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.
Imagine living this way:
Nothing—and I mean nothing—truly matters except your intention to do the right thing.
Not your wealth
Your level of education
Your profession or job title
Your relatives or loved ones
Not even your health status.
None of those things are truly important in comparison with following the spark inside you, the ruling center, that guides you to act in the name of justice, wisdom, self-control, and courage.
That’s the core of Stoicism. And it forms the basis of the tension between ancient philosophy inspired by Socrates and Zeno, and the values, goals, and beliefs of most of today’s Western world.
Let me say this another way. Many Americans believe that 1) we control—or should control—our own level of wealth, status, job, our relationships, health, and even our manner/time of death… and 2) that these are the things necessary for a good life.
Certainly, these things go enormously far in living a comfortable, serene, and pleasant life. But they are not what is truly critical. They are “preferred indifferents” for Stoics. That is because the only real necessity to be good for followers of Stoicism is to have the right moral intentions and to commit to persevering, as much as possible, in order to fulfill those intentions.
All the other things are, as they say, gravy.
Ideally, if you follow this principle, your life “flows” easily because you are in accord with the best elements of humanity (and the universe). In other words, you are living “in accord with nature,” as the Stoics called it since the day of Zeno.
Followers of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy have been reminding themselves of this for centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote about it in his Meditations, a private journal. Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher who delved deeply into Marcus Aurelius' work in his book The Inner Citadel, explains it this way:
“We encounter the same fundamental principle again and again: the only absolute value is moral intention, and it alone depends entirely on us. It is not the result that counts—for this does not depend on us, but on Destiny—but rather the intention one has when seeking the result… If our activity is animated by the perfectly pure intention of wishing only for the good, it attains its goal at every instant, and has no need to wait for its achievement and result to come from the future.” (The Inner Citadel, Michael Chase transl., p. 195).
It’s difficult to keep this at the forefront of our minds as we proceed through a world bent on judging us and molding us to pursue its outward goals. Yet it is ultimately reassuring in the extreme. It proves that we all have the capacity for great goodness and intrinsic value, if we choose to act for good, and if we can prevent ourselves from being caught up in the many rat races that surround us in the modern world.
When my daughters are upset about a small reversal at school—a test grade below their expectation, a friend ignoring them, a teacher responding negatively—this lesson about our intentions is a good reminder of what matters most. And of the true wellspring of our worth as humans.
A modern interpretation of this way of thinking might say: "Yes, you can be good, if you stay focused on making good choices. In fact, you are already good! Your intentions and wishes show it. Keep going!"
I hope this thinking could give any of us a sense of perspective on our numerous small annoyances, as well as our genuine grievances and serious troubles.
Given all that we are juggling these days, it is easy to spiral into a cascade of worries, which I’ve heard my older daughter voice this way: “If I don’t do well on this test, I won’t do well in this class, then I won’t get into the advanced math class next year, and if I don’t get into that class, then I won’t be able to take an even more advanced course in high school, and then I won’t be a top student in math and science, and then I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t have a good degree, and then I won’t get a good job, and then I won’t have a good life.”
Notice the use of “good” in this spiral of negativity. It's not exactly the moral sense, is it? Of course, there’s a kernel of something valuable in this fatalistic line of thinking. We do owe it to ourselves to try to do well and to learn and to achieve what we can in our time on earth. Certainly sitting on our hands because we are afraid of / uninterested in trying would be a bad idea. But thinking that a grade or a college or a job offer or house size or vacation defines our value is far from the truth. I did do well in school, got what I considered a good degree, work at a job I like (after a meandering career path), and have lots of outward things to be thankful for—most of all my two children. Yet I don’t believe these outward things make me a “good person” or ensure that I live a “good life.”
And that’s why I’ll keep chipping away at this Stoicism thing, tapping into mindfulness and compassion studies too, to build my own sense of how to choose that all-important moral intention carefully, and how to not be weighed down by negative emotion or psychological baggage in making that decision. I'll keep following this guiding star as a wellspring of human value and meaning in our chaotic, often superficial world.
Do you ever feel so angry you could scream, and then suddenly realize that this feeling goes against all you believe? All you try to achieve as a person, parent, and Stoic?
