“The history of life.” The topic sounds limitless. How can anyone hope to understand the entire history of life on Earth? What does that even mean? Sounds as tough as becoming a Stoic sage.
But in fact, scientists know a lot about how life has developed and changed over time. Learning about the winding path of living things on our planet has been a longtime passion of mine. And these days, I’m drawing on it to ground my perspective on my own life. It’s a helpful way to supplement my Stoic-inspired life philosophy when I get wrapped up in “first-world problems.”
My interest began in 6th grade, when my teacher, Ms. Cox, showed us grainy videos (old school VHS tapes, or maybe Betamax?) featuring Donald Johanson and Louis and Mary Leakey talking about their search for the earliest humans. Johanson discovered the fossilized skeleton of “Lucy,” an early human-like hominid, in Ethiopia. The Leakeys also found very old hominid fossils in Africa.
My all-time favorite elementary school project was creating a giant mural of horses in the style of cave paintings found in Southwest France, some of the earliest art created by prehistoric humans. It thrilled me to think that I might be using the same techniques of a very, very, VERY ancient version of me.
I learned a lot more about life’s history in college. As a freshman, one of the first classes I signed up for was, in fact, titled “The History of Life.” I thought it sounded a little ambitious, and I was right. But it was also fascinating, and gave me a whole new perspective. The course was taught by Stephen Jay Gould, a legendary paleontologist and theorist of evolution. Though I never got to know him personally in the large lecture class, Gould inspired me with his ability to write eloquent essays about life’s origins even in the very tiniest and most obscure of creatures, for instance during the Cambrian explosion 541 million years ago (a massive diversification of life that lasted for 13 to 25 million years).
Gould’s lectures also opened my eyes to a new way of looking at evolution. He argued that rather than gradually changing, living creatures exist in “punctuated equilibrium.” Things remain in relative stasis until something radical happens and the species begin to quickly shift, a punctuation mark in time.
It’s hard to capture the awe I felt when I understood how very long life had been striving—and to some extent, thriving, but also struggling, and dying—on our planet. Humans are newcomers on the scene. And this is a scene that’s been through unimaginable, often very rapid change. (Gould died in 2002, but his inspiration remains… in part, I owe my current career in science writing to him.)
This year, I’ve gone back to Gould’s books to help me put things into perspective once again as the norms and ethics of our society seem to be bent or broken everywhere I turn. The virtues that I hold dear—the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation—are being ripped to shreds daily. Every week seems to reveal a fresh scandal, whether it is in government, corporate leadership, Hollywood, or law enforcement. Our human equilibrium is being “punctuated” by changes in our physical climate, too.
In a way, learning about the pre-historic and deep past—a time before modern language and recorded thought—is a new kind of the “View from Above” meditation. This Stoic technique encourages practitioners to imagine themselves high above their street, city, or state, to float over things is to see them from a new perspective. From that point of view, our numerous problems seem small and inconsequential.
So when I am bothered by things around me, I don’t try to escape to the past so much as immerse myself in the timeline of this long history. The past is more than “another country,” as it’s been called—it’s a whole other version of our universe.
I can envision a long line of beings living and breathing and working together and fighting and loving and competing. A line constantly shifting and changing. Marcus Aurelius wrote of this concept in his Meditations. For example:
"At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young.” (6:15)
As I review what we humans have experienced over the "ever-flowing stream of time," I think not just of people alone but also the megafauna (mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths, and more) that they encountered. These creatures, long extinct, once made our bodies seem tiny... and stand in great contrast to the microscopic ones that started it all.
Getting to know more about this past could also help us move towards the Stoic goal of "living in accord with Nature." The largeness of time and space, and the variation of life and the natural world, are a remarkable heritage. If we see all this in the light of the vastness of the cosmos, it's something to marvel at... and a means to meditate on where we have been, and where we would like to go. Ultimately, this is another way to work to increase our own human flourishing in a world not made just for us.
Do you ever wish you could just KNOW what to say to your kids to guide and support them?
Lately, when I’m trying to help one of my daughters by saying something I think is supportive or giving some gentle guidance, it doesn't seem to go so well.
