Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
As I gave a presentation about my work on compassion recently, I heard myself saying several times, “it’s a practice.” I was trying to emphasize that learning to be more compassionate towards oneself and others doesn’t just happen instantaneously, and that we need to work at it over time, developing new habits.
Then a woman in the audience asked me this:
“You said it's a practice. But HOW do you practice this on a regular basis?”
In other words, how do you integrate your values around compassion into your everyday life? How do you reinforce it, and teach yourself to live up to your own ideals?
A great question. The same could be asked of Stoicism, too, the other pillar of my life philosophy.
(And if you are wondering about the connection between my compassion work and Stoicism: I believe that the common humanity emphasized in Stoic thought is beautifully complemented by the practice of compassion and self-compassion. Both emphasize the same thing: we are all human trying to live our lives with the least possible pain and the most possible peace, while also getting along with the people in our lives, in the most positive way possible. This is a hard, livelong practice because none of us are Stoic sages: As Seneca said, we’re all patients in the same hospital.)
To describe how I practice, I mentioned my long walks and runs, which I use to meditate (seated meditation is good, too). I talked about my attempts to raise awareness in myself, to stop myself when a random thought or first impression appears, and work to make a good and reasonable judgment. (This is also the Stoic practice at the heart of the philosophy. It’s the one that Epictetus speaks of when he says, “[We] should… train for impressions every day,” in Discourses, 3.8.1.)
What I did not bring up in the discussion, and realized after the session was done, is that I also practice through writing.
Writing is a form of the philosophical life for me. I write to make meaning from my experiences. I write to understand what I think, to analyze why some moments offer insights into the whole of existence.
In fact, through writing I’ve learned to value my role as a parent more than ever, because it helped me explore my underlying parenting beliefs and values. It also helped me to realize that some of the pain and struggle I’ve experienced has a deeper meaning—and that in many ways, it has taught me something.
Things as serious as my father’s death. And as minor as my children’s squabbles in the pool.
My family life is not just a laundry list of issues to deal with—it’s where I live my philosophy. And as such, it can (and should) be a source of rich strength.
As my kids get older, far from the baby stage, parenting has become more and more about applying practical common sense and ethical core values. That’s where my Stoic thinking, and compassion training, have served me in recent years. When a tough situation comes along, I’m more able now to take a step back, question the impression, and make a wiser judgment. The big picture and “accord with nature” prevail more often over knee-jerk reactions and high-flying emotions.
And writing about it, from my point of view on this blog, has given me a way to understand and explain some of that, to myself most of all. And I’m grateful for the opportunity and time (snatched between numerous obligations) to do it.
In a way, writing is an extension of the discipline of assent—of thinking clearly and agreeing to a rational interpretation of the world. After all: Once I write it, and especially after I blog publicly about it, I must really agree to it!
The ancient Stoics did write philosophical journals, at least some who had leisure time to make that possible. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were the thoughts recorded in his personal journal. Seneca kept a journal late at night analyzing his actions daily, and Epictetus told his followers that those who wished to “be a philosopher” should “write down every day” the most accurate philosophical interpretation of the world around them (Discourses 1.1.25).
I wish that all parents could find the time (and interest) to write about their experiences. Not just to record memories for our kids’ future reading or to remind ourselves of what it was like raising a child. But also to frame what we are doing, to understand it better.
This wish extends beyond parents too. Writing things down, and analyzing our own challenges and actions, can help us become philosophical people, realizing that the everyday work we do as human beings is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The college admissions scandal has exposed wealthy parents for transforming their kids into "perfect" college candidates by lying and cheating—by illegally manipulating a system that’s supposed to be outside their influence.
Many people were not terribly surprised: In the service of “what’s best for our children,” we are all tempted to go to outrageous lengths. As a parent, I, too, have sometimes felt the desire to control my children’s lives and pave the way for their success (though never using illegal means).
But I have realized that this is an impossible—and misguided—task. Ultimately, I have found a way to handle my frustration without falling into the trap of trying to control everything.
I found ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism. And I think all parents could benefit from a dose of Stoic philosophy.
Here’s the central reason it can help parents: Stoicism’s core tenant, "the dichotomy of control," teaches us to stop trying to exert control over things that are outside our power.
One of the defining experiences of parenting is loss of control. From the moment I became pregnant, my body was doing things I had zero power over. And when my first daughter was born, and then my second, I quickly realized that they were unique human beings whose personalities and behaviors seemed inborn. They acted in ways I couldn’t manage, organize, or keep to a “proper” schedule. When I tried, the tantrums got worse, and the anxiety increased for me, making me so irritable that my ability to make good decisions faltered.
But by taking a Stoic approach, I focus on things I cancontrol—my own thoughts, emotions, actions—and on recognizing that others’ judgments of me and my family are just not that important. What matters is cultivating an ethical character and doing the right thing, even in the face of criticism, doubt, and fear.
