My husband and I like to tell our kids stories about times when things didn’t work out quite as well as we had hoped—in a funny way. Looking back, we realize that we could have made a better choice. But because the consequences were pretty minor, or even silly, these tales are entertaining rather than painful. They might just teach something along the way.
A favorite one we harken back to happened early in our relationship, when my husband picked out a “romantic” bed and breakfast inn from a small ad on the still-young Internet, located a stone’s throw away from a national park we wanted to visit. We were excited as we drove up late at night to a large house, finally arriving after facing a ton of traffic and a longer-than-expected drive.
We were soon confronted, however, with the reality that the place was far from romantic. We were ushered inside to a heavily decorated room in the basement of an older couple’s home, complete with a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” singing fish affixed to the wall, and a noisy laundry station right outside the room’s door. Clearly the wife’s “fun” retirement project, the bedroom was filled with mismatched chintz.
The mistress of the house, irked at having to wait up late for us, had just one burning question: Would we like eggs and sausage or waffles and fruit for breakfast in the morning?
The next day we were greeted by her in the kitchen while her husband, in a gray undershirt and little else, sat nearby watching TV, his bare feet and unclipped toenails propped up on an ottoman in full view as we tried to eat…. clearly intent on ignoring the intruders in his house.
We headed into the park and took a hike that inadvertently lasted well into the dark as we rushed to find our way back without flashlights. Our stay was topped off by my husband’s scary hypothermia that evening.
These kinds of tales are called “Epic Fail" stories by our daughters, who often try to run from the room instead of hearing them. They find them cringe-worthy. But the “fail” is actually the point. It’s a way of examining what we’ve done well and not so well, figuring out how we could do better, and teaching them some things to avoid too. My husband especially enjoys sharing these, and to me, they’re pretty funny, even on repetition. (I try to restrain myself from giving away the ending!)
The story above, for example, contains a lot of valuable lessons. Don’t buy a singing bass fish and hang it up to decorate your new basement B&B. Another: Don’t book a room—or, much more importantly, don’t go to a school or accept a job or travel to a faraway destination—on the basis of a small, cute ad you find quickly online. Do your research!
It’s a valuable takeaway: You need to do due diligence in life. And if you do, and you still find you're stuck in a basement listening to a fish singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy," do your best to laugh at it.
Also: Don’t plan an 8+ mile summer hike in the mid-afternoon without quick-dry clothing or flashlights. (We have since become big fans of synthetic athletic shirts, and of starting early.)
Time and experience have taught us many life lessons, and we try to share those with our children. Stories are an ideal way to do that, since they are memorable and relatable. With the distance of a few years, what was really frustrating at the time now seems funny.
And the act of framing what happened to us, and our role in shaping it, is best done at a distance—looking back from a safe perch to see the full context. It's a good way to sneak in a little teaching with kids of any age... and even to remind ourselves of what to do differently next time.
Socrates is famously quoted as saying, “the greatest good is daily to converse about virtue,” and “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato’s Apology). We humans do need to talk, to share our stories, to probe all our experiences and our thoughts—to understand the choices we have made and the personal tendencies and real-life situations that pull us away from virtue. We do need to examine who we are, and what we do, on a regular basis, in order to improve our understanding and our choices. (For an interesting take on these quotes, see this Vermont Philosophy blog post.)
And, within reason, it is beneficial to share this practice with our children. Children, especially as they get older, need to learn how to fail, and how to get back up again after a reversal. Also, since our culture often misinforms them about what they should value and how they should behave in a tough situation, hearing a parent or trusted adult rationally review a mistake or even a difficult misfortune can teach them something, too.
It's helpful to review our actions for ourselves, either in writing or in our personal thoughts. Ancient Stoics looked back to Pythagoras’ Golden Verses, where he advocated reviewing our own behavior daily:
“Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
And if you have done any good, rejoice.”
It’s a practice I do in a sideways way, sifting through what’s on my mind through writing about my thoughts and challenges, especially by blogging. I also like jotting down a few lines of verse here and there in the evening, sometimes transforming a painful experience into a lyrical moment.