As promised, my third installment of my conversation with Stoicism teacher and writer Donald Robertson focuses on anger. I am not the most patient of people, and I often wonder how I could avoid becoming upset too quickly and speaking out in anger, especially to my children. I also would like to do a better job of helping my kids manage their own anger (depicted here!).
I asked Donald: What does Stoic thinking teach us about how to cope with anger?
You want to begin by spotting yourself becoming angry. As a therapist, I’ve dealt with anger management. The first stage of therapy is that you have to spot it to stop it.
There are different levels of self-awareness. Everyone knows when someone turns red. But the hard part is noticing anger before you are truly aware of it. There are early warning signs. Earlier than normal, try to notice it. It becomes harder to control passions the longer they go on.
The same thing is true if you are a runner—when you’re going fast, and someone says stop, it’s hard to stop because things have escalated. But stopping when you’re walking, it isn’t as tough. That’s anger. It’s less and less voluntary the longer it continues. Catch it early, and you have more voluntary control.
It’s possible that you are getting annoyed, and you are not aware you are angry. One answer to that is that another person could observe you. Stoic mentors, in ancient times, would follow you and notice your responses, like Rusticus did with Marcus Aurelius. It can be more obvious to others.
Learn to notice internal signs like tense shoulders. Like the specific thoughts you have, such as blaming thoughts. Or maybe it’s the tone of voice I’m using, or I’m frowning – that’s mindfulness training, as well as self-monitoring and self-observation.
Anger is temporary madness. Evidence shows that it creates cognitive distortion. Anger narrows our scope of attention and amplifies our response. We are prone to generalization and can’t problem solve. We have ‘gone crazy and can’t think clearly.’ Awareness of other stimuli will dilute that response—so the more I notice about my body, the more I will be forced to expand scope. That way I can give my mind a bunch of things to do.
As a side note: Seneca wrote a book about anger. He said anger is unnatural and unnecessary. It’s ugly and bad. He says, “Look at people’s faces when they are angry, don’t they look twisted and horrible?”
Are there other specific Stoic-based approaches to calming anger, once we become aware of it happening?
They did cognitive distancing. The ancient Stoics talk a lot about when a thought pops through your mind, you should see it as an arbitrary value judgment. All the thoughts we have are projections. All judgments are fundamentally indifferent. Nothing external is that bad. The only thing we should care that strongly about is our own character. That value doesn’t exist in external world. It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgments about things. I’m externalizing it – you are a jerk, this is awful, you are awful. This is catastrophizing. We need to learn to roll that back.
Epictetus said if you have an angry thought, you can tell it, “you’re just an impression. You’re not the thing you claim to represent.” He is talking to the thought, as if another person, as if it is an outside object. This is creating cognitive distance. “You again, you are my angry judgment that comes up.”
It’s like catastrophe-tinted glasses – there’s a difference between looking through the glasses and taking the glasses off and look at the glasses.
We can try to take a step back and look at our beliefs, judgments, and impressions. Marcus believed in a catharsis—a separation—of our thoughts from external reality. Learning to notice that we are putting those glasses on and looking through them. It’s not a feature of reality. It’s a perspective, a projection. That weakens our emotional and behavioral response.
Having done that, Epictetus says, tell the thought to wait a while, and give us time to rest and respond. You could say to yourself: “Wait until I’ve calmed down and come back to this.” Then you can later be more rational, and ask yourself, what would Socrates do, what would Zeno do? What would the people I admire do?
Also, you could do a cost-benefit analysis of your angry response. Say you do what your anger was telling you to do. What would be the consequences? What would be another way of responding? When we have calmed down and removed ourselves from situation – time out strategies. The Platonists believed in that.
Counting to ten is not long enough. Augustus had a Stoic tutor, who told him to recite the Greek alphabet when angry. That’s longer than counting to ten!
Any other Stoic wisdom on anger, especially when working with kids?
The Stoics believed we are all like children in a way. They didn’t claim to be “wise”—no one was a true “sage.” They thought that we are all in the same boat, and none of us are perfect.
Seneca said of his philosophy, “Imagine this is a therapy, but I’m not a doctor. I’m the guy in the hospital bed beside you who has been undergoing treatment longer. I’ve made some progress.” It’s like peer support.