For three years now, Stoic ideas have helped me become a better parent and person. I have absorbed original ancient texts by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, and I’ve read modern interpretations. Stoic philosophy has given me a new acceptance of my lack of control over my children’s behaviors, preferences, and interests. And it’s helped me set my kids on a path of well-reasoned choices that, I hope, will serve them long beyond college.
And now, as a teen and a preteen, my daughters still do their own thing. Though they look like me, they often do not do what I would, and do things I’d never do. It’s still hard to accept, but I do my best.
I’m sure when college applications roll around, I’ll be a basketcase, too. The admissions process tests people’s sanity. It’s the same challenge that we have with our kids in general, but writ large: The process is (or is supposed to be) completely outside our control, it is capricious, and it is largely impenetrable.
We wish the admissions system were clear, and yet, we want schools to assess the “whole student,” not just a score on one high stakes test like in some other countries’ systems. (Americans want to have it both ways in that sense.)
With the new criminal case, we have seen searing examples of well-heeled parents’ desire to control both their kids and the process. These parents believed that money can and should exert control over what seems uncontrollable to others. It’s all crashing down now.
So are there lessons we can learn from Stoic philosophy about how parents (and kids) could approach college admissions differently?
First, we must stop pretending the we can, or should, control other people, whether that’s our children or admissions officers.
Studying Stoicism has reminded me that kids are not cars or computers or robots—nor are they performing circus animals who happen to live in my house. Parents can’t manage kids’ intelligence or how much they apply themselves in school. We can’t force them to become talented athletes. And obviously we can’t change their SAT scores or pretend that they are something they’re not for the sake of applications or awards.
This is hard to swallow because our society is forever telling us that as parents, we need to give our kids the very best in life. We are also reminded that we are responsible for our kids’ success—and that it reflects on us and our own achievements.
But let’s try to remember that our children have to be allowed to be themselves. Not everyone is a competition-winning water polo player. Students should be able to exercise freedom, even if it leads to missteps along the way. That means parents letting go of everything from the sense of “I should be able to stop my kid’s tantrum” to “I should be able to get my kid into a prestigious school.”
In the service of control, the indicted parents used money to impose their will on the system. And in the process, they took autonomy and personhood away from their children.
Second, in contrast to controlling our children and their circumstances, we can encourage our kids to find the right path “in accord with nature.” In Stoic thought, this means using your own sense of right and wrong—a sense embedded in all humans—combined with an understanding of the reality we live in, to make good judgments and decisions.
This approach doesn’t mean letting kids do whatever they want. We can model good choices and set high standards, demonstrating how to live inspired by the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. We can guide. Kids who ignore this will face their own consequences.
One more note on choices: Key to Stoicism is ignoring others’ judgments of you, your status, prestige, wealth, looks, etc., because those things have no real value (they are mere “preferred indifferents”). All parents want a great education for their kids, but the prestige of a particular university is not what really matters.
And third, we should all (parents and kids alike) keep in mind our common humanity, and with that, a sense of fairness and justice.
Though we all make choices individually, we aren’t isolated. Ancient Stoics emphasized that all humans belong to the same family. By that reasoning, we should aim to help one another, collaborating to solve mutual problems.
It’s not easy, though. We are all “patients in the same hospital,” as Seneca put it. We all have troubles, we all seek answers, and we all struggle. There’s no mythical doctor coming to cure us. But some patients, Seneca suggests, have been aware of their ailments longer, and can help others make progress.
Maybe we could find a silver lining to this admissions scandal if universities and parents, along with regulators, worked together to find more rational approaches to the college admissions process. We’d all benefit from changes that would minimize the insane competition and financial pressure that applicants and their families experience—forces that drive so many schemes, legal and not, to manufacture ideal college candidates.
Until that happens, it’s absolutely essential to become a Stoic mom (or dad).
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
The human condition. I used to think the expression was reserved for pedants and philosophers. But now I know better. It's as important to children as it is to high-thinking adults. Perhaps even more so.
Sometimes I feel as if I can almost watch the thoughts happening, the neurons firing, in my daughters' heads. Those thoughts are getting more and more complex. Now they are both old enough and mature enough to question everything in a very grown up way. They ask more than just what and why, but how and when and what will it feel like.
As we sat under the stars on our last night visiting the island of Kauai as a family, we looked up and observed an incredibly luminous Sirius shining down on us. My younger daughter, age 10, asked a very serious question. "What happens after we die? What does it feel like?"
This is the biggest and baddest of them all when it comes to challenging questions. Not just for children but for every last one of us. None of us will escape our fate. As soon as we our born, when we gain consciousness, we realize we will someday die. And what does that mean? Also: What does it tell us about how to live?
I struggled to answer. I came up with platitudes. My husband and I veered onto shaky, nearly mystical ground, trying to reassure her while at the same time dealing quietly with our own terror. It's not the first time we've been asked this. I still have no response.
That, my friends, is the human condition in a nutshell. Trying to calm and reassure and guide our loved ones while feeling our own existential crisis boiling inside. Knowing that we don't know. Facing the scary uncertainty of life and the sure certainty of death.
