Times are tough in the sixth month of the pandemic. Gut-wrenching losses have set in: Friends and acquaintances have experienced the loss of loved ones from Covid-19; others are being laid off from jobs due to the economic impact of the virus. My children are bracing for months of online school and a continued lack of close contact with teachers and peers, as well as the disappearance of many school-based activities (sports, arts) that made their schooldays more palatable. On top of that, the fight for equal justice carries on in our communities in the US. And here in Northern California, enormous forest fires sparked by lightning have consumed towns and hillsides, and the smoke has made local air unhealthy to breath.
It is difficult, at times, to feel optimism. But carry on we must. As a friend recently pointed out, “If my grandmother could survive a genocide in Europe, I can survive this.”
True. Things could be worse. And for many of us, a refresher course in basic Stoic principles for self-improvement could help us bear up through this. Who knows, maybe we’ll even make a little personal progress in handling adversity in this awful time?
Lessons from Epictetus: How to Make Progress
This brings us to Epictetus. In Discourses III.2, he explores “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Let’s take a moment to dig into this text, and to see if it can help us gain perspective on our current situation.
Epictetus discusses “three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained.” Those three are the study of:
Epictetus says that most philosophers have focused on the third element, while neglecting the first two. So it’s to the first two that we must bring our attention. Let’s begin:
Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason. (III.2.3)
Starting with how to handle negative emotions: During this pandemic, we are constantly assaulted by our passions and our “desires and aversions.”
Social Humans Face an Inner Conflict
As we live in quarantines and lockdowns, we face a difficult inner conflict. Throughout human history, as Stoics and other ancient philosophers acknowledged, we have been a social species. Humans have banded together since prehistoric times to fend off threats. Humans have thrived on contact with each other, and on the essential social supports that parents and grandparents provide children, teachers provide students, friends provide peers, employers provide staff, generals provide soldiers. Cutting off our human contact—or turning it completely “virtual” on artificial screens—will inevitably have an impact on our inner life.
Put another way: We humans have a strong (and very natural) desire to congregate with our families and friends; we have a longing to go out and enjoy the restaurants, theaters, concerts, gyms, sports, and salons we know and love from the past; we enjoy travel, experiencing new things, and celebrating personal milestones out in the world with our peers and colleagues.
Here’s where the conflict comes in. On the aversion side, we wish to avoid disease and our loved ones falling ill. Clearly, we want to stay away from people and places that may spread infection. So our wish to be together and to support one another in our many roles clashes with the new imperative to “social distance.”
Let’s also acknowledge that many people have no choice but to live in this conflicted space: they need to avoid losing their livelihood in an essential or service job, and to do so, they have to expose themselves to situations that may harbor the virus. Or they are parents whose school is opening up: they want their children to learn, and to do so may require a risk of exposure.
All of these wishes create a huge battle in our minds, one that often overwhelms people and drives them to self-destructive behaviors. For instance, huge house parties have popped up in the Hamptons and in Los Angeles, despite the warnings of doctors and scientists that this can spread disease. And some people are making a political issue out of the imperative to protect ourselves and others, refusing to do one of the few things that could prevent the spread of Covid: wear masks in public.
Stoicism reminds us of the essential moral duty to master our passions. Rather than be led by our knee-jerk impulses or our stubborn desires, we have an obligation to look at the bigger picture and draw upon our sense of reason to develop a clear idea of the best path forward. We have to work to question each impression and each decision, to ensure that we have seen the whole truth of the matter. This takes both energy and discipline—both of which are in short supply in a suffering world.
It’s not straightforward, either. It’s about weighing risk, too, and unfortunately we still don’t know how much risk is involved in many activities today. For example, a local summer camp asked my daughter to attend in person, having gained permission for smaller groups to participate, with counselors wearing masks. Ultimately, we decided there would be an unknown amount of risk, and since we had little control over how the health policies would be enforced at the camp, we decided to keep our daughter home. Extra YouTube and Netflix time over the summer seemed a small price to pay for more certainty. On the other hand, my daughters have both been allowed to visit friends at the park, or on bike rides, in a socially-distant setting, where they have some control of the situation.
