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.
My daughter made a brave choice a couple weeks ago. She deleted Instagram from her phone.
The intelligence of her decision was brought home just a few days later. Police showed up at her middle school class one afternoon to interview students about—you guessed it—their use of Facebook-owned Instagram. Someone spoofing one girl’s account had been asking for nude pictures of 12-year-olds and using them to blackmail students. Police are trying to track down who did it and what they gathered.
My daughter had already decided to remove the app not out of fear, but because of its impact on her moment-to-moment thoughts. Despite the fun of keeping up with her friends’ activities, it was becoming a constant distraction.
Her phone was clogged with buzzing reminders and flashing updates featuring all the things she was missing. She also had an unwelcome conflict with a friend. The seventh-grader called out my daughter and a classmate in an Instagram “story”—replete with shaming words.
That’s not to say that communicating online is all bad—it’s central to our lives in good ways, too. For middle schoolers today, reaching each other using mobile devices is part of the social fabric. It’s how they make plans and share memories. I wouldn’t want to deny that to my children.
But they do need to learn to set limits. Ultimately, it’s up to them to figure out those boundaries, which is why my daughter’s choice to end a social media distraction made me proud.
We are all tasked with serving as our own gatekeepers—and the stakes are high. Recall Marcus Aurelius’ words in the Meditations:
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
Online, we are exposed to masses of “thoughts” that can shift our minds. It turns out that many of these expressions are not even real: they are propaganda distributed by people trying to shift public opinion.
The news about Cambridge Analytica misusing Facebook data and the indictments surrounding fake news and profiles on the social network have been extremely troubling. It’s been a problem for a long time that’s only now being increasingly exposed. We are seeing the consequences of an online world where people can stay anonymous, create false personas, and wield tremendous influence.
As we navigate the treacherous waters of the Internet, we should remain mindful of our souls—and I’m glad my 12-year-old sets a pretty good example.
Never in history have humans lived in a time of more plenty. In modern America, we are surrounded by food, drink, entertainment (of the wholesome and non-wholesome varieties), drugs (legal and not), and much more.
The great good fortune of being born in a well-off country in a prosperous time has a dark side, though, as people indulge in and even become addicted to the things that in small doses give them pleasure. It takes a strong effort every day to resist, and to stay on course with a Stoic-inspired life where reason prevails (rather than our unthinking desires).
In this world, sometimes even the smallest things seem destined to be my undoing, especially when I’m out and about in the suburbs with my two tween daughters.
Latest case in point: They have become obsessed by bubble tea, that sweet concoction filled with fruit flavors and sugar, and often with milk and “pearls” or “boba” or “bubbles”—small chewy balls of tapioca or other jelly-type substances.
It’s a satisfying indulgence on several levels. The sweetness feeds the sweet tooth. The bubbles, nestled inside the bottom of the cup, give you something to chew on and consume. The fruit flavor brings freshness. And of course the caffeine adds a lift. My kids aren’t allowed to consume caffeine on a regular basis, but the green tea of a bubble tea seems fairly innocuous, when you think about how watered down it is with ice, water, flavor, pearls, etc.
We used to have just one bubble tea place nearby, Tea Era, and every time we drove past it out on errands or on our way to a class, the kids would pipe up, “Can we stop, can we stop?” I usually said no, but I did pull over now and then. The mango green tea with pearls called out to me, especially on hot days.
But now we have several new bubble tea establishments in my area, one of them in walking distance and the others not much farther away. And the girls’ requests to stop are much more frequent.
(To me, this shows that one element of addiction has to do with how often you are exposed to something, how easy it seems to get/do, and how normative it feels in that environment. That’s discussed in a book I’m reading, Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Bubble tea is now becoming completely ubiquitous in my neighborhood, at least.)
The latest addition to local tea offerings is Gong Cha (translated as “tribute tea for the emperor”). A chain of tea shops originating in Taiwan, Gong Cha has a tried and true way of capturing fruit flavors and infusing them into the drinks. I have to confess: it is really good.
My girls gave me an extra Gong Cha straw last time we went, and I just came upon it in my purse before writing this. Like Pavlov’s dog, I found my mouth watering. It’s time to turn to Stoic thought to guide my path before it’s too late.
How can I find new inspiration to avoid calorie bombs everywhere I turn?
Epictetus, in Discourses III, 12, described the need to train oneself. “Since habit has established a strong predominance… we must set a contrary habit to counteract the former… [and] employ training as an antidote.” He describes “the man who trains” as a person “who practices avoiding the use of his will to get [things].”
Despite the man-centric language, any of us could do this. We could experiment with ways that train our minds to go in a different direction.
Training. This is a much more positive path forward than merely decrying that I lack the self-discipline to refuse delicious drinks or foods, quietly sobbing to myself. That’s what I used to do. It got me nowhere except deeper and deeper into a pit of self-pity filled with self-recrimination.
Instead, the Stoic advice is to find a way to train, to learn to find the strength through practice. A good lesson for me and for my kids, too. It reminds me of the growth mindset that they have been hearing about in school: we need to believe that we can all learn and grow, not that we are “fixed” in an unchanging situation.
Some training is in order for me to break the sweet tea habit before it becomes too strong.
Maybe it's a good idea to try driving down alternate roads that don't remind the family of tea. I could try harder to suggest other snacks, or seek out calorie figures and comparing those to what else we eat. Maybe it's about training ourselves to try the unsweetened or less-sweet versions and to accustom our taste buds to a more balanced sugar level. And then as we watch others drink the super-sweet, milky-rich drinks, we'll recall that we are in training, and that a simpler and less indulgent version could be (almost) as satisfying.
So every time I drive by a bubble tea shop, I’ll remember that it takes effort to resist, and that it is training that will allow me to harden myself. But it won’t be easy.
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.