Are you concerned about teens and social media?
I am. That’s why my ears perked up when I heard that Seattle Public Schools decided to sue social media companies over the harmful effects they are having on school children in their district. According to NPR, the suit targets:
"...TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, seeking to hold them accountable for the mental health crisis among youth. Seattle Public Schools filed the lawsuit [in January] in U.S. District Court. The 91-page complaint says the social media companies have created a public nuisance by targeting their products to children. It blames them for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating and cyberbullying; making it more difficult to educate students; and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers."
I found their approach to be interesting—and promising. This comes two years after the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021. She released reams of internal research by the social media giant into the way Facebook products were impacting teens’ mental health in negative ways. Some social media company executives have long understood how harmful their services are for teens, and yet they seem to refuse to change the way they operate. Maybe lawsuits will apply the pressure needed to shift things?
This news comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced the results of a new survey of teens this week—one with very troubling findings. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the decade ending in 2021 showed that nearly 3 out of 5 high-school girls in the US reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. That was an increase of around 60% over the past decade. Both girls and boys said they have mental health challenges, but girls reported much more sadness/hopelessness (57% in girls vs. 29% in boys) and serious consideration of suicide (30% in girls—that is 1 in 3 girls—and 14% in boys) than boys. Overall, 41% of girls reported poor mental health in the previous 30 days, and 18% of boys did.
Social media was not the focus of this study in particular—but it did find that girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be electronically bullied via text and social media. In the survey, 20% of girls reported being cyberbullied in the past year (and 11% of boys). Clearly this is one factor affecting our teens, and teen girls especially. It’s extremely sobering.
The survey included over 17,200 respondents and led to calls for more help from schools to support students’ mental health, and to improve “connectedness” with school communities. The federal researchers said that teen girls in particular are “engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma,” according to The Washington Post.
This situation is all the more real to me because of my own daughters’ relationship with social media, especially Instagram, which is very prevalent among their peer group. My older daughter took a stand against Instagram a couple times, first as a young teen when she deleted the app because of all the distractions it caused. In her high school years, she felt she needed it to keep up with school, club, and student athletics news and with some of her friends and peer group.
But again last month, she deleted it from her phone once more, after explaining to me how detrimental the app is for teens. Top among its faults: The app’s constant pull towards social comparison, and a panoply of competitive achievements of one’s peers flashed right before your eyes.
If you think about it, what are two of the most judgmental places in the world? High school and social media! Combining these two together makes for an ultra-toxic environment. As my daughter pointed out, people showcase a very small sliver of their existence, which is meant to look exciting and amazing and enviable, and is often quite fake. On the other hand, those teens who try to show a bit of their “real” selves get really negative responses in the comments, simply because they post an unpolished video, or a share a creative project.
To top it all off, I’ve recently learned about incidents in our school community of cyberbullying, including body shaming, the use of stereotypes and defamatory language, and starting negative rumors about students. It’s all very worrying to see what’s happening with our teens online.
Here we should 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.” Food for thought.
As the Seattle lawsuit points out,
"Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants' social media platforms," the complaint said. "Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive ...."
But it’s hard to quit, and not just because the platforms are intentionally addictive. In a sense, we NEED to keep up with social media because of how reliant people at my kids’ school and local organizations are on social media to get the word out about everything from e-waste collections to sports team tryouts.
In the past two years, I have learned much more about my daughters’ campus and what’s happening there from the Instagram accounts of the student newspaper, clubs, and the athletics department than I have from reading any number of emails I receive. The news is fresher, pithier, and more clear, and I feel obliged to check Instagram stories to find out about school events and news.
My younger daughter is now in high school but hasn’t yet downloaded social media apps, by her own choice. She has to ask ME for information about her school sports teams because she literally does not get the updates they are sharing via Instagram. So I send her screenshots from social media! We have determined together that she may have to get Instagram soon, just to read these announcements… but with mixed emotions.
Is there a better way to get the information we need from our schools and activities? Without these money-making platforms that have super negative effects on student mental health and well-being?
Going back to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: She recently diagnosed the problems that develop the more time that teens (or anyone) spend on social media well in a recent roundtable discussion, summarized here:
"What we have seen from Facebook's own research is that Facebook knows that the products it makes are very engaging. They're designed to be engaging," she said. "Unfortunately, in the case of children and young adults, that can lead to very high rates of what we call 'problematic use.'"