But the length of time of our pandemic restrictions is wearing on all of us. I’ve noticed that this is a time when many of us feel we are losing the motivation to do the kinds of things (get exercise, eat right, work hard in remote situations) that could benefit us in the long run. There’s a kind of fatigue that sets in dealing with the isolation, uncertainty, lack of knowledge, financial hardships, and, in some cases, medical issues, of the pandemic.
What Could Help Most: Preserving Our Relationships
So we can already see how difficult this situation is for our rational brains, and we need to think about our desires and aversions in a new light during a pandemic. Now moving on to the second “study” of Epictetus, I’ll quote him here:
The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. (III.2.4)
This passage makes clear that we need not become the kind of Stoic that Star Trek’s “Mr. Spock” represents—distant, unemotional, and stony. We are not statues, nor are we robots. I admire the way Epictetus weaves in personal relationships here, because I believe that’s what could help us the most during this difficult time.
Most of us have a relationship with someone: A parent, spouse or partner, child, close friend. Or perhaps you have a relationship with a spiritual element or God. Or with a country, company, university, or other institution. Do you feel interconnected with that relationship? If so, could you spend a few moments considering how your behaviors during this pandemic affect those relationships?
For instance, let's consider a set of actions during the pandemic: Not being consistent with mask wearing and practicing hygiene and social distancing. This action can affect not just you, but also the people in your relationships: you child, your husband or wife, and especially your elderly relative. And it can hurt your whole community—and ultimately your country.
The US has experienced a massive upswing in Covid cases, so our behavior as Americans matters deeply. There’s a not we are not getting right on behalf of our families and communities, according to the statistics.
For ancient Stoics, friendship was considered an inherently good thing (it may not be necessary for being a good person, but nevertheless it was seen as something we should all pursue—see Seneca on Stoic friendship). Honoring our relationships with our friends and companions is critical to our sense of virtue. And a core belief in our common humanity—the interrelatedness of all humans—is central to Stoic thinking. They can also help us remember why we’re living a life of purpose to begin with: To be that role model and that pillar of strength that our friends and families can lean on.
And now, despite our more typical ways of celebrating our fellow humans as social creatures, we must actually distance ourselves from each other as a way of helping one another through a disease-ridden world—a way of protecting each other.
Achieving Constancy: A Worthy Goal
As we move forward through this pandemic and however many months it lasts, we will do well to keep these Stoic values at the forefronts of our minds. Recalling and rehearsing how to make progress as a person will lead us to the consistency that Epictetus spells out in his third point:
“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)
We may indeed find ourselves depressed (or even drunk, as per Epictetus…and the recently rising statistics on alcohol sales in the US!) during this lengthy pandemic. Many of us wish we could sleep through it, and wake up in a better place. It is tough to deal with the chaos in our brains as we try to survive personal and societal crisis.
But maintaining our moral vigilance and cultivating good decision-making in a consistent way should be our goal, along with the sustaining our rational mind, as the Stoics promoted. Our inner geniuses may feel confused by a lack of information and uncertainty, but if we keep ourselves informed as best we can, and engaged in the support of our communities and relationships in a distant way—online, by phone, and text—we can hope these sparks of reason within us will serve us well.
As we examine our impressions Stoic-style, the twin weights of scientific facts and the needs of our common humanity should be our guides, despite the conflicts we face today. I won’t say I’m capable of that each day, each hour, as we are confronted with new challenges and difficult news on a personal, national, and international level. But it is a worthy aim.
American deaths due to Covid-19 have now reached 100,000. It’s a staggering toll.
My region in Northern California has seen a significant decrease in cases, fortunately. In my family, we have been doing what we can to slow the spread, while starting to emerge a bit more from our homes. When we go out, we think ahead and take precautions, wearing masks, gloves at times, and keeping our distance. We allow extra time for the new rules being put in place, much like the new security rules after 9/11.
