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I’ve been watching the History channel series Colosseum, which explores how the huge arena played a role in solidifying power and influence in ancient Rome. The show is filled with computer-generated imagery of ancient Rome, actors playing gladiators and gladiatrixes, beast masters, Roman leaders, and victims of the Colosseum’s violence, with historians to give it all context.
What I did not expect to find in this depiction of Roman “bread and circuses” was a glaring example of a Stoic parenting fail: The Emperor Commodus, son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His story is a cautionary tale to all Stoic parents.
Marcus Aurelius was the model Stoic. He had been educated by Stoic teachers. He personified the Stoic virtues, and his poetic and personal writing about his effort to implement Stoic ideals in the Meditations still resonates with people who read it today, just as it has done throughout the centuries.
But when it came to his son Commodus, Marcus’ philosophy could not save him.
Marcus was the last of the so-called “five good emperors” of Rome during the empire’s Golden Age. He took his obligations and responsibilities extremely seriously when it came to managing the government and was celebrated for his wise judgment. He fought invaders attacking Roman holdings as well as the plague attacking his citizens. But his efforts to raise Commodus, his only son to live to adulthood and the young man who took over the empire after his death, had disastrous results.
Commodus bankrupted Rome’s treasury on elaborate, bloody contests at the Colosseum (including his own performance as a gladiator, for which he paid himself the equivalent of millions of today’s dollars), made peace with warlike enemies who promptly re-invaded Italy, and tortured and killed members of the Senate. He escaped the city when the plague ran wild, and his corrupt delegates caused an economic meltdown and famine, causing many deaths. His paranoia about being assassinated led to countless murders upon his orders. Commodus even wielded a club like his hero the mythological Hercules and used it to clobber victims brought into the Colosseum during his violent “games.”
After so much destruction, Commodus was, in fact, assassinated—killed by his own wrestling trainer on the orders of other Roman leaders who witnessed his descent into madness. (If you saw the movie The Gladiator, Commodus was the evil emperor depicted there in a fictionalized retelling, in some ways less bad than the original.) Historians point to Commodus’ rule as the dividing line between an ascendant Rome in its golden age and its long decline.
How is it possible that Commodus could have turned out to be so awful—despite being the son of such a wise father?
Whether or not Marcus thought of himself as a “Stoic parent,” he definitely wanted his son to be well educated and he surely wished to leave the empire in good hands. But he had a tough time. Even while working nonstop to fight wars on Rome’s behalf, Marcus took pains to provide excellent tutors to educate Commodus. He brought Commodus along to the military base during the wars, exposing him to what it was like to defend the empire, and then asked the great physician Galen to help protect the boy from the raging plague. Marcus also took Commodus with him on a trip to the Eastern provinces and to Athens, where they were initiated together into the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret religious tradition.
But Commodus still turned out to be an irresponsible, corrupt, and murderous emperor. His temperament played a role. Commodus was a deeply flawed young man whose character was completely different from his father’s—volatile and, according to some Romans, cowardly, as well as averse to hard work. He was easily swayed by people around him. Some contemporaries in Rome thought he must have been the product of a different father, pointing out that Marcus’ wife was allegedly having affairs with gladiators.
Could Marcus have played a different and better role in his son’s upbringing? That is one of those what-if situations we’ll never really know about. He did a great deal to educate and influence Commodus, all the while managing the most powerful Mediterranean empire the world has ever seen through war and plague (which likely killed him). And it’s easy to imagine how Commodus’ enormous power went to his head as a teenage boy, no matter his upbringing. He was only 18 when his father died, leaving the empire in his hands.
I think this story demonstrates three things: First, how little control we have over our children’s temperament. Second, how much external influences outside our power can shape our offspring. Both of these elements should be familiar to Stoics: We have limits on what we are able to change, and we need to come to terms with that.
And third, this story shows that no matter how busy or preoccupied we become with work and our own callings, we should attempt to make the time needed to raise our kids to be decent human beings. (As a corollary, we should forgive ourselves if we fail.)