I don’t blame them for their frustrated responses. It’s all about perspective and how you interpret what’s being said.
For example, saying “You’re doing so well, that’s great!” when we were doing an athletic activity together sounded to my daughter like: “You’re a little kid who needs to be told how good she is.”
She asked, “Why are you so surprised I can do this? You don’t have to tell me that.” Good point. And I’m glad to see she wasn’t waiting for/dependent on my praise to know she’s got things covered.
“You’re kind of talking to me like a baby,” was her other comment. I know that for her, acting like a “baby” is probably one of the worst insults a person could throw at her. So I stopped to think. Maybe I hadn’t evolved how I talked to her to really meet her age, level, and self-reliant character?
And when I try to provide a little coaching about simple things like vocabulary words or piano practice, I get pushback. I thought I was helping. But I can see that my lessons on independence for my kids have actually sunk in, to the point where they really don't want that kind of intervention.
In general, my advice and “help” are not what my kids need to understand how they should think or feel about things. My daughters are in middle and high school now. They have to go through their own process of examining their impressions and discerning the right choices. They are of an age to internalize the lessons that I’ve shared with them about how to understand the world without blinders on—about how to question knee-jerk reactions and groupthink—and about striving towards virtues and moral guideposts such as courage, wisdom, justice, and self-control.
So my parenting now has to focus on teaching (and reinforcing) the PROCESS for how to navigate their world. It's a process that can enable teens to live without focusing exclusively on misguided externals, and to think through their choices using their "spark of reason" and good judgment.
You remember when you were taught to "Stop, Drop, and Roll" if you smelled smoke or a fire? The process is kind of like that, it just happens in our minds rather than our bodies as we respond to the world around us. Stop, drop, and question your impressions. Stop, drop, and tune into your reason and your ruling center, the part of your brain designed to help you navigate away from a deadly fire. Except instead of a fire, we're coping with an unhealthy emotion, or irrational belief, or any thought that just isn't in sync with reality and the nature of the universe.
Then, you can ask yourself: Is what I want to do next next wise, fair, brave, and common-sensical? Does it help others, not just me? Does it help me become the kind of person I want to be? Or does it just serve my own ego and my own biases?
These questions are a good place to start. It is undeniably hard for fast-moving children, but as they get older, they can begin to shape a well-informed process. And as I remind my daughters, a kind of shorthand for this: "Don't believe everything you think."
We can model that process in our own lives, and in how we talk through our own everyday activities and decision-making. None of this is simple for adults either! Personally, I find that I often let doubts creep in about choices… so I stay vigilant about what I say and do to undermine my own process.
Encouraging this process is analogous to our schools trying to teach students HOW to analyze and think for themselves, not WHAT to think or just memorize. Critical thinking and questioning are what philosophy is all about—we can recall how Socrates encouraged these things in his followers and students, and then Epictetus, and many other ancient philosophers. Don't wait for a teacher to guide you, Epictetus said: Once you've mastered the basic ideas for how to live, just go out there and do it.
And the same holds for adults, too.
As much as we might like to KNOW what to do, we cannot ask our philosophy for ALL the answers, written out for us to follow. Ultimately we all need to cultivate a powerful ruling center to help make choices, and to live with the choices we have made.
And that's hard! There's just no way to know all the ideal choices, all the right ways to approach our complex world. We have freedom, and we must make the best of it even when it feels like a tough burden to navigate our lives. Philosophy helps us find illuminated checkpoints in the fog... but the fog remains.
Even Stoic role models such as Marcus Aurelius would probably have been the first to admit that they didn’t know everything. And I think they would have been careful to avoid giving unwanted or unwarranted advice. Can you picture Socrates telling you which car to buy? Or which job to apply for?
No life philosophy is a decision tree showing specific steps. There's no flow chart with spelled-out answers for always doing the right thing. Anything that proscriptive would not allow people to be individuals, to think for themselves, or to get to know their own ruling center.
Instead, our life philosophy should equip us to discern the path towards eudaimonia... and with that process, we can bring a conscious, thoughtful faculty of choice to our decision-making, avoiding fires and other dangers along the way.