Yesterday was our first time visiting a local historical site’s gardens since the virus hit, and offers a case in point. We had to make an advance reservation, not necessary in the past. We also learned new protocols about standing in marked boxes to wait our turn, checking in at a distance from the staff, keeping our masks on outdoors on a hot day, staggering our journey to wait for others to pass, and adhering to one-way paths marked with arrows on the ground.
Going out again reminded me of a very odd fact: The reasons to be locked down are deadly serious; but if you are fortunate enough not to be ill or in dire need, you may discover that a break from the usual running, doing, and competing with others can be beneficial.
Typically, my family is constantly moving, and where I live, that means constantly driving through constant traffic. Usually, each kid has her own school schedule (different schools), social engagements, sports, and classes; each adult has many hours of work alongside other commitments, including volunteering, family gatherings, and performing arts events. It’s an exhausting existence that we have chosen. We were privileged to have it, but now, we’re privileged to not have it, because we can re-examine our attitudes to busy-ness generally and to dealing with crowds of people.
(We’re also fortunate to be together during the lockdown as a family, and to still have jobs so that we can continue to pay our bills; I know that’s not a given.)
I am surprised to say that once I accepted the lockdown was happening, I didn’t miss events such as big concerts or in-person conferences that much. Mainly, I didn’t miss the anxiety that goes with confronting crowds, and the feeling I have to compete with others for access or for resources (think parking, seating, food, restrooms!).
I’d like to leave that feeling behind entirely. But for me, it’s a challenge. I still notice that my stomach tightens when I am faced with a big crowd. I’m not good at waiting in line; I’m too apt to compare my line to the next one over, and ask, “why is that one so much faster and better!?!”
I had a great opportunity to confront this anxiety during my family’s last-gasp-of-summer mini vacation in 2019: A trip to Disneyland. Despite a number of frustrating moments, I worked hard on calming the inner competitor who kept stressing about lines and wait times for rides or food. That was NOT easy. In fact, my two daughters often were more patient and calm about waiting in long lines than I was! They were good at not fuming about "how long have we been in this line now??" I was impressed.
In fact, coping with other people’s behavior, and taming my emotional instincts to get angry, frustrated, or disappointed, have been major focal points of my Stoic practice. I’ve learned over the years to pay less attention to others’ comments, behaviors, and comparisons between myself and everyone else—and to take those things less personally. But I still find myself beginning to boil over when people around me don’t follow the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you!) or act self-centered.
As Epictetus would advise me, I have to take the time to question my impressions when it comes to coping with groups of people, crowds, traffic, and any situation that pits me against a bunch of others. I often harken back to the reminders from Marcus Aurelius about dealing with people who display “ignorance of what is good and evil” in their behaviors and attitudes. (Meditations, Book 2) Despite others’ less-than-perfect actions, we still need to work with them. After all, as Marcus points out, we are social beings living in a cooperative world.
For example: Why do I care about getting served at the restaurant in the exact order in which I arrived (rather than after someone else who came later than me)? Is it due to my sense of fairness? If so, Stoic thinking would tell me that I can’t guarantee others will act fairly. Is it because of a feeling that if I don’t get my food, I’ll be uncomfortable and hungry? That I will feel disrespected, even, as others are put before me? All of these things pop into my mind.
And why should these things matter? I can remind myself that they do not, really, unless I choose to let them matter. It’s not in my power to force others’ respect or fairness towards me, only to carry out respect and fairness myself. In other words: I can only work to live by the virtues on my end. And do my best to stay calm and cool when others don’t or can’t follow the same virtues.
I believe this approach can help as we re-integrate into a more anxious and unpredictable world now that the quarantine restrictions are starting to ease up. This is, for me, still a work in progress. I hope that this break from so much interaction will help me gain a more profound sense of inner tranquility that comes from fewer perceived conflicts and competition.
