“Attitude is everything, take a good one where you go,
It’s up to you to keep a happy mood--
And everything depends upon your attitude!”
These are the lyrics of a song my older daughter learned in first grade and performed for parents and other kids. I loved it! Countless times I have sung this song to my two daughters when they were small, and I was just reminded of it again during the current coronavirus pandemic. Though the song is a bit over the top in its cheerfulness, the message rings true: Everything depends upon your attitude, especially in times of crisis.
When I first heard this song, it was shortly before I began my journey into Stoicism. At the time I was investigating psychology and mindfulness. I was learning self-awareness, but there was still something missing. And for me, what was lacking was the sense of balance and reason within, and the courage to take charge of my own responses to a world that often felt cruel and unfair.
I have experienced that sinking sense of the world’s cruelty since I was very young, when my dad first became sick. A kind, intelligent, and loving person, accomplished as a mathematician, Dad was in and out of medical care for years as I grew up. He died much too soon. It was a terrible thing to realize that I had no control over what happened to someone I cared about so deeply.
That creeping sense of the insecurity of life is back now with the coronavirus. The virus has actively spread in my Northern California county, where residents and visitors come from all over the world to work at/with Silicon Valley tech companies.
The heavily trafficked freeways have now gone largely quiet as a “shelter-in-place” order covers our region. My colleagues from work are holed up in their own remote locations, trying to limit any contact with the wider world. (It reminds me of people in Cold War bomb shelters… or under house arrest.) East Coast relatives are also staying home whenever possible, and temperatures are now being taken to enter grocery stores and offices.
I’ve heard from friends in France dealing with massive lockdowns, rarely able to leave their apartments. The stories coming out of Italy right now, where we have colleagues, are sad and shocking. China seems to be improving but is far from back to normal; a coworker from there says that in the US, we are about two months or so behind that country in dealing with this.
And I just heard about a college classmate in New York, a healthy marathon runner in his mid-forties, now sedated and placed on a ventilator. He is struggling to recover from Covid-19.
Every day brings fresh insults—new tidbits of information that, taken in a certain way, can be very traumatizing. If you’re an admitted news junkie like me, you find yourself obsessively scrolling though stories about how the virus is affecting every aspect of life in every corner of the world. And that’s just too much information for one brain to handle.
How do we determine what a reasonable risk may be in these circumstances? It may feel as if our sense of reason is askew or even broken at times. Who is to know what’s paranoid under these circumstances? Friends of mine won’t see foot outside their homes. Several have told me about elder relatives who insist on shopping, whom they are begging to stop going to Walgreens.
Our kids are another issue. How to help them depends on their ages, personalities, and school circumstances. It’s a time of crisis. How much do we direct our children to do in this time, to prompt them to continue their school work remotely, in some cases without a teacher or classmates to guide them? I read an opinion piece the other day written by a mom who refused to run a “homeschool" for her third graders. She allowed them to play and watch movies. I get it! Kids need downtime and can use the break, especially if they are surrounded stress.
But what if you have older students nearing high school, or ones already in high school—students who want to be sure to fulfill graduation requirements, and apply to college someday? That’s the situation I find myself in. I’m working to support my kids’ learning, while still working remotely for my full-time job.
As one of my coworkers pointed out, this is a difficult time because of the high uncertainty and the lack of control we are experiencing. For those very reasons, it is the right time to practice our philosophy.
Aside from the hygiene, distancing, and protective practices that can help isolate the disease, and aside from working to support our families, all we can really manage are our own attitudes.
So how do we keep it all in balance? It’s not easy, and a daily emotional roller-coaster is very normal, even as an aspiring Stoic (after all, I’m not a sage!). But I am seeking to approach this rationally as best I can, and to use strategies based on a Stoic-inspired life. To keep my attitude in reasonably good shape, I have a three-fold plan:
And one more note: Please don’t hesitate to write back about how you are coping, and any advice you have during this difficult time, or to share it on social media forums or posts. Our virtual community can be a great help to those working to live out this philosophy right now!
Many parents complain that their children suffer from “selective hearing.” Their kids only hear what they want to hear.
This happens to me regularly. Me: “Why didn’t you do the dishes after school, like I reminded you this morning?” Kid: “I didn’t hear you.” Or me: “I see your shoes are still on the kitchen floor—didn’t you remember Dad asking you to put them away twice?” Kid: “No, I never heard that!”