Facebook's algorithms are not neutral, Haugen explained. Content that gets a reaction from people gets distributed more widely. That's how an innocent search for "healthy recipes" on Instagram might lead a teenager to eating disorder content instead.
Haugen said Instagram's algorithms can lead to addiction in its young users by creating "little dopamine loops." In the first ten minutes on Instagram, people will see content from their friends or pages they follow, she says. As they stay longer on the site, the algorithm will reach further to show them new and engaging content in an effort to keep them there.
"Once you get an hour or two in, Facebook's algorithms are the main thing that's choosing what you're focusing on," she said. "Now you're in the zone where you really are just putting yourselves in the algorithm's hands."
Do we really want our kids in those hands?
My daughter and I recently read and chatted about an article focusing on a “Luddite club” formed by high school students who decided to give up their smartphones and return to paper books and drawing pads, and to chatting together at the local park. She thought it sounded idyllic.
In a Stoic sense, I hope my kids will continue to question their impressions about social media and its impact on themselves and their peers… and that they will use their own judgment to guide how they use their time and where they get their dopamine—not rely on that of an algorithm on a money-making social media platform.
Change is upon us again. There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel in the pandemic. As more adults receive Covid-19 vaccines, and case numbers begin to fall, we are seeing a return to in-person education, work, and activities.
This spring, more schools are either open or have plans to re-open for in-person classes. Sometimes they are offering “hybrid” options: At our local public schools this month, students who agree to attend in person will be brought back for 2 days a week and will learn remotely the rest of the time. The classroom setup and rules are still being worked out. No matter what’s decided, the new arrangement will only be in place for the last 6 weeks of the school year.
And as more business re-open or expand in-person offerings again, we as adults are also experiencing change. We’ll have more opportunities to work together in real life. We’ll also have more expectations to commute, to travel, or to participate in events, to go back to the crammed-full days.
The bottom line: Our kids will need to adapt to new schedules, social interactions, and changed environments, and so will we.
This should be an unmitigated positive, right? Getting back to our regular lives is good, isn’t it? Yes…. and no. First, there are still dangers in this pandemic. The Covid-19 variants circulating are virulent. Many adults haven’t gotten vaccines yet. And there’s still no vaccine approved for kids under 16; though children’s cases are usually mild, they can still suffer from Covid.
Second, we’ve gotten very used to our lockdown lives over the past year in California. Since my husband and I have been fortunate to be working online from home, we no longer had the obligation to rush for kid drop offs or pickups or for congestion-heavy commutes. Instead, our time has been more fluid. We have worked online more hours overall, but we’ve also had more time together as a family. We’ve been able to have family dinners and snack breaks. We’ve had much more homework helping time. More conversations. And less time stuck battling stressful traffic and crowds, and racing to get to events or appointments or meetings or extracurriculars.
Despite all the difficult times, I did find myself experiencing a few silver linings during lockdowns. The pandemic shutdowns did a lot to alleviate my own FOMO—"Fear of Missing Out." I often have felt I could or should be doing more, either for my own development or my work, and for that of my children. The lifting of that pressure for a short time helped me understand that some of my thinking about what I “should” do was off-base. We are only human, and we can only do so much. And rushing to squeeze it all in without focus or depth isn’t really good. The shutdowns reminded me of this fact. But even though one burden lifted temporarily, the dangers and fears inherent in living in a pandemic where thousands have been dying and our economy fell into collapse instilled a sense of sadness and uncertainty. So many days this past spring, summer, and winter I woke up with a pit in my stomach for all the suffering happening around the world.
Interestingly, research has shown that some silver linings existed for our children, in some cases. The social distancing and richer home life of the lockdowns actually helped certain kids. Even though the majority of children studied have experienced a decline in their mental health during pandemic lockdowns, a subset of kids have actually seen a rise in their psychological wellbeing. That’s especially true of those who suffer from social anxiety or related diagnoses, researchers said.
According to a recent New York Times article, a percentage of kids did “better” during the pandemic’s closures—perhaps due to less exposure to causes of stress at school and more help from their parents generally. Here’s how the Times described recent research on this: “A study published in February in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry looked at the mental health impact on 1,000 young people in Canada during the pandemic, and found that 70 percent of study subjects aged 6 to 18 reported some negative impact. But 19.5 percent in that age group saw some improvement, leading the authors to conclude of the impact: ‘Mostly worse; occasionally better.’”
