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).
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.
One afternoon, my ten-year-old daughter confessed that she had been quite frustrated after a few long days at a local summer camp. The atmosphere there was chaotic and some of her experimental projects weren’t working out.
She knew intellectually that it wasn’t a big deal, but it did have an impact on her emotions. The amazing thing was, when she reacted by over-snacking on late-afternoon slices of toast, she was fully aware of what she was doing.
“I’m eating my emotional bread, Mom,” she said.
I understood just what she meant. I’ve long suffered from bouts of emotional eating. This has happened when I was stressed, bored, sad, or felt empty. Food is instantly enjoyable, and can seem, momentarily, to counteract negative emotions and the fatigue of dealing with everyday challenges.
“Eating my emotional bread” is something I recognize and want to avoid, and when I can’t, I try to forgive myself.
One year and a month ago, I decided to try a new eating plan. I became more cognizant of food quantities, using a hunger scale to measure how much my body needed to eat. It was an effort to counteract years of emotional eating.
The plan helped me reset how I think about food. I do indeed still eat when I am stressed or feeling low or sometimes just bored. But I’m more aware and honest about it, and I more often listen to my body when it says “enough, I’m overfull, I don’t feel well anymore.” By stopping myself before I over-consumed, I reduced some symptoms I used to get more often (for instance, heartburn) and positively affected my waistline.
And I became much more willing to leave food on the plate or on the table. If I am bored or anxious, I try to substitute other more healthy alternatives, like taking a walk or jog, reaching out to a friend with a text, doing a small piece of art or craft, reading a book or article, or watching a funny video.
This is a more “mindful” approach to food that keeps it in its proper place. I know that food will never make me emotionally better. My daughter comprehends this, too.
Yet emotional bread has a powerful pull. It’s a choice that’s not always as “within our control” as we think, despite what Stoic thinkers may tell us. In today’s Western world, we are often surrounded by large quantities of food, either offered to us by friends, family, or co-workers, or for sale at reasonable prices. (My particular weakness is free food at the workplace.)
Our world is also one where the stresses, emotional needs, personal challenges, and environmental and international problems seem to be ballooning, and eating is a less destructive response than alcohol, drugs, extreme thrill-seeking, or other forms of “self-medication” that help us avoid the causes of our suffering. (I should note: Even if overall world problems such as war and famine are on the decline in recent decades, the demands of everyday life in the West still seem to be overwhelming to many people.)
We can’t always change the causes for our distress, just our responses, as Stoic thinkers often remind us. Bad things do happen. But in the bigger picture, I’ve tried also to reduce the number of issues or stressors that I carry with me, and, through Stoic practice, to keep in perspective all the silly “small stuff” that used to bother me much more.
For my daughter, who feels things deeply, gaining a sense of perspective is hard. It takes time to learn to see the world that way. Luckily, a serving of bread here and there won’t hurt her too much.
Even better is for her, or for any of us, to tell our family or friends, “I guess now is a time when I need emotional bread,” and to lean (just a bit) more on their shared wisdom, support, and love. When I think of my loved ones, I know I can find emotional nourishment far more meaningful than that in the pantry.
When my future boss was interviewing me, she asked me how I liked to be managed. How could I best work with a supervisor to be successful in this role? My answer: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
I had given this a lot of thought, though I didn’t dream I’d be asked about it in such an open way (and I viewed the question itself as a very good sign). I had worked before as a writer and editor, both on staff at publications and freelance. I felt that I knew what it took to get the job done independently.
In fact, that’s what first drew me to working as a journalist.
You might start with an editor’s tip or an idea, but then it was all on you: the reporter goes out, finds sources, gets the story, and writes it as she thinks it should be written. Then after I produced a first draft, an editor might come along and change some things, but usually the story turned out better with a wise hand gently guiding it at the end. That was the check-in. Someone was there to question your assumptions, to make sure you’d thought through your sources’ potential agendas, to ensure you weren’t leaving out a crucial piece of information.