She tried to get us to answer, to provide something concrete. I fumbled further.
In the end, I said essentially this: We know these explanations don't satisfy you, but this is this best we can do--and this is the human condition. We live, we enjoy a remarkable moment like this one surrounded by an amazing family that we have created, sitting outside at a patio table of a lovely restaurant, feeling the cool night air, under unusually bright stars and a nearly full moon, hearing the waves crashing onto the beach below us, just out of sight in the night's shadows.
This is what we have. All we have. And we are extremely lucky to have this. The rest is the great unknown.
In fact, often, the rest is us dealing with pain, loss, frustration, anger, resentment, sorrow, suffering, and not having any way to end it other than returning to the moment we have, and resting in it, taking any joy we can from it, keeping everything sad and tough and joyous and awe inspiring in our minds at the same time.
Sometimes it feels as if we might explode from it all, but generally we don't. We go on. As long as we can. And then we stop. But we hope that by then, we will have left something worthwhile and indeed precious behind.
And for us, that thing will be you.
This is part two of my conversation with author, trainer, and teacher Donald Robertson. Read on for his thoughts on Stoicism and parenting, and on how Stoic philosophy can help us question our own values.
Add to the discussion in the comments… and share your questions and suggestions for future posts and interviews.
Q: How can Stoic philosophy help me become a better parent? And how should I begin teaching Stoic values to my kids?
A: The best way to teach is through role modeling. Stoic philosophers did lecture and wrote books, but they also thought that the best thing to do is to set a good example. To start by improving our own character.
Accepting that our children and our students are not under our direct control is critical. Even Socrates had bad students who went off the rails. Well, he said, I don’t control their minds. All I can do is provide a role model. Sometimes it’s in the hands of fate.
We need to work on accepting these limits and not getting frustrated with them.
The ancient Stoics were a lot tougher on kids than we are today. They believed that character is instilled through exercise, sport, and work.
Today, many parents express their love through consumerism, buying toys, taking kids out to places for entertainment. But in Stoicism, it’s more important what we give them to DO, rather than possessions. The way we invest our time is a more appropriate gift – and to have them do things that require effort. We develop virtue through hard work.
Q: Parents today get competitive about their children’s success in academics, sports, careers, everything. How can we re-think that with Stoicism?
I live in quiet Nova Scotia. That’s not as obvious here. The competitiveness of parents varies a lot.
As Stoics, our goal isn’t to give our kids skills that would make them externally successful. Stoicism challenges some of our culture’s values that way. Stoics believed that what they were proposing should upset people. It’s an “epistrophe” in Greek–like a U-turn. Part of that is questioning consumerism and narcissism.
Stoics would say – what is Success in LIFE? Will a degree and a good job make our children good people? Is our priority to make our children materially successful, or more rounded people?
Sometime pursuit of wealth is obstacle. Epictetus says you can’t serve two masters. If you pursue a successful career, you can earn wealth. Some career paths suck you into a certain type of character and values, which is not necessarily good. External success is not same as virtue.
Instead, we should ask: Do our children have wisdom? Integrity? Are they true to themselves? Are they living in a way consistent with rational values?
Q: Interesting. Could we apply these same questions to ourselves, as people and as parents?
A: Yes. In Stoic week, we do an exercise known as “values clarification.” It’s Socratic. Rather than saying “these are the values,” this approach asks you a bunch of questions. It asks you to figure out what you care about and reflect on those values. The Socratic method can expose contradictions between our beliefs and actions.
Another approach is the double standard strategy. You think about what you want for yourself. Then you make a list of what you admire most in other people. Then you ask: What if I did what I admire in others? What would it be like to apply that in practice?
We have a Stoic model for this: Marcus Aurelius. In Book 1 of his Meditations, all he does is describe others’ virtues. It’s a huge list.
As parents, we could ask: What do you spend most of your time doing with your kids? What are things you most admire about other parents? What if you could do what they do?
Q: Let’s go back to the source material for a moment. Much of the language and emphasis in ancient Stoicism is masculine. Discussions focus on “the wise man” and on “manly” attributes. How did the Stoics of Greece and Rome view women?
A: Stoicism’s founder, Zeno, wrote a book called The Republic that we only have fragments of now. It was a critique of Plato’s Republic. He said that everything would be equal in the Republic. That implies no slavery, and that men and women would be equal.
Ancient Cynics also seemed to have believed there was an equality between men and women. The idea was shocking then. And maybe only Cynics would think this—they were known for saying shocking and anarchic things.
We believe that Cleanthes wrote on the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women, but we know nothing about what he said.
Then 400 years later, Musonius Rufus’ lectures argue that virtues are the same in men and women, and he argues that girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys. Women should be able to practice philosophy.
Next time: ANGER rears its ugly head. And it is indeed ugly, as Donald Robertson tells us in part three of our interview. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.