latest research in my field in an online seminar. Or playing piano. Or writing this blog.
How do you decide how to spend your time? What would you do if you had a Washanzga Day?
Last weekend, 11 people were killed by a hate-filled shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The news devastated far more than one community. People across the country and world were filled with horror and disbelief.
There are many ways to become unmoored in modern America. Every day, people are alienated from family, friends, workplaces, communities. And in their quest to connect somehow with other human beings, their minds are twisted into a victim mentality fueled by hate.
Hatred makes people feel powerful. In our society, people are being constantly told they are powerless victims (of conspiracies, of immigrants, of other religious, ethnic, or racial groups, of women's rights and Me Too, and more), and in the public arena, limitless power is craved, praised, and ruthlessly pursued, no matter the means or the cost. Combined, these things motivate people's horrific actions against other human beings. And with easy access to weapons, they can do massive harm.
Stoic thinkers spoke of a very different approach, centered around actively practicing justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, and self-control. All of these things are lacking in a meaningful way from our public discourse, especially the rhetoric of those currently in power.
I personally hope to live by those virtues. It is a lifelong effort, and not easy. I’m reminded of Epictetus’ quote about the “real good or evil” of human beings. He was asked if there is a difference between a human and an animal, such as a stork. “Yes, surely,” he responds. "How so?" he is asked. He says:
See whether it be not in rationality of action, in social instincts, fidelity, honor, providence, judgment.
"Where, then, is the real good or evil of human beings?"
Just where this difference lies. If this distinguishing trait is preserved, and remains well fortified, and neither honor, fidelity, nor judgment is destroyed, then he himself is likewise saved; but when any one of these is lost or demolished, he himself is lost also.
-Epictetus, Discourses, 1.28 (in a historic translation)
Those virtues and practices define humanity. We must work to “preserve” them always, even when it feels more appealing to give in to the latest conspiracy theory. There’s a beauty in those lies, of course—they feed on people's worse fears, confirming our anxieties, and they make us feel better about ourselves. But we must cultivate courage, refusing the psychologically-easy fix that extremists proffer to make some people feel superior to other people…. and the slippery slope of falsehoods that they are built on.
Stoic philosophy demonstrates distinct ways that you can shift your way of thinking. You can say no to sellers of hate or discord. You can refuse to participate in name calling or in demonizing people who are different. You can choose to value other people, no matter their background, as members of the human family.
Just as important: In Stoicism, you are never a victim. That’s one of its greatest appeals. If you adopt this life philosophy, as long as you have breath left in your body you can be a virtuous person pursuing and growing the good and a role model for others. In so doing, you are a part of forces for good throughout our world. That is especially important during dark times.
Even people who are victims of crime or persecution or disease (or in ancient times, banishment or political execution) have used Stoic thinking to endure and to fight and to stand for what’s right. They do not let being victim define them.
Instead they use their freedom of thought and judgment to take back power from people who try to insult, harm, or even kill them. Consider Socrates, Seneca, or Cato in ancient Greek and Roman times. In modern times, one might think of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks.
Even closer to home, we can find the power within ourselves to cope with daily trouble large and small. Take the example of a recent post on the Facebook Stoicism group. A woman described how she used Stoic ideas to help her endure longterm physical illness and disability. She found the strength to keep going, to say "this doesn't define me."
Sometimes hate starts almost imperceptibly. Prejudiced "dog whistles" can have an impact. But people who aren’t conditioned to feel like victims, constantly under threat by "the other," are much less likely to respond to such calls for bias, racism, and anti-Semitism. They know better. They know their own inner freedom. They live their own power, exemplifying what’s best about humanity.
I repeat: All the best elements in us—justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, self-control—are lacking in a meaningful way from the rhetoric of those currently in charge of our nation. I strive to live by those virtues, to teach them to my children, and to express them through writing, speaking out, teaching (as a volunteer), parenting, and voting. We must find a way to turn people away from hatred-based beliefs, actions, and power-seeking through violence. And we must remain rooted in the good.
It was a hot June day when we made it to the top of the ruined French castle. The giant hunk of medieval stone sat high on an ancient hill perched over the nearby “valley of hell” that inspired Dante’s descriptions in the Inferno. We paused to survey countryside below. Together, my family of four had, at least briefly, conquered our fears of heights and falls.
It was a moment of satisfaction. Why? Because we chose to do it, and it was not easy (by our standards, at least). And because it brought us to a spot where we could see the world for what it is: physically huge, historically immense, and indescribably beautiful.
Our moment in that world is tiny. And yet we persevere—and we can find joy. That scene made me think of two elements of Stoic philosophy that can lead to a happier and more meaningful life, namely freedom and courage.
For me, freedom is not being “free from,” but “free to.”
It’s not having zero social or communal obligations. I cherish my family ties, and my daughters and husband are the most valued and positive things in my life. I realize that they connect me to non-optional support tasks and challenging emotions, and I’m OK with that. Unlike Henry David Thoreau, who felt he had to escape human ties to find authentic life experiences on his own at Walden Pond, I want to live enmeshed with family, friends, and loved ones.
Finding a sense of freedom within family life, and even at work in a large organization, is still possible. As I have written before, autonomy and the ability to make choices is key to my approach to work and to raising my kids.
My Stoic practice has helped me build my capacity for freedom by ensuring that I commit to making my own choices. Ancient Stoics taught us that even in the worst of circumstances, we can always choose how we respond. Epictetus began life as a slave, and suffered a terrible injury during his younger years. His seminal idea was that we should approach the many things about which we have no control with the knowledge that we can decide for ourselves how they affect us.
The example of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the Navy fighter pilot who held captive in Vietnam for more than seven years and became a well-known proponent of Stoicism, is instructive. Despite torture, he maintained his will to live and resist by relying on Stoic ideas, exercising the power to choose and experience inner freedom even in captivity.
Courage, of course, also kept Stockdale going. He didn't shy away from physical discomfort and pain. Stockdale inflicted injuries on his head and face to avoid being used in enemy propaganda, staying true to his own ethics. He said later that he knew he’d get out eventually, and that he’d view that time as a defining moment.
Yet he also accepted his situation while he lived it, practiced endurance, and didn’t expect to emerge quickly or unscathed. (I don’t know if I would be that strong in the same situation—and perhaps none of us do until we experience something so brutal.)
He did get out, recovered, began researching, writing, and teaching (on Epictetus and Stoic philosophy, among other topics), and eventually gained a national stage as the running mate of independent candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992's presidential election.
Ultimately, Stockdale showed in living color that we need courage to accept difficult things and still make the best choices possible without guilt or fear.
In Stoic practice, we are reminded that many incomprehensibly sad and difficult things—our loved ones’ deaths and our own mortality, illness, emotional pain, and other challenges—are outside our control. We can nevertheless work to manage our own personal reactions to hardships, and that’s where courage comes in.
The castle climb was a happy moment. Many other less beautiful things confront us daily. But drawing on our internal freedom to choose and apply reason, and our courage to carry on, much is possible for each of us.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.