Marcus did what he could to train Commodus, especially when he was a teen. But I’m sure that the pressures and responsibilities of running the Roman Empire at its height left little time for really getting to know and influence his son, causing him (like anyone in his role, surely) to rely instead on tutors and assistants.
My personal takeaway from the Marcus and Commodus story is to remember to take a step back from work whenever I can to be there for my children and family. Many parents and caregivers I know have changed from full-time to part-time employment, left jobs, or opted for full-time positions that offer stability and limited hours to be able to take care of children during their formative years (realizing that not everyone has the financial flexibility or option to do so). For those who can make it work, spending time with kids in their younger years can demonstrate the value of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control… instill caring about and helping other people (encouraging our pro-social nature as humans)… and model how to question what we think we know, and understand what’s going on below the surface (stop, drop, and question your impressions!).
All this is well and good, you may say, but how much is enough, and how much is too much time and influence on our children? During the pandemic, some parents learned the limits of what they could and wanted to do. The shutdown of many schools and daycare services demanded that caregivers spend more time teaching and helping our kids—which was sometimes very demanding, especially to parents stretched thin by many responsibilities. It was made all the more tough when in-person social contact was cut off.
In the ideal world, we’d find a middle ground. We wouldn’t leave our kids to learn everything from school and other kids and YouTube and TikTok – we’d be there to teach our values. We also wouldn’t be stuck at home continuously with our kids, serving as their only influence, cut off from everyone else. Instead, we would balance our community’s educational and social influences with family- and caregiver-instilled virtues and values.
There are lots of ways to find this path, and there’s no one right answer, but simply searching for this middle-ground way forward—and prioritizing sharing our life philosophy with ours kids and our communities in the time we do have—seems to be the rational approach to working to shape our kids into good human beings. We can also acknowledge that kids are individuals, with their own temperaments and characters, and there are limits to what parents can do to form and educate them.
Please share your thoughts on this, and any other aspects of Stoic parenting in the comments!
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Whenever my kids are heading back to school, I have an early warning system: My stomach kicks into action, summersaulting and twisting, and I start popping Tums like there’s no tomorrow.
(The candy-colored coated chewy ones don’t taste sooooo bad. I’ve recently used up a full jar of the stuff and am becoming a connoisseur of orange vs. pink vs. yellow. Beware the less-soft generic brands that threaten your dental work!)
This all started back when my older daughter had her very first week of kindergarten 13 years ago. I can hardly believe that as I type this: 13 years ago!
That was before I turned to modern Stoic thinking, which I’ve now been practicing for the last 6+ years. Stoicism has definitely helped, but not completely solved these nervous feelings, which is why I’m still writing about them today.
She was a young student for kindergarten, only 4 years old. But she was bright and imaginative and bored with her part-time preschool. Plus, she made the public school kindergarten age cutoff back then (now, she wouldn’t), so we figured she would benefit from starting “real” school.
But that first morning, when I heard my daughter’s kindergarten teacher’s voice booming at the small children and watched the door closed behind her, as unsmiling parents standing around turned away from me, uninterested in any kind of mutual support—I felt a distinct churning inside.
Our local public school, it turned out, was mostly stick and just a little carrot for the students. Treatment of kids could be harsh or humiliating. Parents were viewed by administrators as unreliable or even problematic. Communication with families was an afterthought, and conditions weren’t always supportive or even safe. At the back to school night, where “childcare would be provided” so parents could sit through a lecture about the school’s rules and regulations, care consisted of stuffing dozens of kids under the age of 6 into a single sweltering room with one person to watch them, a TV set showing a cartoon drowned out by raucous voices.
I know that the early school experience was tough on my daughters. As young kids, elementary students can't always explain what's going on. They can't always tell us their teachers are not supportive or caring, or that they feel singled out. I wish I could protect my children from everything tough, but I haven't been able to do that with their school experiences. It's hard to hear about their ups and downs (especially hearing about it much later, when there's nothing at all that can be done). But when I take a step back, I hope these tough times have been character building and strengthening for them in some ways.
