The virus is on the upswing again. On Thanksgiving we got the alert that the new omicron variant was spreading. It kept on expanding its reach as we packed up for traveling to see relatives in the East Coast, something my family had not done for two years.
Thoughts crossed our minds about cancellation. Maybe the risks would be too great. But we also realized that there’s huge value in seeing loved ones, in person, while we can. Who knows what next year will bring for any of us?
The lessons of Stoic thinking have taught me that the present is all we have. The lessons of loss are distributed unevenly and often. All is constantly in flux, as Marcus Aurelius reminded himself often.
We all have the opportunity to cultivate an open heart to the unending changes of our world, including those of illness and death—which we essentially all live with all the time but choose to turn away from. The pandemic was a wake-up call for many about this fact, which had been smoothed over by Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the medical establishment for much of our lives. Today, many of us know the pain of loss first-hand and do not need a reminder.
Another piece of news that came across my feed this winter break was the death of writer Joan Didion. Because of my interest in innovative nonfiction writers, I had recently started to delve into her work. I spent part of my time off reading The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir about the sudden death of her husband. It’s a devastating book, both because of her raw exploration of grief for her spouse and also her descriptions of the simultaneous severe illness of her only daughter, who, at age 39, was hospitalized with pneumonia and then developed a severe brain injury. Didion shares the perspective of a wife and mother (albeit a non-conventional one) facing the loss of her two closest loved ones. This is not unfamiliar to families who have experienced death, especially in the pandemic, but even long before.
So: This moment is all we have. Live it well. And make the next one count too. We won’t wait long for sorrow to meet us.
Why say this now, in this season? As we spend time with loved ones over the holidays, it’s easy to get caught up in petty frustrations, fears, annoyances. Even tiny ones. I got really angry with one of my kids for leaving her food trash lying out, rather than putting it in the trashcan. Is this rational? Possibly. She is definitely capable of cleaning up. Trash is yucky, and why should someone else have to deal with it? On the other hand—it’s just a stack of trash, and easily handled. Why should I let garbage dominate my mind? I could see that I was not abiding by my Stoic approach in becoming angry. I hated realizing just that idea: “You’re not living up to your principles.” More anger, more digging in of heels, more ego-protecting defensiveness.
So even if you’re struggling with these kinds of reactions too, I won’t tell you to remember your principles: I know how annoying that feels. I will instead lead both of us back to the big picture, and perspective of the now, and the realization of how fleeting it really is. To the value we place on family and friends and the dear ones in our lives today. To the time we have lost due to separations during the pandemic... and even to the people we have lost.
Today, hanging on the family tree, I see little photo ornaments I made of my girls’ faces when they were small. I can still think of them as babies, who needed our protection and guidance every minute. Those days are gone, and soon, these days of having teens living at home with me will be gone too. Let’s make the most of this winter, Covid or no, and soak in those moments with the ones we love as fully and deeply as we can.
This past week was Stoicon 2020, the biggest annual gathering of the modern Stoic community. As I tuned in to this year’s virtual talks – and as I gave one on Stoic Parenting at Stoicon-X Midwest (video coming soon!) – I thought about the core principles that first drew me to this way of thinking and living.
I’d like to share my intro to modern Stoicism here for anyone just getting started or as a brief review for anyone who has practiced for a while. And this quick summary could potentially help older kids or teens get a sense for what Stoic life philosophy is all about.
Here are the Stoic ideas that I use to stay grounded in my family life, confident in my work, and resilient in coping with my challenges:
First: Remember what you can and can’t control. Take the time to discern the difference, and then act on what is within your power.
Stoicism’s most famous principle is the “dichotomy of control”: some things are in our power, including our thoughts, choices, judgment, actions, and beliefs; some things are not in our power, basically everything else, including our health, wealth, physical appearance, and reputation, as well as how other people behave. Mixing up what’s “our business” with the externals that we cannot control is crazy-making. It causes us to place our focus and sense of personal worth onto things that don’t really matter for a truly good life, in the Stoic sense of accessing human excellence.
