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.”
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 21
Reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, I get the impression of a man unafraid to be proven wrong—and quick to root out misconceptions. A man eager to learn from the world around him, yet careful in his judgments. A man who adhered to reason above the opinions of others. That’s the essence of his appeal: he strikes a chord with modern readers who still value his honesty and humanity nearly 2,000 years later.
Marcus’ quote above about truth says a lot about both about his personality and his approach to living by his philosophy. As a boy, he was known at court as “Verissimus,” meaning “most truthful”—a word derived from his family name, “Verus,” meaning “true.” When he stepped up to become emperor, this nickname remained accurate.
This contrasts markedly with today’s politicians and so many government authorities over the centuries. Some leaders would do anything to show that they are never wrong, including doctoring evidence, firing staff, or even eliminating opponents and watchdogs. Now that it is 2020, a major election year, it's more important than ever to become aware of what's true, what's misleading, and what's downright false.
Politically-motivated twisting of the truth can happen in subtle, behind-the-scenes ways, as we are learning with patterns of online influence. Initiatives to sway people have recently tapped into research studies of basic human traits. For example, psychologists have defined a core set of “the big 5 personality traits.” One of these traits is openness, described as “the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individuals’ mental and experiential life.” Other traits are conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism or emotional instability, and agreeableness.
These personality traits are not meaningless trivia. Understanding them could help predict what kinds of ideas or stories will motivate or frighten certain groups of people. Personality-profiling and data company Cambridge Analytica harvested just this kind of data from millions in an effort to influence voters during the 2016 US presidential election.
If we—voters, citizens, and Stoics alike—don’t take the time to search independently for truth and make our own decisions carefully, if we don’t exercise the virtues of wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage, and practice a careful assessment of our impressions, our inborn personality traits could be used against us. Bad actors may even attempt to shift our understanding of what’s true. And it is often more comfortable, and easier, to just avoid examining what's actually happening around us... especially if we feel that we benefit somehow from the status quo.
Fortunately, we are not powerless against these tactics. Like Marcus, we can focus on the truth. We can drill down on information sources, read the fine print, and look at what might be driving the agendas of those feeding us their ideas and arguments.
Stoic thought emphasizes that we can use our rational understanding and choice (something humans are uniquely endowed with) to shape our behavior in the world. From a Stoic perspective, we are not merely pawns of our personalities, of electoral politics, or of the entities designed to exploit our traits for their own gain. We are born with a sense of reason that allows us to choose the path of truth-seeking and moral character. We owe it to ourselves to exercise that sense wisely.
Undoubtedly, Marcus himself had an enormously “broad, deep, original and complex” personality, both inside and out. It’s a life that has inspired leaders and thoughtful people ever since. And to me, it’s something to aspire to.
Originally published in The STOIC magazine. Explore the current issue and subscribe here.
“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.
On September 10, 2001, I was scheduled to fly back to the West Coast from New York City. I’d attended my friend’s wedding, and I recall strolling around Manhattan on a warm afternoon with a sense of leisure the day before.
At the airport that morning, I boarded the United Airlines plane normally. But then, with that beautiful late summer day just outside the oval window, we sat stuck on the tarmac for hours, waiting for the go-ahead to take off for San Francisco.
Eventually, people on the flight became so restless and annoyed that they started getting up. The pilot announced that those who didn’t want to stay on the plane could get off and board a later one.
“Air travel has reached a new low,” I remember thinking to myself, a veteran of cross-country flights.
Little did I know. In the wee hours of 9/11, I landed in San Francisco safely. Just a few hours later disaster struck in the form of terrorists on planes just like the one I’d been on.
I’ll never know what happened to those people who got off my flight. Did some of them end up on one of the West Coast-bound planes that were hijacked and crashed by the 9/11 terrorists? Or did they stay overnight and get stuck in NYC when the government shut down all flights after the attacks?
What about their families, their friends, people in their communities? How many people lost someone that day?
Stoic philosophy teaches us that death could strike at any minute and to be prepared. 9/11 happened long before I discovered this approach. I wouldn’t have been prepared in any possible way.
The acceptance of our mortality is a lifelong effort, one that we keep working on every day we are alive. It’s a reality that we’ll never fully understand.
Epictetus was quite sharp in his admonitions about death:
“Sooner or later, your poor body must be separated from its scrap of vital spirit, just as it was formerly. Why be upset, then, if it should come about now? If it is not separated now, it assuredly will be.”
- Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.17
But it is Marcus Aurelius’ words that I find more helpful as a way to inch towards acceptance. Indeed, many of his writings seem intended to urge himself to embrace the concept of mortality. This one sticks with me:
“That which has died falls not out of the universe. If it stays here, it also changes here, and is dissolved into its proper parts, which are elements of the universe and of thyself. And these too change, and they murmur not.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VIII, 18
It is poetry, but more than that, it is an idea that may give us a shred of hope, or balance. It expresses the unity of all nature. That's central to those who seek to live in accord with nature, the basis of Stoicism. And it reminds us of the constancy of change for us and all things.
On this 9/11, I remember the tragedy, and those who died. I like to think that they did not fall out of the universe.
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.
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.
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.