Stoic life philosophy and others’ judgments
In the series Black Mirror, there’s an infamous episode where the main character is judged for her actions minute-to-minute by her peers, gaining and losing points via a social media-style app. A cascade of missteps, largely outside of her control, results in a lower score—and, as a result, a disturbing downgrade in her real life. The episode is called Nosedive, and it’s terrifying. (But apparently not so scary to those who turned it into a "fun" game sold at Target!)
This sounds like a futuristic nightmare. But it’s already happening in some countries. Artificial intelligence is quickly combining with facial recognition, social media, and crowdsourcing to become tools of social control.
I find this situation of great concern as a human being—and also as a follower of Stoic practices. It makes me wonder: No matter what scary impositions technology enables, how can we, as individuals, effectively cope with others’ judgments?
Ancient Stoics, with Epictetus the strongest voice among them, teach us that we have no control over what other people think or do, and therefore should ignore others’ opinions. In day-to-day life, this is hard. People’s judgments happen everywhere, all the time, and they can affect our lives in real ways. Others’ opinions cost us jobs, school admittances, relationships, and more.
At times, I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of criticism, and it’s toxic. As a student and a young professional, I would slave over projects trying to perfect them and protect them from criticism, trying so hard to please that my own unique imprint got lost. (In that way, worries about others’ judgments actually kept me from doing my best work.) I wanted my efforts and my external persona to be bulletproof. This tendency among girls, in particular, has been highlighted in recent media stories that try to explain why girls' high achievement in school does not always translate into success in the workplace: perfectionism is the enemy of more lasting, real-world accomplishment.
But critiques of my work (and of me!) inevitably happened, and though I tried to maintain a brave face, I was crushed inside. That was before I accepted that I couldn’t control or change others’ reactions, and that I could still live a good life no matter what they thought. Before I began practicing a Stoic life philosophy.
Now, as I have developed a more self-reliant idea about my own value and core principles, I’ve come to see interactions with others as a dance with an often-unreliable partner.
The ancients knew this. That’s the source of all the language about being able to “bear” other people. Marcus Aurelius had to do this as emperor, and I think he spoke most eloquently about what needs to be done: As humans, we are built to work together in society, so we have to balance our wishes and drives with those of others. That means we must put up with people who are separated from reason and their ruling center.
So we have to learn this dance. Even if our feet are often stepped on, bringing involuntary tears to our eyes.
This is a lifelong project. We can interact with our coworkers, gathering input, without letting their agendas penetrate too deeply into our ruling centers. We can learn from mentors, without being controlled by their point of view—asking ourselves, like Socrates, “Is it true?” We can share what we create, and hope that others, through our common humanity, will respond to the work as intended or will offer ideas to inform us—but we can’t expect this to happen. We can be close with family, yet still follow our own paths.
We could learn to view our work, and our relationships, not as finished, polished, perfect things, but as living entities, like trees in the forest, always expanding and shifting. That way, everything is a work in progress, like our own moral development, where there’s always room for growth ...that is, until we somehow become Stoic sages.
I’ve found I make more progress on this when I heed the advice of my daughters’ teachers, who inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You don’t know everything to begin with, and you learn through making mistakes. Mistakes are “expected, respected, inspected, and corrected,” says a classroom poster. The teacher reminds them: Your work won’t be perfect. If you’ve developed a new skill, you’ve won. (This is NOT how I was taught in school, where perfection was expected and the rest was disrespected.)
Where does that leave our “score”—in other words, how we are assessed by others?
The hard truth is that we must learn to ignore it and endure the consequences. As I feel myself being judged by peers or colleagues, I tell myself: This is yet another opportunity to exercise my core principles and hope that my truth will win out. After all, a good social or professional rank is not essential, but rather a preferred indifferent in a self-reliant life lived according to the virtues.
Last weekend, 11 people were killed by a hate-filled shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The news devastated far more than one community. People across the country and world were filled with horror and disbelief.