Not being able to control an outcome doesn’t mean we can’t do something about a problem. We can “act with a reserve clause” as Marcus Aurelius pointed out: The reserve clause tells us that we may not succeed in having an impact, but we can still do what’s within our own power to try to make a difference. So we should go full-speed ahead on what is within our control, even if things may seem nearly impossible to change. Also, we need to be able to steel ourselves to ignore or forget about the rest: the fear, anger, guilt, frustration, put-downs from others. I try to tell myself: “This is my life. I’ll what’s within my power to make it an excellent one.”
Second: Question your impressions and focus on making good moral judgments.
What are impressions? They are the knee-jerk reactions to what we experience in the world. We all have them. It’s what we do with those reactions that determines our future. If we could stop and think, and tap into our inner spark of reason that the Stoics believe we all have inside of us, we could make better choices—ones that are free from anger, hate, fear, anxiety. At every step, with everything we’re about to say or do, we have to question it on some level. And this approach is reflected in modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – questioning our misguided beliefs and our thoughts. CBT derives many fundamental ideas from Stoicism.
Thankfully, humans can access their reason to question these instantaneous reactions, and we can learn to tune out a lot of the distractions and temptations around us, to focus on making good judgments.
How can we tell if a judgment is good? We ask ourselves if it aligns to the Stoic virtues. The key virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control or moderation. These are our yardsticks for how we’re developing our character… and for what’s truly good in this world. With each action or behavior or statement, you ask, does it meet the standards of the four Stoic virtues: Is it wise? Is it just? Is it brave? Does it demonstrate moderation / self-control? All of these concepts are open to interpretation. But our personal moral progress/development demands that we try to answer these questions. The more practice we have in thinking this way, the more we’ll learn. This is our Stoic education!
Put another way: In Stoicism, happiness or well-being (eudaimonia in Greek) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct,and aiming to practice the virtues (aretê, which can also translate as excellence) provide the skills and character development needed to attain it.
Remember the importance of choice here too (the Greek prohairesis). By exerting the power of choice, it is possible to make virtuous choices, aiming towards an overall moral good. Epictetus said: “You yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.”
Third: Focus on the facts.
You may have heard that living “in accord with nature” is a Stoic goal. For ancient Stoics this meant living in sync with our own human nature, including heeding the spark of reason that’s inside each human, and connecting with and helping other people as our brothers and sisters. More modern interpretations, for instance by the late Lawrence Becker, that say living in accord with nature means following the facts, and making fact- and science-based judgments.
Although our abilities to research and understand the facts of our universe have greatly increased since ancient times, we see that the facts of science are still being disputed in some quarters. We should elevate facts whenever possible. We can ask: Is it true? What’s the evidence?
Let’s take a real-world example: If some people say they don’t believe the latest scientific research on coronavirus, and don’t think there’s a reason for social distancing, here’s a way to think about it. First, you could conclude that they are separated from their reason and can't analyze the facts in a rational way. Second, as a Stoic, you could still express compassion for those people as human beings, despite their misguided beliefs: you can recall our common humanity, try to be a good role model, and keep doing what you can do to make things better. Inside us, there is potential to become a fully realized, excellent human being, and there is also an inborn, constant connection to our common humanity with other people.
Fourth: Make peace with mortality.
I include mortality because of its central place in Stoic thinking. Ancients Stoics believed that if you accept death and aren’t afraid of it, you won’t act out of fear and anxiety in your life.
This principle isn’t easy; everyone wants to keep living as long and as well as we can. It is particularly tough to talk about in a society that worships youth and hides or diminishes death. But if we can acknowledge and accept the reality that there’s a beginning, middle, and end to life, we can become more capable of living in the present, less burdened by anxiety about our trajectory in this world.
A parting thought: I use these principles of Stoic life philosophy as a framework to guide me forward. I’m no Stoic sage, so I can tell you that I don’t always adhere to all these ideas in my daily life—but they give me something to aim for, to work towards. When I succeed in applying these concepts, I feel a sense of progress; when I don’t, I recall that I’m doing the best I can. For me, the act of living is a way of learning, too.
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.
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.