Many adults, too, dread going “back” to all the pressures of the lives they’d built prior to the pandemic. People are re-assessing. Some are finding an increasing sense of anxiety, according to the Times story and another article in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal noted that many people realized just how many things they were happier not doing during the lockdowns, and that those people could now learn to set new boundaries around the things they preferred not to do (even including visiting with extended family). Other people experienced better work lives by working online and remotely, especially those with social anxiety, finding breakthroughs that they could potentially build upon in the future.
Humans have very different reactions to change. Some people embrace it, and even seek it out. Others experience fear or anxiety. The Stoic approach here is to emphasize the importance of how we respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s not the change itself that bothers us; it’s our reaction to it. Often, it’s the many “what if” questions that we ask ourselves that leads us down a rabbit hole of worry or dread. And in an ongoing pandemic that’s not over yet, there is still a lot to ask “what if” about, both for parents and children. About the virus, about school arrangements and expectations, about group gatherings and kids socializing.
For all these things, it is a balancing of risks and rewards. Of fears and opportunities.
And it’s a readjustment. We will need to give ourselves time for that. For most kids, school is exhausting. For many working parents, commuting to jobs and working long days in meetings, trainings, and events is draining. We’ll need to give ourselves the chance to be aware of how we feel in the moment, and to care for our needs, rather than pushing ourselves and our kids beyond their limits.
From a Stoic perspective, you can live through anything and still make a good life. But we also have a renewed opportunity to think about the things we can and can’t control, and the things we do and do not want to do.
Rather than be pressured to “do it all” we can make deliberate choices about how we spend our time, to make the best of our possibilities (knowing that we still need to work to put food on the table for our families). That pertains to our working hours, our work raising our kids, and also our leisure time.
What are you concerned about readjusting to? What are you most looking forward to? What about your families or kids? Please feel free to leave your comments below!
In one of my daughter’s middle school classes, she was recently asked to examine her “self-esteem.” She had to take an online quiz that judged her self-esteem with each answer. A sample question: “When I compare myself with others, I feel: a) great; b) horrible; c) OK/not affected.”
“THIS IS WEIRD!” My daughter yelled out loud as she stared at her computer screen. “What the heck? Why do we have to answer these?” And also, after the test was done: “Apparently I have terrible self-esteem!” Well, not exactly “terrible”—the results read: “Your self-esteem needs work!” (There seemed some irony there: Studying self-esteem made her feel worse about herself.)
Next, she was asked to do an assignment: “What are five ways you could improve your self-esteem?” Part of this work involved writing down “affirmations” about herself meant to boost self-esteem. She asked for my help, and I did my best to tell her a lot of positive and true things. We talked about the things she likes to do, her relationships, and the choices she makes. For instance, I said, “Maybe you could write, ‘I try to be a good friend,’ because of all the things you do for your friends.”
This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for my child. “It felt like bragging about yourself, and not actually doing anything good,” she said.
The question is: Was this a beneficial exercise? Is there a better way?
In recent years, the concept of “self-esteem” has come under fire by researchers in psychology. And I think the quiz my daughter had to take indicates why.
In December on this blog, I touched on the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff. She recommends that instead of focusing on self-esteem, we should pay attention to our self-compassion: That is, we can recognize that even though we make mistakes, we can still be fundamentally good people. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are. Then, if we falter—if we fail to make good on the story we’re telling ourselves about our achievements and skills—we may plummet into discouragement. “Also, telling yourself that you’re already great at something does not give you motivation to improve” My daughter said.
For example, you tell yourself: “I’m really good at science class, my favorite subject.” What if the next day, you get a low score on a science test? What does that do to your feeling of self-worth?
Stoic philosophy would say that it’s not about who is better or worse, but instead about who is making effort towards moral progress and putting ethics into practice. We’re all at various stages of building our character. In fact, though some of us have recognized that we are patients “in the same hospital” (as Seneca put it) just trying to help each other out. No one has a cure for the human condition. And no person living today has reached the status of perfection in human flourishing, what the ancients called a Stoic sage. But we should still keep aiming for it.