The lockdown continues. My family is now into our 6th week of working from home, and our daughters’ 5th week of school from home.
Here in my county in Northern California, around 50 cases of Covid-19 are being reported daily. Fortunately my family and friends are OK so far. (To learn more about what I’ve been up to, check out the Stoic Psychology podcast – described at the end of this post.)
One of the weirdest things about this lockdown is the consciousness whiplash I’m experiencing on a daily basis.
For me, my awareness of the Coronavirus crisis comes in waves. One minute I remember it, and fully know how bad it is for many people in many places. Another moment, I lose track of what’s happening and why I’m home.
My knowledge of the crisis temporarily lapses when I participate in a videocall for work, or even more, as I sit under the live oak tree in the backyard with my kids and take in the springtime air, scented with jasmine and lilac. Then I turn to a news website or Twitter and am confronted with the seriousness of things again.
Going back and forth this way is exhausting and strange, and extremely distracting. It’s as if something is always eating away at the edges of my consciousness.
I realize that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to put the crisis aside periodically in this way, but I feel a pit in my stomach when I recognize, once again, how difficult this is for many people who are sick or caring for the ill, or who are in essential jobs that put them at risk.
We are indeed the lucky ones, for now. I’ve heard from friends, too, that it’s difficult for them to enjoy the luxury of not having to commute through dense traffic, or the benefit of seeing their family more, while others are dealing with a pandemic much more directly and with dire consequences. And how we worry about not just those who are ill or treating them, but the many people who have lost their jobs and income.
Even for those not directly fighting the virus, there is a tremendous challenge. We are now all tasked with taking care of each other and ourselves on a new level. We are the direct caregivers of the young and the elderly in our households, and we are responsible for them, as well as for trying to keep ourselves well and sane. It’s a bit how I imagine life was like in small, remote homesteads in the old days: People cut off for weeks or months from contact, in charge of their own food supply, cooking, house work, brain work/education, and leisure activities (if indeed they had leisure). The amount of child care (or elder care) varies greatly from one household to another, but in any case, it’s new for many people to be providing an all-day supply of food, toilet paper (!), education, and activities around-the-clock.
Weirdly, another casualty of this lockdown is, temporarily, time. It’s not that time has completely lost its meaning. Rather, how we count time has changed because of the new way we’re living. A single day can feel very long, or very short, depending on how we spend it.
The silver lining in all this, for me, is time with family. Family that is usually too busy to spent much time together talking and cooking and playing and chatting during the week.
My husband and I are fortunate, now, to both still work full-time remotely, and our children are staying busy with online school assignments that they complete and hand in remotely. The chores do pile up—as one of our cousins put it, the lockdown has turned us into full-time restauranteurs at home, with a teen and tween needing frequent nourishment and no restaurants, diners, or school lunches on the horizon. So yes, despite this lockdown, we are busy!
Nevertheless, I think this time is one to re-assess what gives our lives meaning. Naturally, we all need to try to keep putting food on the table (literally, and in the sense of staying financially solvent). But beyond that, it’s important to have a purpose. Outside of work (housework or job-work), what motivates our days when all the busy-ness of the daily run-around goes away?
For my kids, it’s been a time of renewal, in a sense. They are developing and re-discovering interests that they never had a chance to explore as much before, when they were spending most hours at school or in sports/activities.
Some examples: Skateboarding. Learning pieces on the piano. Doing jigsaw puzzles. Creating a teen-oriented website. Throwing a virtual party for a friend who missed out on her birthday celebration due to the lockdown. Playing non-competitive Appleletters (a form kind of Scrabble). Baking bread, cookies, cupcakes. Preparing and serving tea with little sandwiches. (Did I mention eating was big at my house right now? Trying to avoid the "quarantine 15" though!)
And for me: I have more time to reflect and to sit quietly, not having to constantly be on the move. The stress of traffic and shuttling kids and making it to in-person work meetings is relieved.