This all reminds me of a favorite possession in my family. When I went to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park several years ago, I got a baseball cap as a souvenir. The hat said “Seeker”—Harry’s position in the game of Quidditch. But for me, it held a deeper meaning. I’m constantly seeking to understand where we derive our value and moral worth, how we can examine and refine our intentions, and the way we live our lives. How we can be in harmony with our world, but also strive to bring good to our relationships and our communities. How to see things clearly in a world where emotional appeals (backed by cash) are used to constantly sell us products or even political candidates.
How to cut through the noise? By seeking the truth and pursuing the virtues in our daily engagements, and by recalling our “fails” and our successes through stories. Life is messy, and that's why this process will take all of our days. But that is what being human is all about.
I’ve since given the hat to my younger daughter, passing on this bit of wisdom.
Many parents complain that their children suffer from “selective hearing.” Their kids only hear what they want to hear.
This happens to me regularly. Me: “Why didn’t you do the dishes after school, like I reminded you this morning?” Kid: “I didn’t hear you.” Or me: “I see your shoes are still on the kitchen floor—didn’t you remember Dad asking you to put them away twice?” Kid: “No, I never heard that!”
Or me: “You should bring a water bottle for your activity today.” Then, me, getting a text an hour after my daughter arrived at her far-away, full-day event: “Mom, I need a water bottle. I didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. Can you drop it off?” And then me, 45 minutes later, carrying water bottle…
This issue has nothing to do with the physical auditory sense but everything to do with what we choose to focus on, and what we do or don’t want to acknowledge. It’s actually more of a “doing” problem than a hearing one. Usually it’s a function of the conflict between what we (the parents) want them to do, and what they (as individuals, and as children) want to do.
It can be tough as a parent. There is no great solution that I know of to consistently get kids’ attention. Perhaps the best we can do is to let nature take its course, so that our children experience some kind of natural consequence for not heeding our guidance (for example, getting so thirsty that they might even seek out a distant water fountain during breaks, prompting them to remember the need for a water bottle next time). If you have other ideas, please let me know in the comments!
But what I really wanted to point out is that I’m also coming to realize that there’s a related phenomenon: “Selective seeing.” It’s what we choose to notice in our surroundings, and what we don’t; it’s what seems visible to us, and what we miss... even if it is obvious to others.
For instance, imagine your child has an array of clothing, homework, markers, and pencils on her bedroom floor. Have you had the experience of reminding that child about to clean up, only to find that she does not seem to “see” that the floor has stuff on it, and she tends to focus only on her dresser or some other spot? Some of us tune out what we’ve gotten used to seeing.
I suffer from this, too. When it comes to my own clutter, I have trouble seeing it. Some days it pops right out at me, in a rather discouraging way. But a lot of times, it takes a huge effort to notice the excess stuff is there. My leaning Tower of Pisa-style stack of books by my bed; my cache of markers and pens littering my desk; junk mail piled on the coffee table; a stack of clean clothes, folded, rising high above the rim of a laundry basket; toiletries spread out across the sink counter; I could go on.
It is the same with so many things, and some are a lot more serious. Our brains get used to walking past someone sleeping at the train station. Or encountering worn-out tents lined up by the underpass. Or news reports showing hungry people in refugee camps. We get used to it, without really seeing it. To some degree, it is a defensive mechanism: If we saw everything all the time, our brains would become overwhelmed.
But still, I now recognize I need to turn on my power of sight and awareness more often.
Here's a Stoic-inspired question to ask ourselves: "What is it we're not seeing?" Put another way "What truths or situations are we not acknowledging?"
At home, it’s about stuff. I’m working on becoming more selective about what I buy after suffering a rash of purchase-return cycles. In fact, “depriving” ourselves of stuff is a Stoic tradition, to help us understand we don't need more.
That’s easier said than done in our market-driven economy, where we are surrounded by ads, offers, and sales on stuff. But the stuff doesn’t make us happy, especially since the psychological phenomenon of hedonic adaption holds very true: We soon get used to having a nice thing, and it doesn’t really have an impact on our contented feelings anymore. Perhaps the thrill of the chase for stuff could be replaced by something else, maybe by challenging ourselves to do something creative, something athletic, or something sociable with real, live people (not just social media).