Over three years ago, I was new to Stoicism. I had decided to learn all I could about this life philosophy, devouring books and readings to find out how Stoic ideas could reshape my mindset.
One thing that propelled me forward was Stoic Week, the annual event where participants can “live like a Stoic philosopher” for 7 days. It includes free learning materials and an online course. I wrote about it here in 2016, when Stoic Week was in its fifth year.
Mark your calendars for October 7, because Stoic Week is back for 2019!
It’s an opportunity to question your knee-jerk reactions and tap into your sense of reason… To give your ruling center a tune up… To focus on what really matters, and what’s in your power to change. You won’t be on your own: The free online class spearheaded by Donald Robertson offers daily advice and reflections, as well as a chance to monitor progress.
The organizers have this to say about Stoic Week: "Stoic Week is a global online experiment trying to see if people can benefit from following the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Since its inception in 2012, over 20,000 people have signed up and so far the results have been consistently positive."
For further Stoic Week reading, I’d suggest checking out a recent book that’s on my desk now: A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez.
This book could serve as a steady companion for the Stoic Week journey and beyond. It contains a wealth of lessons and exercises—52 weeks’ worth. The book begins with a very short but helpful introduction to how Stoicism can help in everyday life, and continues to focused explanations of the ideas and how to put them into practice. Stories of people’s real-life problems offer examples of how to make Stoicism work for you.
So does explanation of the philosophy in a concise and conversational style, delving into the origin of some of the most foundational Stoic ideas. Take one example. In explaining why labeling things “good” or “bad” is questioned in Stoicism—an idea I’ve grappled with understanding—the authors harken back to Socrates’ thinking:
"Socrates argues that the only thing that can always benefit us is virtue, and the only thing that can truly hurt us is the lack of virtue. But wait a minute, you might say. Surely wealth, power, or fame is also good, no? Not really. They may be used for good or for bad. Being wealthy may be a conduit for doing good for humanity, but it may also be what enables you to do harm. The same goes for all other preferred or dispreferred things. As Epictetus puts it: “What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions.” That faculty is reason, which tells us that virtue is the only true good."
The chapter goes on to offer a challenging exercise in using the words “good” and “bad” to only refer to one’s character, and to change your vocabulary and thinking when it comes to other kinds of judgments. It’s a good way to wrap your mind around a concept that seems counter-intuitive in our money- and power-driven culture.
Multiply that chapter by 52 and you have a lot of wisdom to draw from.
The girl was dressed for a princess party, in a red flouncy gown. She and her family swept into the theater a few seconds into the musical opening of the first act of the performance I was attending with my family. About 5 years old, the girl, seated directly behind us, immediately started talking at full volume as the singing began. I think she was asking for a complete translation and explanation of the plot, characters, and songs. The sound of her and her family’s voices responding to her carried to the dozens of people seated around them in the large theater—each of whom had paid handsomely for a big night out to see this touring production.
Although this girl and her parents seemed to think that they were going to a princess show, in fact, the performance we were seeing was the musical Wicked. It is a re-telling of the backstory of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz book and movie. She's mysteriously born green in a world that does not like "her kind," and she experiences hatred on an epic level. The plot focuses on what it means to be good, evil, and the whole range in-between, featuring infidelity, birth defects, parental emotional abuse, bullying, murder, discrimination, torture, friendship made and broken, popularity, teen love, betrayal, evil magic, deception, and more. Not exactly right for young kids.
All the people seated around this family said “shhhhh” with no real impact. Eventually, after the first hour, the full-volume talking became loud whispering, and then crunchy eating. Oh, and there was also the moment when they also seemed to laugh and joke about not making space for a smiling young woman to pass by them to get to her assigned spot, and their teen son constantly kicking my husband’s seat. Hmmmmm…
That’s certainly not an isolated reminder of people’s everyday lack of consideration for their fellow humans. Recently we took a family trip to Disneyland, and we all experienced encountering folks who didn’t show much respect for other people. The mothers looking down at phones or maps while pushing strollers right into oncoming pedestrians, and the motorized scooters that nearly took my toes off in a busy walkway. The woman in a crowd who jostled and called my 13-year-old daughter the “b” word (seriously?). The boy sitting next to me in a ride, who raised the middle finger at the Disney camera as it snapped a photo of us, earning him a big black spot over his hand in the final image. The young girl, around 8, glued to an iPad who refused to move over 5 inches to let my mom share her shady bench on a very hot afternoon, despite her own grandmother’s admonitions. Mature adults shoving over other people to capture photos, or angle their way ahead in line.