Just one sign of that is that now, I’m finally getting a chance to participate in a podcast. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but couldn’t squeeze it into my schedule of full-time work, full-time parenting, and part-time writing/blogging.
Recently, I was interviewed for the Stoic Psychology podcast by Alex MacLellan from London. If you have a chance, please take a listen! Alex is doing a multi-part series with my interview that also includes his own introductory thoughts, along with his book discussion, and then features selections from my conversation with him. We touched on numerous aspects of being a Stoic parent and how Stoicism can best be shared with kids, and we talked about strategies for making it through the lockdown with our sanity and our life philosophy intact.
Speaking with Alex across continents felt, in a way, like a radical gesture of connection in this time of enormous interpersonal disconnecton. It reminded me that I am thankful for this Stoic community for continuing our links, our writing, our sharing, and for so many people’s efforts to forge ahead with this much-needed life philosophy in a difficult and unusual time. Fortune willing, things will brighten as spring ripens into summer.
“Attitude is everything, take a good one where you go,
It’s up to you to keep a happy mood--
And everything depends upon your attitude!”
These are the lyrics of a song my older daughter learned in first grade and performed for parents and other kids. I loved it! Countless times I have sung this song to my two daughters when they were small, and I was just reminded of it again during the current coronavirus pandemic. Though the song is a bit over the top in its cheerfulness, the message rings true: Everything depends upon your attitude, especially in times of crisis.
When I first heard this song, it was shortly before I began my journey into Stoicism. At the time I was investigating psychology and mindfulness. I was learning self-awareness, but there was still something missing. And for me, what was lacking was the sense of balance and reason within, and the courage to take charge of my own responses to a world that often felt cruel and unfair.
I have experienced that sinking sense of the world’s cruelty since I was very young, when my dad first became sick. A kind, intelligent, and loving person, accomplished as a mathematician, Dad was in and out of medical care for years as I grew up. He died much too soon. It was a terrible thing to realize that I had no control over what happened to someone I cared about so deeply.
That creeping sense of the insecurity of life is back now with the coronavirus. The virus has actively spread in my Northern California county, where residents and visitors come from all over the world to work at/with Silicon Valley tech companies.
The heavily trafficked freeways have now gone largely quiet as a “shelter-in-place” order covers our region. My colleagues from work are holed up in their own remote locations, trying to limit any contact with the wider world. (It reminds me of people in Cold War bomb shelters… or under house arrest.) East Coast relatives are also staying home whenever possible, and temperatures are now being taken to enter grocery stores and offices.
I’ve heard from friends in France dealing with massive lockdowns, rarely able to leave their apartments. The stories coming out of Italy right now, where we have colleagues, are sad and shocking. China seems to be improving but is far from back to normal; a coworker from there says that in the US, we are about two months or so behind that country in dealing with this.
And I just heard about a college classmate in New York, a healthy marathon runner in his mid-forties, now sedated and placed on a ventilator. He is struggling to recover from Covid-19.
Every day brings fresh insults—new tidbits of information that, taken in a certain way, can be very traumatizing. If you’re an admitted news junkie like me, you find yourself obsessively scrolling though stories about how the virus is affecting every aspect of life in every corner of the world. And that’s just too much information for one brain to handle.
How do we determine what a reasonable risk may be in these circumstances? It may feel as if our sense of reason is askew or even broken at times. Who is to know what’s paranoid under these circumstances? Friends of mine won’t see foot outside their homes. Several have told me about elder relatives who insist on shopping, whom they are begging to stop going to Walgreens.
Our kids are another issue. How to help them depends on their ages, personalities, and school circumstances. It’s a time of crisis. How much do we direct our children to do in this time, to prompt them to continue their school work remotely, in some cases without a teacher or classmates to guide them? I read an opinion piece the other day written by a mom who refused to run a “homeschool" for her third graders. She allowed them to play and watch movies. I get it! Kids need downtime and can use the break, especially if they are surrounded stress.