But why do I feel it so much physically? As my older child starts her senior year of high school and my younger daughter begins high school this month, why do I wake up with twisting intestines? Are other parents experiencing this?
Just the other night, my younger daughter came to my room at nearly midnight. She is generally an early to bed, early to rise person, so I was surprised. She was having trouble sleeping the night before her freshman orientation at high school. Guess what? So was I!
We chatted for a while. Nothing I said helped. But at least we could visit for a few minutes to distract our worrying minds and tense bodies. She borrowed my weighted blanket and went back to her room. In the morning, dressed in her new jeans and ready to go, she said the blanket helped her sleep. And that she felt fine. More than I can say for myself as I went back to sit down and doubled over again.
Sending our kids to school is very stressful. It starts with the page after page after page of paperwork required of families just to start the school year, along with activities and sports, in our district—which I’ve been making my way through.
When classes actually begin, students encounter a lot of challenging stuff. It’s outside our control, setting up a classic case-in-point of how a Stoic should respond: By not wasting time and energy worrying about it. By not overidentifying. By not focusing on all the things outside our control, and staying on top of our character and that of our children. As Epictetus put it in his spitting-truth way, “When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” (Discourses, 2.13.1)
This is the crux of Stoic parenting—trying to prepare our kids to be the best versions of themselves when coping with unpredictable and chaotic situations, and steeling ourselves to handle whatever the universe throws at us. What we want is learning, growth, enrichment, and positive social connections for our kids at school, but we have to accept that so much else may come instead—or along with it.
So it’s not easy. Most of what I think about is how will they adjust. Will it be something they can effectively handle or something that actually harms them? Also, is it safe? Not just safe from disease (including Covid, which I’m concerned could spike with all the kids in classrooms together) but also from violence? That is not a given at American schools, especially if you watch the news these days. In our system, an added layer of concern is that I am not sure what kinds of support students get at school if things do go wrong.
I recently noticed a book title at my local store called something like “I Don’t Want to Be an Empath Anymore.” It made me chuckle and shake my head. There are days it’s just too much. Often I think I feel more stressed out for them than they feel for themselves!
On some level, maybe I am having subtle flashbacks of my own awkward and anxious back to school days… (Maybe this is why I’ve always disliked fall, and loved spring. Subconscious brain at work?)
When I line up all the unknowables and sources of uncertainty or danger, my Stoic-aspiring brain reels. It makes me consider my options. Would my kids be better off homeschooled? It’s possible, but I got a taste of that during the pandemic lockdowns, and the answer for my family was no. Both my children seem to get their energy from interacting with other humans, not just their parents. They hated being at home in the pandemic. Plus I know I don’t have the ability (or time) to teach Calculus BC (though my husband helps!).
So to school it is.
And now, on top of that, my older daughter has spent some of her summer preparing to apply to colleges. Some of the schools she is aiming for are very far away. She is excited and nervous and scared and stressed. Can you guess how I feel? Another ambivalent mess. I want her to pursue her goals, but also know I’ll have some worries. I will remind myself that we are all just moving through this universe of impermanence, in the best way we can, and that we’ve prepared our kids to the best of our abilities. I turn back to Marcus Aurelius and other ancient writers for wisdom.
Do you have kids in your life going back to school? Please share your thoughts on back to school jitters for you or your kid(s) or the challenges of starting new schools!
There's a weird thing about being a mom: You can forget who you are.
As a parent, you struggle to recall what you wanted for just you, before you had kids. Everything becomes a calculation of how kids will react or respond to what you do, and that calculation often takes precedent over what you want for yourself. You forget how to choose for yourself.
This happens at a really small, granular level—I’ve asked myself, when my kids aren’t around, what foods do I really like (just me, not to share with my children)? What TV shows do I want to watch on my own, if I have the TV to myself all Sunday afternoon? What places do I like to shop, without family in tow? What vacation destination would I pick, if it were just me, or just me and my husband?
But it also happens at a very deep, philosophical level. Have I forgotten how to be myself? What do I want for myself? Who is the person I wanted to be, before I had kids? Who am I now?