There are many ways to become unmoored in modern America. Every day, people are alienated from family, friends, workplaces, communities. And in their quest to connect somehow with other human beings, their minds are twisted into a victim mentality fueled by hate.
Hatred makes people feel powerful. In our society, people are being constantly told they are powerless victims (of conspiracies, of immigrants, of other religious, ethnic, or racial groups, of women's rights and Me Too, and more), and in the public arena, limitless power is craved, praised, and ruthlessly pursued, no matter the means or the cost. Combined, these things motivate people's horrific actions against other human beings. And with easy access to weapons, they can do massive harm.
Stoic thinkers spoke of a very different approach, centered around actively practicing justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, and self-control. All of these things are lacking in a meaningful way from our public discourse, especially the rhetoric of those currently in power.
I personally hope to live by those virtues. It is a lifelong effort, and not easy. I’m reminded of Epictetus’ quote about the “real good or evil” of human beings. He was asked if there is a difference between a human and an animal, such as a stork. “Yes, surely,” he responds. "How so?" he is asked. He says:
See whether it be not in rationality of action, in social instincts, fidelity, honor, providence, judgment.
"Where, then, is the real good or evil of human beings?"
Just where this difference lies. If this distinguishing trait is preserved, and remains well fortified, and neither honor, fidelity, nor judgment is destroyed, then he himself is likewise saved; but when any one of these is lost or demolished, he himself is lost also.
-Epictetus, Discourses, 1.28 (in a historic translation)
Those virtues and practices define humanity. We must work to “preserve” them always, even when it feels more appealing to give in to the latest conspiracy theory. There’s a beauty in those lies, of course—they feed on people's worse fears, confirming our anxieties, and they make us feel better about ourselves. But we must cultivate courage, refusing the psychologically-easy fix that extremists proffer to make some people feel superior to other people…. and the slippery slope of falsehoods that they are built on.
Stoic philosophy demonstrates distinct ways that you can shift your way of thinking. You can say no to sellers of hate or discord. You can refuse to participate in name calling or in demonizing people who are different. You can choose to value other people, no matter their background, as members of the human family.
Just as important: In Stoicism, you are never a victim. That’s one of its greatest appeals. If you adopt this life philosophy, as long as you have breath left in your body you can be a virtuous person pursuing and growing the good and a role model for others. In so doing, you are a part of forces for good throughout our world. That is especially important during dark times.
Even people who are victims of crime or persecution or disease (or in ancient times, banishment or political execution) have used Stoic thinking to endure and to fight and to stand for what’s right. They do not let being victim define them.
Instead they use their freedom of thought and judgment to take back power from people who try to insult, harm, or even kill them. Consider Socrates, Seneca, or Cato in ancient Greek and Roman times. In modern times, one might think of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks.
Even closer to home, we can find the power within ourselves to cope with daily trouble large and small. Take the example of a recent post on the Facebook Stoicism group. A woman described how she used Stoic ideas to help her endure longterm physical illness and disability. She found the strength to keep going, to say "this doesn't define me."
Sometimes hate starts almost imperceptibly. Prejudiced "dog whistles" can have an impact. But people who aren’t conditioned to feel like victims, constantly under threat by "the other," are much less likely to respond to such calls for bias, racism, and anti-Semitism. They know better. They know their own inner freedom. They live their own power, exemplifying what’s best about humanity.
I repeat: All the best elements in us—justice, wisdom, courage, compassion, self-control—are lacking in a meaningful way from the rhetoric of those currently in charge of our nation. I strive to live by those virtues, to teach them to my children, and to express them through writing, speaking out, teaching (as a volunteer), parenting, and voting. We must find a way to turn people away from hatred-based beliefs, actions, and power-seeking through violence. And we must remain rooted in the good.
“If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage... turn to it with all your heart... but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue, give no room to anything else.”
- Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations
The oddest thing happened when I first met Dominique. She is an experienced instructor in the Alexander Technique—a healthy way of using the body that I had come to her to learn. As she began giving me directions about my movements, she noticed I kept saying “I will try.”
Dominique asked me to “stop trying.”
Simply trying, she pointed out, wouldn’t enable me to accomplish my goals of learning better body use and gaining a stronger, more flexible spinal column. It wouldn't help me stand, walk, or run. It wouldn't energize my movements.
All my life I have said this. “I will try” has kept me going when I had lots of doubts. For that, I'm thankful.
But it’s also a crutch, a protective mechanism, in a way. The word “try” is closely allied with “I might fail.” It implies, “perhaps I can’t do this.” It evinces anxiety. And it also suggests that a ton of effort will be needed to force myself to do what’s hard.
These thoughts have gotten me in trouble many times as I scolded myself for being a failure, not living up to my imagined potential, not being the person I dreamed about becoming.
In the Alexander Technique, we learn to direct our bodies to use involuntary muscles, focusing our thoughts on a few key intentions: freeing the neck, keeping the head forward and up, lengthening and widening the back, separating shoulders from each other.
Rather than “trying” to force my body into “good posture” or a straightened, upright position, this technique encourages me to imagine how my body could be if it were always ready to jump, like a spring. It enables me to break old habits of movement and posture, habits of slumping through life. Instead, I am focused on awareness of simple core principles. It's led to a revitalized use of my body.
One of the biggest challenges in re-thinking movement is what F.M. Alexander, the technique's founder, called "end-gaining." That's where we work to obtain a goal no matter the means, losing sight of all else. This attitude results in abuse of our bodies. Just one example: hunched over our computers or phones, we're constantly bending our bodies to our tools rather than using them in the way nature intended. Then we experience spinal compression, muscle overextension, and pain.
"The difficulty for all of us is to take up a new way of life in which we must apply principles, instead of the haphazard end-gaining methods of the past," Alexander said.
I believe this kind of change is possible for our souls—our ruling centers, in the Stoic sense—too.
It is not easy. For years, I “tried” to improve myself. While this project encompassed many activities, from the artistic to the educational to the psychological, much of my effort and "trying" focused on writing. I knew I had skills, but I struggled to put them to use, to reach people, to fulfill my idea of what my writing “should” be if I just tried hard enough.
Each time I attempted to force my pen to write simply in order to succeed in showcasing my talents and gaining recognition, it fell flat. I wasn’t happy with the results. And I got frustrated. My writing didn't seem to touch anyone. Why wasn’t all my trying working?
I became subtly angry at my shortcomings, and at the world for failing to fulfill my ambitions. And as I did so, I got further and further from understanding and protecting my ruling center... and I distanced myself from my true strengths. I was doing everything for the sake of an audience that was either absent or just didn’t care.
It was when I reached inside to find what truly mattered to me that my work became meaningful to me. And that, too, is when readers started to tell me that they had learned something, or that they had achieved an insight into their own struggles after reading something I shared.
There's a lot to learn here, though it's not so easy to see in our competition-driven culture. We have become accustomed to trying to dazzle others with our achievements and talents.
Both Stoic philosophy and the Alexander Technique encourage those who practice them to adopt simple core principles, from which all else flows. These basic ideas resonate universally.
In my current Stoic practice, I have been turning back to the key virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, temperance. Those are the basic ideals to live by, the crux of the work of Stoicism. For me, it is a lifelong process to live a good life (and I think ancient philosophers would agree). There is no Stoic sage nearby to show me the path; I am feeling my way forward as best I can.
Every day I ask myself, how can I be wise, honest, just, brave, and self-controlled? I fail often. But I gradually through these principles I’ve begun to develop better habits of the mind and to alter my own behaviors and habits too.