All this got me thinking. And then something popped up in my Facebook feed: In a Stoic parenting group, Brittany Polat asked this question:
Are you making the world better by being a Stoic parent? Seneca says, “It is not only the person who presents candidates for office and defends the accused, and gives his judgments on war and peace, who benefits the state; instead, whoever encourages the young; whoever, given the great scarcity of good instruction, instills virtue in minds... this person is doing public business in a private role.” (On Tranquility of Mind, 3.3) What do you think—are we helping not only our own families but also society when we teach our kids about virtue?
Though I may not be able to have an impact on whole swaths of society—or even on the inconsiderate people sitting right next to me—I still think I can make a difference as a Stoic mom. At the very least, I can have an influence on my children and on the other children I teach, lead, or mentor, and I can amplify that by volunteering.
I work with Girl Scouts and have also done other kinds of teaching in the schools with an anti-bullying program. Those two organizations work to instill virtues around honesty, fairness, compassion, courage, self-control, so I view them as in line with my life philosophy. (Check out the Girl Scout promise and law, and you can see for yourself how you think it relates to Stoic ideas or your own ethics.) My daughter worked with other scouts this year to complete a project designed to teach younger kids about pedestrian safety around cars, hoping to influence their community in a positive way. Their video was shared by our city's police and public safety departments, spreading the message much farther than they and their parents alone could do.
I think these organizations are influencing kids’ lives, and I can see clearly that the anti-bullying educational program launched by the YMCA, Project Cornerstone, has positively affected the thinking of local students. I have heard the kids walking out of class or hanging out on the playground using the language they learned in Project Cornerstone, such as “don’t take the bait” (don’t let a taunt get to you, and don’t respond on the same level) or “I was an Upstander today” (I helped another person who was being bullied or disrespected, by standing up for that person or helping somehow).
Kids aren’t born understanding/practicing the virtues, and we all (adults too) have a lot to learn. As the ancients pointed out, this is an ongoing process throughout our lives. In Girl Scouts events, for example, I’ve noticed some kids pair up, and other girls can feel left out. Parents can’t control this, as volunteers or as moms and dads. But we can continuously work on building a community of respect, fairness, caring, and mutual support in many other ways as kids work on service projects for their local neighborhoods, and as they learn about how to lead and project-manager towards larger goals outside of themselves.
So my thought is that if working with your own kids isn't completely overwhelming and draining (especially as they get older), and you have a bit of time, check into what other groups you can contribute to. Any groups or programs that teach and share basic messages about self-control, managing our wants and desires vs. others’, and being considerate human beings in society would be beneficial, since they focus on important elements of character that have an impact on other people.
When it comes to inconsiderate parents and/or children affecting others' experiences in very public places where we share the space—places where I am with my own children and trying to be a good influence on them—I often stop to think about how this behavior creates new generations of folks who don't respect others' common humanity.
We can’t solve the world’s problems by ourselves, and we can never force others to behave how we want them to (a bedrock Stoic principle). Of course I sometimes think about how great it would be if I could do more to influence those around me, and there are days when I despair of the direction our whole society is going. It can be tough and isolating to keep teaching the value of good character and of social service in a selfish era, when so many focus only on "I, me, mine"... It reminds me a little of the uphill battle that the Wicked Witch experienced in the show we saw, as she tried to help others and make the world better in her own way, while ultimately being labelled "wicked."
In fact, as a Stoic parent, you may feel isolated and misunderstood, much like the witch in Broadway's Wicked. These challenges are no reason to give up. It is valuable to keep working towards greater civility, respect for others, self-control, honesty, justice, and human wisdom within our spheres of influence, and to attempt to expand those spheres as much as possible… however our circumstances allow.