But what if you have older students nearing high school, or ones already in high school—students who want to be sure to fulfill graduation requirements, and apply to college someday? That’s the situation I find myself in. I’m working to support my kids’ learning, while still working remotely for my full-time job.
As one of my coworkers pointed out, this is a difficult time because of the high uncertainty and the lack of control we are experiencing. For those very reasons, it is the right time to practice our philosophy.
Aside from the hygiene, distancing, and protective practices that can help isolate the disease, and aside from working to support our families, all we can really manage are our own attitudes.
So how do we keep it all in balance? It’s not easy, and a daily emotional roller-coaster is very normal, even as an aspiring Stoic (after all, I’m not a sage!). But I am seeking to approach this rationally as best I can, and to use strategies based on a Stoic-inspired life. To keep my attitude in reasonably good shape, I have a three-fold plan:
And one more note: Please don’t hesitate to write back about how you are coping, and any advice you have during this difficult time, or to share it on social media forums or posts. Our virtual community can be a great help to those working to live out this philosophy right now!
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.
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 21
Reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, I get the impression of a man unafraid to be proven wrong—and quick to root out misconceptions. A man eager to learn from the world around him, yet careful in his judgments. A man who adhered to reason above the opinions of others. That’s the essence of his appeal: he strikes a chord with modern readers who still value his honesty and humanity nearly 2,000 years later.
Marcus’ quote above about truth says a lot about both about his personality and his approach to living by his philosophy. As a boy, he was known at court as “Verissimus,” meaning “most truthful”—a word derived from his family name, “Verus,” meaning “true.” When he stepped up to become emperor, this nickname remained accurate.
This contrasts markedly with today’s politicians and so many government authorities over the centuries. Some leaders would do anything to show that they are never wrong, including doctoring evidence, firing staff, or even eliminating opponents and watchdogs. Now that it is 2020, a major election year, it's more important than ever to become aware of what's true, what's misleading, and what's downright false.
Politically-motivated twisting of the truth can happen in subtle, behind-the-scenes ways, as we are learning with patterns of online influence. Initiatives to sway people have recently tapped into research studies of basic human traits. For example, psychologists have defined a core set of “the big 5 personality traits.” One of these traits is openness, described as “the breadth, depth, originality, and complexity of an individuals’ mental and experiential life.” Other traits are conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism or emotional instability, and agreeableness.
These personality traits are not meaningless trivia. Understanding them could help predict what kinds of ideas or stories will motivate or frighten certain groups of people. Personality-profiling and data company Cambridge Analytica harvested just this kind of data from millions in an effort to influence voters during the 2016 US presidential election.
If we—voters, citizens, and Stoics alike—don’t take the time to search independently for truth and make our own decisions carefully, if we don’t exercise the virtues of wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage, and practice a careful assessment of our impressions, our inborn personality traits could be used against us. Bad actors may even attempt to shift our understanding of what’s true. And it is often more comfortable, and easier, to just avoid examining what's actually happening around us... especially if we feel that we benefit somehow from the status quo.
Fortunately, we are not powerless against these tactics. Like Marcus, we can focus on the truth. We can drill down on information sources, read the fine print, and look at what might be driving the agendas of those feeding us their ideas and arguments.
Stoic thought emphasizes that we can use our rational understanding and choice (something humans are uniquely endowed with) to shape our behavior in the world. From a Stoic perspective, we are not merely pawns of our personalities, of electoral politics, or of the entities designed to exploit our traits for their own gain. We are born with a sense of reason that allows us to choose the path of truth-seeking and moral character. We owe it to ourselves to exercise that sense wisely.
Undoubtedly, Marcus himself had an enormously “broad, deep, original and complex” personality, both inside and out. It’s a life that has inspired leaders and thoughtful people ever since. And to me, it’s something to aspire to.
Originally published in The STOIC magazine. Explore the current issue and subscribe here.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.