Or me: “You should bring a water bottle for your activity today.” Then, me, getting a text an hour after my daughter arrived at her far-away, full-day event: “Mom, I need a water bottle. I didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. Can you drop it off?” And then me, 45 minutes later, carrying water bottle…
This issue has nothing to do with the physical auditory sense but everything to do with what we choose to focus on, and what we do or don’t want to acknowledge. It’s actually more of a “doing” problem than a hearing one. Usually it’s a function of the conflict between what we (the parents) want them to do, and what they (as individuals, and as children) want to do.
It can be tough as a parent. There is no great solution that I know of to consistently get kids’ attention. Perhaps the best we can do is to let nature take its course, so that our children experience some kind of natural consequence for not heeding our guidance (for example, getting so thirsty that they might even seek out a distant water fountain during breaks, prompting them to remember the need for a water bottle next time). If you have other ideas, please let me know in the comments!
But what I really wanted to point out is that I’m also coming to realize that there’s a related phenomenon: “Selective seeing.” It’s what we choose to notice in our surroundings, and what we don’t; it’s what seems visible to us, and what we miss... even if it is obvious to others.
For instance, imagine your child has an array of clothing, homework, markers, and pencils on her bedroom floor. Have you had the experience of reminding that child about to clean up, only to find that she does not seem to “see” that the floor has stuff on it, and she tends to focus only on her dresser or some other spot? Some of us tune out what we’ve gotten used to seeing.
I suffer from this, too. When it comes to my own clutter, I have trouble seeing it. Some days it pops right out at me, in a rather discouraging way. But a lot of times, it takes a huge effort to notice the excess stuff is there. My leaning Tower of Pisa-style stack of books by my bed; my cache of markers and pens littering my desk; junk mail piled on the coffee table; a stack of clean clothes, folded, rising high above the rim of a laundry basket; toiletries spread out across the sink counter; I could go on.
It is the same with so many things, and some are a lot more serious. Our brains get used to walking past someone sleeping at the train station. Or encountering worn-out tents lined up by the underpass. Or news reports showing hungry people in refugee camps. We get used to it, without really seeing it. To some degree, it is a defensive mechanism: If we saw everything all the time, our brains would become overwhelmed.
But still, I now recognize I need to turn on my power of sight and awareness more often.
Here's a Stoic-inspired question to ask ourselves: "What is it we're not seeing?" Put another way "What truths or situations are we not acknowledging?"
At home, it’s about stuff. I’m working on becoming more selective about what I buy after suffering a rash of purchase-return cycles. In fact, “depriving” ourselves of stuff is a Stoic tradition, to help us understand we don't need more.
That’s easier said than done in our market-driven economy, where we are surrounded by ads, offers, and sales on stuff. But the stuff doesn’t make us happy, especially since the psychological phenomenon of hedonic adaption holds very true: We soon get used to having a nice thing, and it doesn’t really have an impact on our contented feelings anymore. Perhaps the thrill of the chase for stuff could be replaced by something else, maybe by challenging ourselves to do something creative, something athletic, or something sociable with real, live people (not just social media).
And in the wider world, outside my home and sphere, in terms of all the inequities and suffering of others: This year, I’m working on seeing and understanding more. I’ve started by listening to a very interesting audiobook by the woman who “wrote the book” on modern genocide: Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN. She has an uncanny ability to see what others miss in terms of human suffering across the globe, and to elevate others’ safety and well-being.
Seeing can help us understand the urgent need to focus on a situation and do something. The ancient Stoics emphasized our common humanity: Other people, no matter how far or different, are our siblings. I know I don’t have all the answers for helping others, or even much knowledge of what should be done, and I can only do what’s within my power. But I hope I can continue to make myself see and acknowledge even what’s terrible, such as the human rights abuses Power has reported on and fought against.
And I’d like my kids to do the same: See bigger picture things, in addition to small ones. It’s a key reason why I support project-based learning. When my children recognize a real-world problem that they want to understand better, to encounter through actual people and places (even remotely), they learn more.
In terms of my life philosophy, this approach stems from the Stoic effort to pierce through our unexamined impressions—the BS—on the outside, and to come to grips with the reality underneath. Ancient Stoics often admonished their followers to examine things more closely. Epictetus reminds those who follow philosophy to see beyond the superficial and to understand the true nature of our world. This isn’t always popular or pleasant, since most people avoid seeing what’s true, uncomfortable, or inconvenient—me among them.
But I’m working on it.
“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.
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.
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.
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.