The human condition. I used to think the expression was reserved for pedants and philosophers. But now I know better. It's as important to children as it is to high-thinking adults. Perhaps even more so.
Sometimes I feel as if I can almost watch the thoughts happening, the neurons firing, in my daughters' heads. Those thoughts are getting more and more complex. Now they are both old enough and mature enough to question everything in a very grown up way. They ask more than just what and why, but how and when and what will it feel like.
As we sat under the stars on our last night visiting the island of Kauai as a family, we looked up and observed an incredibly luminous Sirius shining down on us. My younger daughter, age 10, asked a very serious question. "What happens after we die? What does it feel like?"
This is the biggest and baddest of them all when it comes to challenging questions. Not just for children but for every last one of us. None of us will escape our fate. As soon as we our born, when we gain consciousness, we realize we will someday die. And what does that mean? Also: What does it tell us about how to live?
I struggled to answer. I came up with platitudes. My husband and I veered onto shaky, nearly mystical ground, trying to reassure her while at the same time dealing quietly with our own terror. It's not the first time we've been asked this. I still have no response.
That, my friends, is the human condition in a nutshell. Trying to calm and reassure and guide our loved ones while feeling our own existential crisis boiling inside. Knowing that we don't know. Facing the scary uncertainty of life and the sure certainty of death.
She tried to get us to answer, to provide something concrete. I fumbled further.
In the end, I said essentially this: We know these explanations don't satisfy you, but this is this best we can do--and this is the human condition. We live, we enjoy a remarkable moment like this one surrounded by an amazing family that we have created, sitting outside at a patio table of a lovely restaurant, feeling the cool night air, under unusually bright stars and a nearly full moon, hearing the waves crashing onto the beach below us, just out of sight in the night's shadows.
This is what we have. All we have. And we are extremely lucky to have this. The rest is the great unknown.
In fact, often, the rest is us dealing with pain, loss, frustration, anger, resentment, sorrow, suffering, and not having any way to end it other than returning to the moment we have, and resting in it, taking any joy we can from it, keeping everything sad and tough and joyous and awe inspiring in our minds at the same time.
Sometimes it feels as if we might explode from it all, but generally we don't. We go on. As long as we can. And then we stop. But we hope that by then, we will have left something worthwhile and indeed precious behind.
And for us, that thing will be you.
Do you ever feel so angry you could scream, and then suddenly realize that this feeling goes against all you believe? All you try to achieve as a person, parent, and Stoic?
As promised, my third installment of my conversation with Stoicism teacher and writer Donald Robertson focuses on anger. I am not the most patient of people, and I often wonder how I could avoid becoming upset too quickly and speaking out in anger, especially to my children. I also would like to do a better job of helping my kids manage their own anger (depicted here!).
I asked Donald: What does Stoic thinking teach us about how to cope with anger?
You want to begin by spotting yourself becoming angry. As a therapist, I’ve dealt with anger management. The first stage of therapy is that you have to spot it to stop it.
There are different levels of self-awareness. Everyone knows when someone turns red. But the hard part is noticing anger before you are truly aware of it. There are early warning signs. Earlier than normal, try to notice it. It becomes harder to control passions the longer they go on.
The same thing is true if you are a runner—when you’re going fast, and someone says stop, it’s hard to stop because things have escalated. But stopping when you’re walking, it isn’t as tough. That’s anger. It’s less and less voluntary the longer it continues. Catch it early, and you have more voluntary control.
It’s possible that you are getting annoyed, and you are not aware you are angry. One answer to that is that another person could observe you. Stoic mentors, in ancient times, would follow you and notice your responses, like Rusticus did with Marcus Aurelius. It can be more obvious to others.
Learn to notice internal signs like tense shoulders. Like the specific thoughts you have, such as blaming thoughts. Or maybe it’s the tone of voice I’m using, or I’m frowning – that’s mindfulness training, as well as self-monitoring and self-observation.
Anger is temporary madness. Evidence shows that it creates cognitive distortion. Anger narrows our scope of attention and amplifies our response. We are prone to generalization and can’t problem solve. We have ‘gone crazy and can’t think clearly.’ Awareness of other stimuli will dilute that response—so the more I notice about my body, the more I will be forced to expand scope. That way I can give my mind a bunch of things to do.
As a side note: Seneca wrote a book about anger. He said anger is unnatural and unnecessary. It’s ugly and bad. He says, “Look at people’s faces when they are angry, don’t they look twisted and horrible?”
Are there other specific Stoic-based approaches to calming anger, once we become aware of it happening?
They did cognitive distancing. The ancient Stoics talk a lot about when a thought pops through your mind, you should see it as an arbitrary value judgment. All the thoughts we have are projections. All judgments are fundamentally indifferent. Nothing external is that bad. The only thing we should care that strongly about is our own character. That value doesn’t exist in external world. It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgments about things. I’m externalizing it – you are a jerk, this is awful, you are awful. This is catastrophizing. We need to learn to roll that back.
Epictetus said if you have an angry thought, you can tell it, “you’re just an impression. You’re not the thing you claim to represent.” He is talking to the thought, as if another person, as if it is an outside object. This is creating cognitive distance. “You again, you are my angry judgment that comes up.”
It’s like catastrophe-tinted glasses – there’s a difference between looking through the glasses and taking the glasses off and look at the glasses.
We can try to take a step back and look at our beliefs, judgments, and impressions. Marcus believed in a catharsis—a separation—of our thoughts from external reality. Learning to notice that we are putting those glasses on and looking through them. It’s not a feature of reality. It’s a perspective, a projection. That weakens our emotional and behavioral response.
Having done that, Epictetus says, tell the thought to wait a while, and give us time to rest and respond. You could say to yourself: “Wait until I’ve calmed down and come back to this.” Then you can later be more rational, and ask yourself, what would Socrates do, what would Zeno do? What would the people I admire do?
Also, you could do a cost-benefit analysis of your angry response. Say you do what your anger was telling you to do. What would be the consequences? What would be another way of responding? When we have calmed down and removed ourselves from situation – time out strategies. The Platonists believed in that.
Counting to ten is not long enough. Augustus had a Stoic tutor, who told him to recite the Greek alphabet when angry. That’s longer than counting to ten!
Any other Stoic wisdom on anger, especially when working with kids?
The Stoics believed we are all like children in a way. They didn’t claim to be “wise”—no one was a true “sage.” They thought that we are all in the same boat, and none of us are perfect.
Seneca said of his philosophy, “Imagine this is a therapy, but I’m not a doctor. I’m the guy in the hospital bed beside you who has been undergoing treatment longer. I’ve made some progress.” It’s like peer support.
Getting back to anger: Marcus Aurelius had some strategies for anger management. One of them is to remind yourself that you are just as bad as the person making you angry. Humility could that be enough to stop the feeling. We are all foolish, we all have passions, and you have to figure this out for yourself.
Parents who get angry are child-like. Realizing that is humbling and helps to snap us out of it. “There’s a child within me, who is having a tantrum,” we might say to ourselves.
With kids, when they get angry, we should teach them not to ashamed of anger. But also to tolerate anger. What matters is what they do next, after the angry feeling happens.
Thanks for reading The Stoic Mom. If you have any suggestions or ideas for future 2018 posts or any questions, please write in the comments!
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.