(Very often, stories I read in publications today are missing something: a date, a figure that would flesh out the story, even a quoted source’s first name or title or relationship to the information. News orgs have ceased employing both writers and especially editors at alarming rates.)
So when I was asked by my potential employer about my ideal management style, I was quite clear. “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
This approach resonates with my practice of Stoicism. Stoic thinkers emphasized that we are only truly responsible for—and in control of—our own choices, which emanate from our sense of reason. Using our autonomy to its fullest is an opportunity to embrace the things we can pursue on our own and feel pride in achieving, without waiting for others to recognize our good works.
Autonomy is a key concept in ancient Stoic texts. Princeton professor John M. Cooper has written about the Stoic view of autonomy and compared it ideas advanced by later philosophers such as Kant. He points out that “autonomy” is a classical Greek term. Ancient Stoics, he says, believed autonomy meant adhering to laws of one’s own making, “not mere self-direction or self-governance, which might, of course, be quite arbitrary, unprincipled, and inconsistent.” Rather, autonomy has as its heart “reason itself.”
Cooper explains that ancient Stoic autonomy is somewhat neglected by scholars and deserves more study. After all, it is “a deeply interesting conception of human nature, human rationality, and the basis of morality.” (For more on this, see Cooper's book Knowledge, Nature, and the Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy.)
Of course, practicing Stoics (ancient and modern) such as Marcus Aurelius knew full well that as soon as we go out into the wider world with our ideas and choices, we will inevitably encounter resistance from others. People who think they know better will try to block you. As the famous quote from Marcus’ Meditations, Book 2, Section 1, goes:
"Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad." (Robin Hard translation)
But if you have a solid life philosophy on the one hand, and a mentor or role model, a strong friend, a caring spouse, or close-knit community on the other, you have the means to check in. These are the critical ingredients we need to fall back, no matter what befalls us.
“Autonomy, with check-ins” is also how I try to parent my children, especially now that they are 10 and 12.
When they were very small, it was mostly all check-ins from me and their dad, with a lot less autonomy for them. But even then, we tried to give them limited choices. Peas or carrots? Sandbox or swing? It gave us a chance to figure out their likes and dislikes. They could try new things and make decisions about their activities and the time they spent on non-essential pursuits, ones where they could have a choice.
(Granted, I wouldn’t overwhelm them with more than two or three options in most cases. More than that could prove tough. I saw the paralysis that picking from a whole toy store elicited on birthday shopping trips.)
And as time has gone on, we’ve reaped the benefits of this approach. My daughters are growing up, and I feel I can trust them—in public, to get information, and to speak confidently with people they don’t know… in school, to perform to their best in academics, respect the learning environment, while navigating the complex social situations they encounter… after school, to decide which extra-curriculars to do, and to help get to said activities on time and prepared (at least minimally)… in life, to develop their own interests, whether it’s in pop music, guitar, piano, coding, animated movies, theater, Lego, running, writing, art, basketball, constructing with glue guns, or Tae Kwon Do.
I could never have been a “Tiger Mom.” I have no interest in constantly making decisions for my kids and propelling them forward towards “success” with high-pressure activities. That kind of management may seem to work in the short term with certain (pliable) kids, but in the long term, I’m not so sure. It’s certainly not how I want to connect with my family, my relationships, or my own career.
My kids’ sense of autonomous responsibility has mushroomed over the past year. Both my daughters took the initiative on a few things lately I never quite thought I’d see. Each may be small, but the overall effect adds up. They quite thoroughly cleaned out their bedrooms when my husband and I were busy with other projects one afternoon, much to our astonishment. They went from dawdling over the smallest things (like putting on shoes—I can’t count the number of hours I have wasted waiting for my kids to put on shoes!) to being very concerned about arriving to their classes on time. When teachers allow it, they voluntarily make up or re-take tests that they’ve made mistakes on to earn more points.
But we still check in on them all the time, offering guidance and help and love and unsolicited advice and exposure to super-old movies that every American should know.
So next time you think about how you’d like to relate to your boss or even your kids, consider this: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
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.
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.