I’ve been reading Who You Were Meant to Be: A Guide to Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose by psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson. She helps readers think about what they are really drawn to, what interests them deeply (rather than what others want them to be interested in), what kinds of jobs they want to do, what they want their relationships to look like.
Much of her focus is on her clients who did not make life choices that they’re happy with, many of whom were influenced by controlling parents. They find that later in life, they aren’t doing well emotionally, and want to make big changes.
But what about those of us who are parents ourselves, and who have been shaped for the last umpteen years by our children’s needs, wishes, and personalities? It’s not that my kids are controlling me, it’s that I shifted so many aspects of my life in order to be able to care for them. That’s been true since the moment they were born, and I am not complaining! I chose to do that, making my kids my highest priority.
On one hand, I would never, ever in a million years give up that shaping. It would be a cliché to say it’s kept me young at heart (and a true one). It’s made me more emotionally intelligent and aware in ways I never imagined. As a parent, you need to constantly stay flexible and shift gears on a moment’s notice, putting others’ needs before your own, dealing with crises and challenging questions and many things you wish you could avoid but have no real choice about (currently coping with an onslaught of bureaucratic paperwork for back to school/back to sports is just one tiny example!).
But on the other hand, parenting has also made me prioritize my kids and family over some of my deepest wishes for my own life. Again, I’m not complaining here. Just acknowledging. For example, I recently preferred to spend my week off work helping my daughters get ready for their summer programs, taking them to Target and Walgreens, pulling out their duffel bags, reviewing their packing lists, allaying their concerns, helping them enjoy final moments of freedom at home before heading out to new group settings… I did all this rather than working on my own writing projects. Rather than fulfilling my personal wishes, I decided to help them realize their summer dreams. I had an important motive—I wanted to soak in the little time I had with them during summer, time that feeds my soul as a mom.
And now both of my daughters are gone, one for just a week, and one for 4 weeks. My husband and I suddenly have the run of the house. And while we are busy working or heading out to meetings during the day, it seems normal, but suddenly, as I came home to an empty house this evening, I found myself in shock.
I know this is an early taste of the “empty nest.” I thought it would be quiet and empty. But the odd thing is, more than that, I felt boring and dull and uncertain of what I would do with myself. For all this time I’d been struggling to sneak in a few minutes for my writing, between my full time job and my daughters’ needs and other family members I wanted to spend time with… and suddenly, now that I have hours to choose how to spend, I felt a sudden sense of blankness.
I’ve long known that my children are separate from me. As a Stoic, I hold this knowledge close, remembering that my kids need to make their own choices, and that they have to take some responsibility for what they decide and what they do. I also understand that I have agency over myself, and I can choose to devote more of my time to my interests, especially those that uphold the virtues. However, my role as a mother takes precedence. And I genuinely love to spend time with my daughters. They are cool, interesting, fun, smart, and humorous people, who keep me guessing and laughing. They (and coffee) are my lifeblood!
So I’ll be missing them now, and I’ll miss them even more later. Again, Stoicism reminds us we don’t possess our children or any other humans, and that all is transient. One day we have them, another day we don’t. It’s the way of the world, and holding out for another option is absurd. I will try my best not to hold onto them, but rather to prepare them for the world, and to help them take flight in it.
And I’ll work to be grateful for the time that’s allowed to me with my teens, and try to use to coach them to develop their character, their grit, wisdom, sense of service to others and confidence in themselves, their moderation in all things, and their courage. I will stay mindful of the moments we share together. And I will still always be there (as long as I am alive) to do my mom thing. To chat, to ask, to listen, to do, and to just be present.
But for now, while they are away, I get the TV to myself for the next couple hours, to watch the most dry historical documentary I can find, or maybe the oldest classic movie in black and white. It seems I’ve forgotten how to decide.