So instead of finding affirmations about how great we are, why not seek reassurance of our self-worth in our commitments and our values? In our choice to care for others and to help ourselves learn and grow? In our interests, and the effort we put in to improve into whatever we do, rather than our inborn talents/abilities?
Let’s find a better way—one that would promote a healthy growth mindset in our kids, and in ourselves.
“I don’t know how to take compliments, Mom,” one of my daughters said. When someone praises her—even one of her parents—she often looks distinctly uncomfortable. She says she doesn’t know what to do in response to our words. “It makes me feel embarrassed.”
I’ve asked her about this, and I discovered that part of her reaction comes from the fact that she does not want other people to feel less-than compared to herself. Also, she’s genuinely concerned that the praise might just come from others “being nice” to her, rather than making objectively true statements.
In this sense, she is quite unlike a lot of adults. Most of us love to hear “great job” or “you’re awesome” or “you’re better than the rest.” We don’t necessarily stop to question the praise.
Why are we so taken in by flattery? Why is it so easy to sway our minds with compliments? Perhaps as we get older—as we suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in our daily lives—we’re just happy for any kind words that come our way?
I’ve wondered about this question for quite a while. And my recent close reading of Stoic writer and Roman statesman Seneca has given me even more food for thought when it comes to flattery and what it can lead us to think—and do. This is particularly relevant in today’s political landscape.
In letter 59, Seneca focuses on “Why does stupidity have so firm a hold over us?” He goes on to say this about why we can’t shake free of “stupidity” (underlining below is my own):
“The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. If we find someone to call us good people, cautious and principled, we acknowledge him. We are not content with a moderate eulogy, but accept as our due whatever flattery has shamelessly heaped upon us. We agree with those who call us best and wisest, although we know they often utter many falsehoods; we indulge ourselves so greatly that we want to be praised for a virtue which is the opposite of our behavior. A man hears himself called ‘most merciful’ while he is inflicting torture, ‘most generous’ while he is plundering, and ‘most abstinent’ in the midst of drunkenness and lust. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.”
This passage fascinates me, in part because it’s still so true today. We are happy to think we’re already top-notch and don’t need improvement. The Stoic project of “making progress” only appeals to those who feel they want to do and be better.
And taking an even closer look at Seneca’s words, they made me think back over the 2020 US presidential election, and the violence last week at the US Capitol. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of extreme behavior has been fostered by “shamelessly heaped” flattery, especially by those who “often utter many falsehoods.” The soon-to-be-former president knows how to use flattery as a tool expertly. The day of the storming of the Capitol, he said this to the assembled audience, some of whom soon became rioters: “But just remember this. You’re stronger, you’re smarter. You’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
There is irony there, given what the crowd went on to do at the US Capitol right after this speech—tear down the fences guarding the Capitol building, attack police officers, break windows and doors, destroy and loot government property, and send Congress members (as well as the vice president) and their staffs into hiding to avoid the violence. My daughters and I watched it happening on TV in shock. Now teens, my children are old enough to grasp the importance of what happened. Across America, parents have been explaining these unheard-of events to their kids.
It was a day that Americans won’t soon forget, and rioters are now being tracked down by law enforcement and arrested for their illegal actions.
Congress members are now quoting the words of an American framer of the constitution, Alexander Hamilton, on his warning against would-be despots who use flattery and chaos to gain power. Hamilton wrote about his fears in a letter to George Washington. Here’s the full quote (note the passage using the word "flatter," in my underlining):
“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
This description suits current situation well. Fortunately, many leaders have been quick to condemn the current devolution into violent “storm” as well as the person “directing the whirlwind.”
Since these events, I’ve done more reading on why flattery works—even if it is not based on the truth. Psychologists point out that when a person delivers a compliment, the automatic response of most individuals is to feel more positive towards the one delivering it. A 1978 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “The Extra Credit Effect in Interpersonal Attraction,” demonstrated that subjects liked the people who praised them more than other people, a phenomenon they called “return liking.” This was true even when the subjects realized that the flattery might be a means of getting something from them, and/or it was obviously inaccurate. A psychology professor, Bob Cialdini, put it this way in describing the research: “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true. That’s how powerful praise and compliments and statements of liking [are] for us.”