Getting back to anger: Marcus Aurelius had some strategies for anger management. One of them is to remind yourself that you are just as bad as the person making you angry. Humility could that be enough to stop the feeling. We are all foolish, we all have passions, and you have to figure this out for yourself.
Parents who get angry are child-like. Realizing that is humbling and helps to snap us out of it. “There’s a child within me, who is having a tantrum,” we might say to ourselves.
With kids, when they get angry, we should teach them not to ashamed of anger. But also to tolerate anger. What matters is what they do next, after the angry feeling happens.
Thanks for reading The Stoic Mom. If you have any suggestions or ideas for future 2018 posts or any questions, please write in the comments!
Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
Cascade Falls, Emerald Bay, in Tahoe, California: where my bad mood was suddenly broken by a very tactile moment
Long streaks of water tumbled over the gray granite mountain walls above us. Dark streams gushed past well-washed tree trunks and over green shoots bearing pink wildflowers.
As I stood there taking in the scene, I was angry and frustrated. About a lot of things. Part of me couldn’t even bear to look around. It was too beautiful, and it didn’t match my mood at all.
I bent down to get a closer look at the rushing streams. Then I reached my hand towards the water, drawn to the rushing falls’ clearness and coolness in the midday sun.
The moment I felt the icy cold water touch my fingertips at cascade falls, my mood began to change.
Before that, all the advice and thoughtfulness of my husband, my hiking companion, hadn’t shifted my dark mood. “Come on, make the best of it—you’re in a gorgeous place,” he said, and it made no difference. Our kids were at camp and it was a rare chance to take a hike solo. But all the views of the mountain, the trees, Lake Tahoe, and its crystal water hadn’t broken me out of my negative thought pattern. All the footsteps that led me to these rushing falls hadn’t done it either.
It wasn’t that I had something serious to worry about that day—my terrible mood was a result of a range of petty problems and missed expectations that fed my anger with myself and other people.
But somehow the water, feeling it and being shocked by its frigid temperature, noticing just how clear it was, hearing it wash the rocks, changed me. I realized afterwards that this was an example of something I need to do much more often: Using mindful awareness of my (tactile) senses in the moment to break out of a difficult, negative emotion.
I know I have a tendency to focus on the negative. Actually, on some level, we all do: it’s how primitive humans survived in a dangerous world, by spotting threats and avoiding them. It’s just that today, we perceive so many things as threats, from other drivers (who legitimately are potential killers) to unexpected expenses to disapproval by our family members or our bosses. But my thoughts about our less-than-perfect world often spiral out of control far too quickly. I am trying to understand that, and develop resilience for myself and also for my kids. To be there for them more fully, and to model for them how to handle tough feelings.
Often I talk to my daughters about the importance of calming themselves when they get upset. While deep breathing can often work, some methods are more senses-based and tactile. I recommended that my angry daughter punch a pillow. A counselor I know suggested other things: Try a blowing game where you move a balled tissue across the table with your breath. She also mentioned finger painting, which I now realize was a brilliant idea. Using your hands in thick paint and feeling its texture could activate touch and the awareness of the moment just as the cold water did.
In fact, kids tend to do a lot of things that use their bodies and senses to take them out of their minds this way: jumping in big puddles, turning their faces up to the rain, hitting things with sticks, bouncing into piles of fallen leaves. These are the kinds of exploits that we’re often warning them against—I can hear myself saying, “you’ll get dirty, you’ll be all wet, you’ll catch a chill, you’ll hurt yourself.” But maybe they instinctively know that not only is it fun, but it’s a way of feeling the moment and experiencing life outside the confines of our regular thought patterns.
I learned from that moment at the falls. Using our senses is not merely a way to distract or cover up our feelings. It’s a way to break free by refocusing the body and the mind. No one had to lecture me to change the way I felt, no harsh voice inside me had to tell me to “suck it up.” I shifted from within.
I was still angry when I reached into that water, but it washed the feeling out of me. I noticed my hands, my sense of touch and temperature, and my own body in a way I hadn’t before. And I was able to stop ruminating over negative thoughts, even for a short time--enough time to take in the beauty and fullness all around me.
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.