“Are we going to be OK?” I could see the look in my daughter’s eyes turn fearful as she lay on her bed holding her pillow to her chest, a distinct note of anxiety in her voice. So many things to worry about... so many concerns for a teen girl becoming a young woman to face. I felt sadness welling within me. I didn’t know how to answer, but I said, “Yes, we’ll be OK.” I needed to reassure her, though in truth I could use the reassurance myself. I, too, was struggling with how to move forward in a positive way.
It has been a tough few months—years, honestly—in the US. Whether I’m talking to my teen daughters as they look with concern to the future, reading the newspaper with its page after page of stories of violence (here and abroad), or having coffee with friends who are despairing about the direction of our country, it has been challenging.
In the wake of so much turmoil, I often wonder about this question: What can I do? How can my family and I make a difference when there are so many powerful forces at play and so many reasons to worry?
We all know that the dichotomy of control is fundamental to the Stoic world view. There are certain things that are in our power, and many, many others that are not. When it comes to political power structures in Washington, for one, individuals have frustratingly little influence. We should vote, of course, and we should encourage others to vote. We should support causes we care about, and try our best to protect our rights and our safety by raising our voices to our leaders.
In reality, we can only create change in the small ways that are available to us. So let’s talk about that. In some ways, I’m writing this post to help myself and my family find a path forward with meaning and virtue. I hope you’ll read it as an effort to make even the smallest of differences.
Here’s what I think we can do:
I turn back to my Stoic ideas to remind myself not to get swept along by fears and sorrows about current events. While I can’t dismiss all my feelings as mere impressions—I’m not a sage yet—I can take a deep breath and ground myself in the real here and now with my daughters and husband, with my community, and with those whose work I read and take inspiration from (both ancient and very modern).
Stoicism is an evergreen philosophy that takes us out of judgment and hatred and violence, and into virtue and action and practical wisdom. Let’s make it our guide as we fortify our minds and energies, and seek to make a world that welcomes and supports human flourishing for all.
Even now as Stoicism has spread in a resurgence around the world, many people still think of it as a “stiff upper lip.” Some see it as a tough, uncompromising ideology that can turn us into modern-day Spartans, impervious to our own pain and unconcerned with the suffering of others.
But these views are narrow and inaccurate. In my vision of Stoic thinking and practice, it’s a way of cultivating our inner resources to make us stronger and better humans, more capable of living fully in the world, and more realistic and reasonable about our place in it.
And that’s why I believe that you can be a Stoic and cultivate compassion for the suffering of other human beings (as well as yourself). In other words: Stoic compassion is not an oxymoron!
I recently gave a talk about how the two approaches—Stoicism and compassion cultivation—can work together side-by-side for the Stoics Care conference. I’d like to share a few highlights of that talk here. You can also check out the video here:
Why Stoic compassion?
Why did I turn to both Stoicism and compassion cultivation, and combine them together in my own life? A number of years ago, I went through a period when I was very stressed. I experienced stress at work, the stress of family needs, financial stress, everyday life stress. And politics played a big role—the divisions and rancor that grew in the public sphere in the US in 2016 was off the charts, and this situation hasn’t subsided since. I felt disconnected and sad and wanted to have a more positive connection with other people. I started practicing Stoicism and then in fall 2016 I took a course on Compassion Cultivation that has influenced me ever since.
The word compassion comes from Latin for “with suffering.” It begins with acknowledging that people face pain, loss, and adversity. The core of compassion is “being there” for others, wishing them happiness and peace. Put simply: “Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of another, along with a desire to alleviate that suffering,” according to James Doty, a co-founder of Compassion Cultivation Training. This 8-week training program that originated at Stanford University in 2009 focuses on insights from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. It aims to build calm and resilience in the practitioner, and to give techniques to learn how to grow a compassion muscle in ourselves so that we can spread compassion to others.
Compassion allows us to be with another person’s pain without absorbing it into our own being—preserving our sense of inner strength. Compassion for others is a resource that won’t run out, as long as we take care of our own internal resources.