And in the wider world, outside my home and sphere, in terms of all the inequities and suffering of others: This year, I’m working on seeing and understanding more. I’ve started by listening to a very interesting audiobook by the woman who “wrote the book” on modern genocide: Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN. She has an uncanny ability to see what others miss in terms of human suffering across the globe, and to elevate others’ safety and well-being.
Seeing can help us understand the urgent need to focus on a situation and do something. The ancient Stoics emphasized our common humanity: Other people, no matter how far or different, are our siblings. I know I don’t have all the answers for helping others, or even much knowledge of what should be done, and I can only do what’s within my power. But I hope I can continue to make myself see and acknowledge even what’s terrible, such as the human rights abuses Power has reported on and fought against.
And I’d like my kids to do the same: See bigger picture things, in addition to small ones. It’s a key reason why I support project-based learning. When my children recognize a real-world problem that they want to understand better, to encounter through actual people and places (even remotely), they learn more.
In terms of my life philosophy, this approach stems from the Stoic effort to pierce through our unexamined impressions—the BS—on the outside, and to come to grips with the reality underneath. Ancient Stoics often admonished their followers to examine things more closely. Epictetus reminds those who follow philosophy to see beyond the superficial and to understand the true nature of our world. This isn’t always popular or pleasant, since most people avoid seeing what’s true, uncomfortable, or inconvenient—me among them.
But I’m working on it.
“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.
“The history of life.” The topic sounds limitless. How can anyone hope to understand the entire history of life on Earth? What does that even mean? Sounds as tough as becoming a Stoic sage.
But in fact, scientists know a lot about how life has developed and changed over time. Learning about the winding path of living things on our planet has been a longtime passion of mine. And these days, I’m drawing on it to ground my perspective on my own life. It’s a helpful way to supplement my Stoic-inspired life philosophy when I get wrapped up in “first-world problems.”
My interest began in 6th grade, when my teacher, Ms. Cox, showed us grainy videos (old school VHS tapes, or maybe Betamax?) featuring Donald Johanson and Louis and Mary Leakey talking about their search for the earliest humans. Johanson discovered the fossilized skeleton of “Lucy,” an early human-like hominid, in Ethiopia. The Leakeys also found very old hominid fossils in Africa.
My all-time favorite elementary school project was creating a giant mural of horses in the style of cave paintings found in Southwest France, some of the earliest art created by prehistoric humans. It thrilled me to think that I might be using the same techniques of a very, very, VERY ancient version of me.
I learned a lot more about life’s history in college. As a freshman, one of the first classes I signed up for was, in fact, titled “The History of Life.” I thought it sounded a little ambitious, and I was right. But it was also fascinating, and gave me a whole new perspective. The course was taught by Stephen Jay Gould, a legendary paleontologist and theorist of evolution. Though I never got to know him personally in the large lecture class, Gould inspired me with his ability to write eloquent essays about life’s origins even in the very tiniest and most obscure of creatures, for instance during the Cambrian explosion 541 million years ago (a massive diversification of life that lasted for 13 to 25 million years).
Gould’s lectures also opened my eyes to a new way of looking at evolution. He argued that rather than gradually changing, living creatures exist in “punctuated equilibrium.” Things remain in relative stasis until something radical happens and the species begin to quickly shift, a punctuation mark in time.
It’s hard to capture the awe I felt when I understood how very long life had been striving—and to some extent, thriving, but also struggling, and dying—on our planet. Humans are newcomers on the scene. And this is a scene that’s been through unimaginable, often very rapid change. (Gould died in 2002, but his inspiration remains… in part, I owe my current career in science writing to him.)
This year, I’ve gone back to Gould’s books to help me put things into perspective once again as the norms and ethics of our society seem to be bent or broken everywhere I turn. The virtues that I hold dear—the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation—are being ripped to shreds daily. Every week seems to reveal a fresh scandal, whether it is in government, corporate leadership, Hollywood, or law enforcement. Our human equilibrium is being “punctuated” by changes in our physical climate, too.