So let’s take our cue from Seneca. Like my daughter, we should beware of compliments—and especially, beware the flatterer telling us what we’d like to hear, rather than what’s true. Remember: The person whispering in our ear might just be manipulating us into liking him or her, despite his or her own bad motives or flaws, and our own. We need to keep a clear-eyed, rational grounding in reality and combat being swayed by flattery.
“No justice – no peace!” This was the rallying cry as more than 1,000 demonstrators filled the streets in my suburban city this weekend. My teenage daughter and I were there, along with many other community members. The demonstration for Black Lives Matter was peaceful, purposeful, and filled with energy. Demonstrators held signs honoring and mourning George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black people killed by police. Despite the pandemic, we’d decided to come together for this public act against racism, hatred, violence towards black people and other people of color—and to advocate for equal justice in America. As we marched through wide suburban roads, we saw people of all ages and backgrounds walking beside us, chanting the same words. The same image of protest was repeated all across the US and the world this week.
We know there’s a very, very long way to go. But it's time to do what’s in our power: to read, listen, reflect, learn, write, donate, speak out, protest, vote… to work to change ourselves... and to find new ways to act to support justice.*
In Stoic practice, the word justice carries great weight. It’s one of the four Stoic virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Self-Control. Right now, we need to employ all of these virtues to fight a system that is not living up to any of them. Justice, for Stoics, was rooted in the golden rule; it is represented by the reciprocal nature of "do unto others what you would have them do unto you" or, put in the negative, “don’t do something to another person that you wouldn’t want done to you.” That rule spans many belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies. But we need to make it a reality in the way our cities and towns are organized and run. We need to re-consider what justice means in a society where many feel threatened by, and are harmed by, those designated "officers of the peace."
This is a time of reflection, too. A time to learn about others' experiences. Even if I can't fully understand what people of color have lived through, I can listen, learn, and stand with them. I can see more and more how entrenched the problem is, and how I benefit from clear advantages in my society that others lack. Recognizing this is an initial step against racism.
One example: For a long time, I’ve been interested in cognitive behavioral therapy and other techniques for dealing with anxiety. One that I’ve learned is called “worry postponement.” Using this method, a person puts off the worries on her mind, choosing a limited time and place to allow her brain to focus on the anxious feelings. This type of approach was advocated by ancient Stoics, too. I have tried it and found it can be effective.
What I’ve realized is that worry postponement is a luxury and a privilege that many people do not have. My own worries can be confined to a small portion of the day, if I really concentrate. Much of the time I am not directly confronted by triggers of my anxieties or fears. But this week, I’ve been thinking of all the people who can’t do that, because dangerous threats confront them constantly.
The point was brought home by mothers. A black colleague wrote that she was concerned that her son, out for a hike, wouldn’t come home safely--not due to the dangers of the natural environment, but the dangers of other people. Many cannot wrap up their fears into a specific time and place. After all, we have seen that killings could happen in homes while people are sleeping, or playing video games with young relatives… or out jogging... or walking home... or paying at a convenience store.
We know, as the ancient Stoics pointed out, that we are living in a constantly changing universe. Yet the history of racism is so deeply embedded, it feels nearly impossible to uproot. Dare we hope that the actions we can take—those that are in our control—could actually make a difference?
From a Stoic perspective, three things tell me "yes":
The only constant is change, as I mentioned above. Change can be gradual or quick. The problems of racism and unequal treatment by law enforcement are deep and longstanding, they are structural, and they won’t be solved easily. I would not claim to know the answers and turn to communities of people of color for guidance and teaching. What's clear to me is that this kind of change that is both institutional and personal. Each person has to examine herself or himself, and find ways we can behave differently.
We’re starting to see remarkable shifts in response to protests. This morning, when I opened up the newspaper, I saw that the city council in Minneapolis—where George Floyd was killed by police—has publicly promised to disband the current police department, and to try another way of approaching public safety. There were other changes, too: Congressional Democrats introduced a new bill designed to curtail police misconduct and excessive force. New York City’s mayor said he’d cut the police budget and put more money into social services. Human rights groups are calling for a UN investigation into US racism and police brutality. More communities are considering adopting some of the "8 can't wait" recommendations for reforming public safety and policing from Campaign Zero (you can check where your own city's police department's policies stand on the linked site).