How about you? Do you have any suggestions for how to make a difference? Let’s brainstorm about how living our life philosophy, and sharing it with others, can contribute to our world.
It’s back-to-school season in my house, and my two kids are each starting at a new school. My family will have a lot to figure out, and we’ll be working on new routines soon. This prompts a question: How do you feel about time-bound routines?
All my life, I have avoided them. I have never really had a very fixed time for doing anything—not even getting to school when I was a student myself.
I was the one who caused my younger sister to get numerous “tardies” to class in high school. You see, I was old enough to drive her to campus, but not disciplined enough to get her there before the 8:10 am bell rang. Lucky for her, she had the benefit of a kind and not super-strict art teacher as her homeroom advisor. She didn’t suffer as many consequences as I did, a senior whose homeroom was led by a lovely English teacher whose patience was so tested that she eventually referred me for disciplinary measure for “excessive tardies.”
I was sent to a series of "breakfast clubs" as a result. (My school formed the model for the large institution depicted by director John Hughes in the 1985 Breakfast Club movie. But in real life, breakfast clubs happened at an excruciatingly early hour on weekday mornings, not during the weekend as shown in the movie. So in a sense, the timing of it was punishment enough for me.)
But even that did not stop me from showing up late some of the time to high school. I did well in many things, but not in setting my bedtime, waking time, time for getting to class, etc. You get the picture.
Now, I’ve organized my life so that at least in some ways, I can continue to control elements of my own schedule. But one of the ones non-negotiables nowadays is getting my KIDS to school and picking them up as needed. I’ve finally grown up enough to realize that making other people late is not OK.
Happily, my husband drives the kids to school most mornings, and as the years have passed, I’ve accepted the fact that you actually have to wake up at a specific time (which means getting to bed at a specific time) to get everyone on schedule, myself included. Driving factors surrounding school, my job, kids’ extracurriculars, volunteering, family needs, etc., keep me a lot more honest with my time these days.
And as I’ve adopted a Stoic-inspired life philosophy, I’ve come to see more virtues in a routine. I might even consider trying to follow more of them.
Ancient Stoics looked favorably on habits meant to cultivate the good. According to Epictetus, “every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.”
For me, what’s most difficult about a routine is how limiting it feels, how freedom-draining. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know that I love autonomy and making my own choices, and allowing others the same ability.
The more standing meetings that get built into my schedule, the more time-bound obligations, the more stressed I feel.
The way to counter that feeling appears, at least intellectually, to be simple: CHOOSE your habits. Find your routine by using your reason and ruling center. Assent to it, and then accept it, rather than constantly experience an inner sense of rebellion and frustration that motivates the lateness, forgetfulness, lack of preparation, etc.
For instance, if I want to keep my job, I need to attend regular group meetings. My boss has set meetings certain days, at certain times. If I did not agree to attend or just didn’t show up, that would make it clear that I didn’t really agree to doing the job. In the Stoic sense, my “discipline of assent” would be deactivated, and I should move on! In my case, I’ve assented, I understand the obligation, and I attend the meetings regularly and contribute as productively as I can.
I think it’s the inner rebellion over losing freedom that triggers a great deal of hatred towards habits and routines of all kinds, not just about school and work. But even small habits can make a difference and I’ve seen it happen with less-consequential examples, like snack foods. At one point, I decided to cut out a range of snacks, to form a new, healthier habit. I stuck with it for a long time and was happy with the results (a few pounds shed!). Several recent books, such as Atomic Habits, have struck this theme: small conscious habits can tremendously change lives.
Because let’s face it: We all have habits and routines, even if we don’t want to name them as such because they are based in chaos. In high school, for instance, my habit was to wake up at the latest possible minute necessary to “get to school on time” (in fact, a gross underestimate of the time needed). Naturally that created problems. I needed a new habit, part of a larger routine of getting ready for school.
As we prepare to start a new school year, both of my daughters are entering new institutions because of their changing grade levels. One will begin high school, and one middle school. We’ll have to get used to whole new routines and new sets of issues—and opportunities. One such opportunity: a chance to find—and choose for ourselves—good habits, to assent to them, and to create a “good flow of life,” worthy of Zeno. (If only it were that easy!)