Some people think that if Stoics truly follow their philosophy, they won’t suffer themselves, and perhaps there is nothing that they can do for the suffering of others. I have two things to say to that: first off, we all know many other loved ones, friends, colleagues who are not Stoics and who suffer. And it is our duty as humans—and as Stoics who believe in common humanity, cosmopolitanism, and that need for pro-social interactions inborn in all people—to care about these others and to support them. Second, we ourselves are not Stoic sages and are imperfect beings. That means we are bound to feel negative emotions and suffering, and we must also support and tend to ourselves.
What do Stoicism and compassion have in common?
Now let’s get to the heart of what Stoicism and compassion cultivation have in common.
Both are inexhaustible inner resources. Once you build and maintain these mindsets within yourself, they will never run out! That’s really the key here. You grow Stoic approaches and compassion in your mindset, attitude, and personal practices. Through mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness practices, journaling to encourage and analyze your approach, reading to re-set your mind, and new ways of being with other people, you light this fire within yourself. I will share a bit more about some of these practices at the end of this post.
I like to think of my Stoic and compassion practices like a flame within me. I can use that flame to improve relationships with other people and myself.
In this way, compassion can be the “missing piece” that connects your Stoic practice to other humans. In other words, you can unite your Stoic ruling center with a compassionate ability to support other people and yourself through adversity.
To build Stoic compassion, keep in mind these Stoic and compassionate concepts:
In a future blog post, I’ll dive deeper into self-compassion. For now, I’d like to briefly address how Stoic compassion is different from our typical concept of empathy, and why it is preferable.
Stoic compassion vs. empathy
Most often, people approach others’ suffering through the lens of empathy and emotional identification with pain. It sounds OK in theory, but empathy has flaws. Empathy (or emotional empathy) usually means putting yourself in the shoes of the suffering person. It can lead to feeling emotionally drained and experiencing “empathy fatigue”—especially for caregivers or medical professionals.
Often, empathy leads to entangling your response with negative emotions stemming from the other person (fear, anger, hurt, remorse, jealousy, etc.). You try to help but feel yourself becoming overwhelmed. You may experience a sense of powerlessness or guilt when you realize you can’t fix the other person’s problems, or make different choices for him or her. Ultimately, this could lead to you withdrawing from the suffering person due to frustration, fatigue, or despair.
The ancient Stoics understood the pitfalls of empathy and taught a form of compassion that avoided emotional over-identification. Both Stoicism and Compassion Cultivation acknowledge that only certain things are up to up and that we need to stop trying to control or fix other people.
Epictetus said that “you should not disdain to sympathize” with people who are suffering, “at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” He then added: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.” (Enchiridion, Chapter 16)
This sounds harsh to our ears, yet I think it’s a reflection of a form of compassion, one in which we share sympathy and loving expressions, but we do not give our soul over to the other’s pain. We maintain the integrity of our own hearts in order to stay strong for others in a more sustainable, long-term way.
Exercises to build Stoic compassion
Here are a few exercises for building Stoic compassion:
Mindfulness meditation is not specific to compassion cultivation training, but it is a practice widely accepted to calm and center the mind. We sit quietly, follow our breath, and let our chaotic thoughts flow out of our minds. (You’ll still have thoughts occur to you, of course, but you’ll be able to let them go more easily—and observe them less judgmentally—if you practice this kind of meditation regularly.) Once we are more grounded and relaxed, we are more open to experiencing compassion.
Loving-kindness meditation is a classic practice derived from Buddhism (where it is called metta) that plays a strong role in encouraging compassion towards ourselves and others. The focus is to feel compassion without any sense of judgment, and without wanting anything in return. Here is a quick review of how it works:
A more advanced type of compassion-oriented meditation is called tonglen, which originated in Tibetan Buddhist practice. It’s not recommended for beginners because it can sometimes bring up tough emotions or negativity.
Here’s a quick explanation of tonglen, if you feel ready to try it:
In addition to meditating, journaling is another excellent way to combine compassion training and Stoic practice. It’s a Stoic tradition dating back centuries.
You can write in your journal how your meditations are going and what aspects are hard for you, exploring why. You can investigate challenges in your life and share supportive thoughts to “be there” as a friend for yourself.