In a way, learning about the pre-historic and deep past—a time before modern language and recorded thought—is a new kind of the “View from Above” meditation. This Stoic technique encourages practitioners to imagine themselves high above their street, city, or state, to float over things is to see them from a new perspective. From that point of view, our numerous problems seem small and inconsequential.
So when I am bothered by things around me, I don’t try to escape to the past so much as immerse myself in the timeline of this long history. The past is more than “another country,” as it’s been called—it’s a whole other version of our universe.
I can envision a long line of beings living and breathing and working together and fighting and loving and competing. A line constantly shifting and changing. Marcus Aurelius wrote of this concept in his Meditations. For example:
"At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young.” (6:15)
As I review what we humans have experienced over the "ever-flowing stream of time," I think not just of people alone but also the megafauna (mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths, and more) that they encountered. These creatures, long extinct, once made our bodies seem tiny... and stand in great contrast to the microscopic ones that started it all.
Getting to know more about this past could also help us move towards the Stoic goal of "living in accord with Nature." The largeness of time and space, and the variation of life and the natural world, are a remarkable heritage. If we see all this in the light of the vastness of the cosmos, it's something to marvel at... and a means to meditate on where we have been, and where we would like to go. Ultimately, this is another way to work to increase our own human flourishing in a world not made just for us.
Do you ever wish you could just KNOW what to say to your kids to guide and support them?
Lately, when I’m trying to help one of my daughters by saying something I think is supportive or giving some gentle guidance, it doesn't seem to go so well.
I don’t blame them for their frustrated responses. It’s all about perspective and how you interpret what’s being said.
For example, saying “You’re doing so well, that’s great!” when we were doing an athletic activity together sounded to my daughter like: “You’re a little kid who needs to be told how good she is.”
She asked, “Why are you so surprised I can do this? You don’t have to tell me that.” Good point. And I’m glad to see she wasn’t waiting for/dependent on my praise to know she’s got things covered.
“You’re kind of talking to me like a baby,” was her other comment. I know that for her, acting like a “baby” is probably one of the worst insults a person could throw at her. So I stopped to think. Maybe I hadn’t evolved how I talked to her to really meet her age, level, and self-reliant character?
And when I try to provide a little coaching about simple things like vocabulary words or piano practice, I get pushback. I thought I was helping. But I can see that my lessons on independence for my kids have actually sunk in, to the point where they really don't want that kind of intervention.
In general, my advice and “help” are not what my kids need to understand how they should think or feel about things. My daughters are in middle and high school now. They have to go through their own process of examining their impressions and discerning the right choices. They are of an age to internalize the lessons that I’ve shared with them about how to understand the world without blinders on—about how to question knee-jerk reactions and groupthink—and about striving towards virtues and moral guideposts such as courage, wisdom, justice, and self-control.
So my parenting now has to focus on teaching (and reinforcing) the PROCESS for how to navigate their world. It's a process that can enable teens to live without focusing exclusively on misguided externals, and to think through their choices using their "spark of reason" and good judgment.
You remember when you were taught to "Stop, Drop, and Roll" if you smelled smoke or a fire? The process is kind of like that, it just happens in our minds rather than our bodies as we respond to the world around us. Stop, drop, and question your impressions. Stop, drop, and tune into your reason and your ruling center, the part of your brain designed to help you navigate away from a deadly fire. Except instead of a fire, we're coping with an unhealthy emotion, or irrational belief, or any thought that just isn't in sync with reality and the nature of the universe.
Then, you can ask yourself: Is what I want to do next next wise, fair, brave, and common-sensical? Does it help others, not just me? Does it help me become the kind of person I want to be? Or does it just serve my own ego and my own biases?
These questions are a good place to start. It is undeniably hard for fast-moving children, but as they get older, they can begin to shape a well-informed process. And as I remind my daughters, a kind of shorthand for this: "Don't believe everything you think."
We can model that process in our own lives, and in how we talk through our own everyday activities and decision-making. None of this is simple for adults either! Personally, I find that I often let doubts creep in about choices… so I stay vigilant about what I say and do to undermine my own process.