For those of us wondering what we could do, I learned from black colleagues of a short list of suggestions on being an ally in an Instagram post by Mireille Charper. Also recommended were videos posted on Instagram by Light Watkins, including “For White People Who Are Asking What You Can Do?” and “Acknowledging Racism: How to Do It and Where to Start.” I especially liked this quote: “…Thinking that racism is exclusively a black problem is like thinking that sexism is exclusively a female problem.” I am learning about many other excellent resources and books on anti-racism and racial justice. Those include: How to be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning, both by Ibram X. Kendi; Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad; White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; Just Mercy (a book and recent film) by Bryan Stevenson; and many more. In addition, numerous organizations need contributions not just today but in the long run to further racial justice and fight inequality; Bryan Stevenson runs the Equal Justice Initiative, a remarkable nonprofit, to name just one group that deserves support.
These resources could help us to observe and question our own views and knowledge on race, and to pay attention to the part we are playing in racial issues. Recognizing the severity of the problems we face in this country is just the first stage; much more work will need to be done to change not just in how power is used to control, but also how access to influence and authority is granted, how voices are heard, and who has a seat at the table.
I'd like to add that my daughters’ generation inspires me. Many young people have developed a more nuanced and critical awareness of racism and bias, and of all the ills of our societies. My kids are growing up in a world of more diverse voices than I did, a world where these topics are being discussed more openly and honestly. I can only hope that they and their peers will be a part of the massive change we need.
* Note: If any readers would like to offer suggestions on how to explore these issues, how to learn more, or what kind of wording/language to use--especially from the perspective of people of color--please share your thoughts.
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 21
Reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, I get the impression of a man unafraid to be proven wrong—and quick to root out misconceptions. A man eager to learn from the world around him, yet careful in his judgments. A man who adhered to reason above the opinions of others. That’s the essence of his appeal: he strikes a chord with modern readers who still value his honesty and humanity nearly 2,000 years later.
Marcus’ quote above about truth says a lot about both about his personality and his approach to living by his philosophy. As a boy, he was known at court as “Verissimus,” meaning “most truthful”—a word derived from his family name, “Verus,” meaning “true.” When he stepped up to become emperor, this nickname remained accurate.
This contrasts markedly with today’s politicians and so many government authorities over the centuries. Some leaders would do anything to show that they are never wrong, including doctoring evidence, firing staff, or even eliminating opponents and watchdogs. Now that it is 2020, a major election year, it's more important than ever to become aware of what's true, what's misleading, and what's downright false.
Politically-motivated twisting of the truth can happen in subtle, behind-the-scenes ways, as we are learning with patterns of online influence. Initiatives to sway people have recently tapped into research studies of basic human traits. For example, psychologists have defined a core set of “the big 5 personality traits.” One of these traits is openness, described as “the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individuals’ mental and experiential life.” Other traits are conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism or emotional instability, and agreeableness.
These personality traits are not meaningless trivia. Understanding them could help predict what kinds of ideas or stories will motivate or frighten certain groups of people. Personality-profiling and data company Cambridge Analytica harvested just this kind of data from millions in an effort to influence voters during the 2016 US presidential election.
If we—voters, citizens, and Stoics alike—don’t take the time to search independently for truth and make our own decisions carefully, if we don’t exercise the virtues of wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage, and practice a careful assessment of our impressions, our inborn personality traits could be used against us. Bad actors may even attempt to shift our understanding of what’s true. And it is often more comfortable, and easier, to just avoid examining what's actually happening around us... especially if we feel that we benefit somehow from the status quo.
Fortunately, we are not powerless against these tactics. Like Marcus, we can focus on the truth. We can drill down on information sources, read the fine print, and look at what might be driving the agendas of those feeding us their ideas and arguments.
Stoic thought emphasizes that we can use our rational understanding and choice (something humans are uniquely endowed with) to shape our behavior in the world. From a Stoic perspective, we are not merely pawns of our personalities, of electoral politics, or of the entities designed to exploit our traits for their own gain. We are born with a sense of reason that allows us to choose the path of truth-seeking and moral character. We owe it to ourselves to exercise that sense wisely.
Undoubtedly, Marcus himself had an enormously “broad, deep, original and complex” personality, both inside and out. It’s a life that has inspired leaders and thoughtful people ever since. And to me, it’s something to aspire to.
Originally published in The STOIC magazine. Explore the current issue and subscribe here.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.