You can also use your journal to cultivate gratitude, recognizing what you love and appreciate about other people. You can also write about aspects of their lives that you’d like to build compassion for, even if you disagree with the person’s decisions or approach. A more advanced practice would be to journal about those who are tough to feel compassion for, and imagine their inner struggles.
All of these are ways to grow connection and feelings of kindness, benevolence, and support for others—in other words, compassion—in alignment with your Stoic mindset. When combined, these two practices are incredibly powerful to the individual, and to all those around her/him who benefit from that bright flame within.
They say that in the old days, people cursed their enemies with this wish: “May you live in interesting times.”
Today, we are surely living in “interesting times.” That has been made clear in the pandemic and now the advent of the first major land war in Europe in decades. On top of that, to those of us here in the US, there often seems to be more to divide us than unify us. We hear constant partisan battles raging across our media (both traditional and social) and our politics. Everywhere you turn, it seems that someone is judging you for what you do or how you think or who you are. The atmosphere is filled with negativity, and hate is spewed for even the smallest of transgressions.
But despite all this, we carry on. Throughout history, people have looked for inspiration during difficult or dark periods. As things grow bleaker we need this even more. So now, I think it’s time to look at life a different way.
I was inspired by a friend to propose this new approach: Rather than being dragged down by everyone’s flaws and shortcomings, let’s try turning to our friends and family as role models.
My friend points out that her own circle of friends have demonstrated remarkable strengths. They are capable of doing hard things, and showing the way—inspiring others for how to live, if you just take a look.
For example, one friend coped with the illness of her parent, while still taking care of a young child. Another friend found herself with a tough diagnosis while enduring a stressful job and a teen struggling with depression. Another friend re-entered the workforce after a break for raising her family, and took on new responsibilities. Other friends have endured personal losses and difficult training programs and housing issues and more.
There are also so many examples in the wider world of people doing extraordinary things. Right now we are seeing brave regular citizens standing up and fighting for their sovereignty on the streets in an unprovoked war they didn’t want. They are willing to sacrifice everything.
This idea of learning and being inspired by others struck me as the polar opposite of how most of us view our friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues, and classmates. We’re usually so competitive. Our thoughts and comments dwell on someone not doing well enough or not doing what we would do. Failing us in some way, in how to live well.
But what if we could be less judgy of others—while still staying focused on our personal virtues as individuals?
What if we could think of each other as naturally good and at least at heart reasonable people? That’s at the core of Stoicism. We are social beings, and we are all endowed with reason.
To build on this is: What if we could focus on Epictetus’ concept that the only thing we can control are our own judgments? So by resisting the urge to judge and condemn people for small failings, we could actually train our own sense of choice and recognize the good more clearly? And instead, we could valorize other people's practical wisdom, for our own benefit?
There’s so much potential in this approach. Instead of tribalism and looking at other people as the other or the enemy, we could view them as fellow humans who are struggling to do what they think is right.
Socrates famously said that some people act wrongly because they possessed wrong-headed judgments and ill-conceived ideals, not that they were “evil.” They were mistaken and misled. The Stoics took that up, with Epictetus reminding us that when we disagree, to recall that a person did what he or she thought was right. What's more, Stoics believed in finding a mentor to learn from; why not a friend or a person you admire in your own world?
Of course, I reserve the right to identify and fight against unjust people who are harming others and making others’ lives worse. But everyone else should have a chance to live out their own ideals, as long as no one is being hurt.
I have some amazing family members, friends, and colleagues—and they are and continue to be my role models for how to:
I want to learn from them. I want to treasure them and admire them. Not compete with and judge them.
Even kids can be role models this way. They certainly show great examples of emotional intelligence, and my children, in addition to my mom and husband, help me gain a sense of perspective. We can seek the good in all our interactions.
“Say no” to using moral righteousness to bash people in our lives. That’s what social media is for ;)
Instead, let’s say “heck yeah!” to building true and real connections with other people—and learning from them.
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.