Encouraging this process is analogous to our schools trying to teach students HOW to analyze and think for themselves, not WHAT to think or just memorize. Critical thinking and questioning are what philosophy is all about—we can recall how Socrates encouraged these things in his followers and students, and then Epictetus, and many other ancient philosophers. Don't wait for a teacher to guide you, Epictetus said: Once you've mastered the basic ideas for how to live, just go out there and do it.
And the same holds for adults, too.
As much as we might like to KNOW what to do, we cannot ask our philosophy for ALL the answers, written out for us to follow. Ultimately we all need to cultivate a powerful ruling center to help make choices, and to live with the choices we have made.
And that's hard! There's just no way to know all the ideal choices, all the right ways to approach our complex world. We have freedom, and we must make the best of it even when it feels like a tough burden to navigate our lives. Philosophy helps us find illuminated checkpoints in the fog... but the fog remains.
Even Stoic role models such as Marcus Aurelius would probably have been the first to admit that they didn’t know everything. And I think they would have been careful to avoid giving unwanted or unwarranted advice. Can you picture Socrates telling you which car to buy? Or which job to apply for?
No life philosophy is a decision tree showing specific steps. There's no flow chart with spelled-out answers for always doing the right thing. Anything that proscriptive would not allow people to be individuals, to think for themselves, or to get to know their own ruling center.
Instead, our life philosophy should equip us to discern the path towards eudaimonia... and with that process, we can bring a conscious, thoughtful faculty of choice to our decision-making, avoiding fires and other dangers along the way.
Over three years ago, I was new to Stoicism. I had decided to learn all I could about this life philosophy, devouring books and readings to find out how Stoic ideas could reshape my mindset.
One thing that propelled me forward was Stoic Week, the annual event where participants can “live like a Stoic philosopher” for 7 days. It includes free learning materials and an online course. I wrote about it here in 2016, when Stoic Week was in its fifth year.
Mark your calendars for October 7, because Stoic Week is back for 2019!
It’s an opportunity to question your knee-jerk reactions and tap into your sense of reason… To give your ruling center a tune up… To focus on what really matters, and what’s in your power to change. You won’t be on your own: The free online class spearheaded by Donald Robertson offers daily advice and reflections, as well as a chance to monitor progress.
The organizers have this to say about Stoic Week: "Stoic Week is a global online experiment trying to see if people can benefit from following the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Since its inception in 2012, over 20,000 people have signed up and so far the results have been consistently positive."
For further Stoic Week reading, I’d suggest checking out a recent book that’s on my desk now: A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control, by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez.
This book could serve as a steady companion for the Stoic Week journey and beyond. It contains a wealth of lessons and exercises—52 weeks’ worth. The book begins with a very short but helpful introduction to how Stoicism can help in everyday life, and continues to focused explanations of the ideas and how to put them into practice. Stories of people’s real-life problems offer examples of how to make Stoicism work for you.
So does explanation of the philosophy in a concise and conversational style, delving into the origin of some of the most foundational Stoic ideas. Take one example. In explaining why labeling things “good” or “bad” is questioned in Stoicism—an idea I’ve grappled with understanding—the authors harken back to Socrates’ thinking:
"Socrates argues that the only thing that can always benefit us is virtue, and the only thing that can truly hurt us is the lack of virtue. But wait a minute, you might say. Surely wealth, power, or fame is also good, no? Not really. They may be used for good or for bad. Being wealthy may be a conduit for doing good for humanity, but it may also be what enables you to do harm. The same goes for all other preferred or dispreferred things. As Epictetus puts it: “What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions.” That faculty is reason, which tells us that virtue is the only true good."
The chapter goes on to offer a challenging exercise in using the words “good” and “bad” to only refer to one’s character, and to change your vocabulary and thinking when it comes to other kinds of judgments. It’s a good way to wrap your mind around a concept that seems counter-intuitive in our money- and power-driven culture.
Multiply that chapter by 52 and you have a lot of wisdom to draw from.
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.