I welcome your thoughts and comments on habits, routines, school, and work—please share!
A friend who recently became interested in Stoic practice asked me this question: “I know that in Stoicism, you don’t rely on external things for happiness.... but if you stop waiting for—or counting on—those things to be happy, then is our default state to just be happy?”
Her question made me think.
So much of our conversation in the West today is about how to be happy. Can working more productively make us happy? What about buying really cool stuff? Meditating? Spending time in nature? Retiring early? How about having kids? Are parents more or less happy than non-parents? Every week another study comes out attempting to show what brings happiness to modern humans’ lives. A “happiness movement” has captured national attention in the US, followed, naturally, by a backlash against this quest, which asserts that actively looking for happiness may actually be making us LESS happy.
Here are a few reflections based on my study of Stoicism and my personal experiences.
In Stoic thought, our natural state isn’t necessarily happy. We actually need to use philosophy as a means to finding joy. The reason for this is that we may not instinctively know how to use our rational mind and listen to our ruling center—or that instinct may be distracted by everything else we’ve seen, heard, and been taught.
This may sound ironic because one of the key Stoic goals is to “live according to nature.” Shouldn’t we find happiness in our original, natural state? In fact, in my interpretation, Stoic thought suggests that we need to spend time figuring out what our true nature is, and what the nature of the world is, and then sync up the two as an ongoing practice.
We do that by using our ruling center, that “divine spark” that makes humans uniquely able to interpret their world in a reasonable way. Without that spark, and without actively cultivating it, we’d be tempted to follow our animal-like instincts. Or we might be influenced by the whims of whatever society or culture we are living in, which may not espouse good values or ethics. You need a philosophy to guide you.
I think that ancient Stoics would say that you have to actually DO some things to experience joy and the tranquility that comes with it.
First, you have to use your reason well. It means questioning impressions (first reactions/thoughts) and seeking to make reasonable decisions, rather than jumping to conclusions or hot-headed actions; it means learning to use wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control as guideposts in decision-making; it means letting go of blame, anger, and other negative “passions” or emotions; and it means focusing on our moral core, and our own “assent” to what's right.
It's completely internal, happening inside your own mind. That is why it's so confusing to a culture fixated on externally valued objects and possessions.
Here's a suggestion: Make a conscious effort to consider the value you’re adding to the world just by making good choices (or the best choices possible in your situation) and by being a proponent of virtue ethics. In Stoic thought, having a good moral intent and making reasonable judgments, no matter your circumstances, are all you need to be a good person. Many philosophies over time have emphasized this kind of moral cultivation. As 18th-century thinker Voltaire said, "cultivate your garden." (In this case, cultivate your ruling center!) Knowing you're doing what you can to be a good person can bring you a contented feeling.
Second, you need to make peace with yourself, and accept reality as it is, to be content. If you are constantly trying to change what is outside your control, you'll be frustrated, angry, and you’ll be likely to give in to bad passions. A Stoic goal is to elevate healthy emotions by thinking clearly, realistically, and acting with reason. That doesn't mean we will be cold robots. Instead, we can draw on compassion and the common humanity (more on that in the third point below).
We can recognize that in fact, struggles and difficulties are inevitable, and part of the human condition. Yet we can still be present in the moment, taking what joy is possible, without obsessing about the past or the future. That’s what I’d call Stoic mindfulness.
Third, because Stoics believed in the common humanity of all people, doing good with and for others in the world can and should also bring you joy. That is because you know that you're acting in an ethical way, and in accord with the social element of our nature, which is designed (by nature) to partner with other humans to accomplish things and make the human world better.
I interpret this "doing good" as including any kind of activity that brings some healing, hope, learning, or delight to others. Marcus Aurelius had a famous quote about humans working together like sets of teeth (a bit odd to picture but true. One tooth can't chew!).
All of these paths can unite into a Stoic-inspired life and can help ease anxiety about finding happiness, and about the value we add to this world. They can bring some measure of contentment and yield tranquility. And these are good reasons to continue pursuing a Stoic approach, even when the whole world tries to convince us not to.
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.