This happens in ways large and small. I ask myself, how can I exercise self-control today? Is it by simply not checking online news headlines all afternoon, or skipping that tempting slice of cake? It is by refraining from pitying myself when something goes wrong? When it comes to wisdom, have I questioned my thoughts (and fears) about that email exchange that bothered me at work, rather than falling into paranoia? Have I been brave about providing honest feedback to colleagues and management, even when it's easier to stay silent? Have I been fair to my children and have I been open to their honest thoughts? How can I temper my high expectations of them, letting them find their own path forward while still offering good guidance and support?
It is an ongoing struggle - but not one that I’ll win by just trying.
So, after years of doubtful trying, I know that I can indeed change... gradually. Everyone can. It starts with a willingness to adjust your intentions, question your thoughts, and evolve your habits.
It's the kind of work that I'm glad to undertake for a lifetime.
It was a hot June day when we made it to the top of the ruined French castle. The giant hunk of medieval stone sat high on an ancient hill perched over the nearby “valley of hell” that inspired Dante’s descriptions in the Inferno. We paused to survey countryside below. Together, my family of four had, at least briefly, conquered our fears of heights and falls.
It was a moment of satisfaction. Why? Because we chose to do it, and it was not easy (by our standards, at least). And because it brought us to a spot where we could see the world for what it is: physically huge, historically immense, and indescribably beautiful.
Our moment in that world is tiny. And yet we persevere—and we can find joy. That scene made me think of two elements of Stoic philosophy that can lead to a happier and more meaningful life, namely freedom and courage.
For me, freedom is not being “free from,” but “free to.”
It’s not having zero social or communal obligations. I cherish my family ties, and my daughters and husband are the most valued and positive things in my life. I realize that they connect me to non-optional support tasks and challenging emotions, and I’m OK with that. Unlike Henry David Thoreau, who felt he had to escape human ties to find authentic life experiences on his own at Walden Pond, I want to live enmeshed with family, friends, and loved ones.
Finding a sense of freedom within family life, and even at work in a large organization, is still possible. As I have written before, autonomy and the ability to make choices is key to my approach to work and to raising my kids.
My Stoic practice has helped me build my capacity for freedom by ensuring that I commit to making my own choices. Ancient Stoics taught us that even in the worst of circumstances, we can always choose how we respond. Epictetus began life as a slave, and suffered a terrible injury during his younger years. His seminal idea was that we should approach the many things about which we have no control with the knowledge that we can decide for ourselves how they affect us.
The example of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the Navy fighter pilot who held captive in Vietnam for more than seven years and became a well-known proponent of Stoicism, is instructive. Despite torture, he maintained his will to live and resist by relying on Stoic ideas, exercising the power to choose and experience inner freedom even in captivity.
Courage, of course, also kept Stockdale going. He didn't shy away from physical discomfort and pain. Stockdale inflicted injuries on his head and face to avoid being used in enemy propaganda, staying true to his own ethics. He said later that he knew he’d get out eventually, and that he’d view that time as a defining moment.
Yet he also accepted his situation while he lived it, practiced endurance, and didn’t expect to emerge quickly or unscathed. (I don’t know if I would be that strong in the same situation—and perhaps none of us do until we experience something so brutal.)
He did get out, recovered, began researching, writing, and teaching (on Epictetus and Stoic philosophy, among other topics), and eventually gained a national stage as the running mate of independent candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992's presidential election.
Ultimately, Stockdale showed in living color that we need courage to accept difficult things and still make the best choices possible without guilt or fear.
In Stoic practice, we are reminded that many incomprehensibly sad and difficult things—our loved ones’ deaths and our own mortality, illness, emotional pain, and other challenges—are outside our control. We can nevertheless work to manage our own personal reactions to hardships, and that’s where courage comes in.
The castle climb was a happy moment. Many other less beautiful things confront us daily. But drawing on our internal freedom to choose and apply reason, and our courage to carry on, much is possible for each of us.
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.