Last month, I submitted my poem "Make Yourself Good" to the Odes to Marcus Aurelius international competition held by Modern Stoicism and The Aurelius Foundation to celebrate the Stoic emperor's 1900th birthday. I was honored to win second place and would like to share what I wrote with you!
The competition organizers also shared a recording of me reading the poem. Click on the YouTube video above to hear it.
My goal with this poem: To get at the heart of Marcus' Meditations, and what I hope to remember from his writings each and every day.
Make Yourself Good
By Meredith Alexander Kunz
“Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live.”
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4:17
Remember that this moment
Is all you have:
Each flying second
Your personal eternity
To make with it
What you can
On this earth.
Each flash of consciousness
Your own, your true possession,
The source of your power
To choose, and choose well,
In this temporary existence.
Focus on this alone and stay true.
That’s what you need to remember
To concentrate on what must be done.
God or atoms? No difference.
Each of us must make our own way.
And that inner daimon--
Inside you, inside us all,
Knows the path to virtue
And the good.
When we listen,
We find happiness.
Some days, some years even,
We will be down and out,
Dispossessed, beaten up
By the whims of the world,
Liable to gnash our teeth,
Fill our brains with worry,
Fear, desire, resentment.
But still: We hold the keys to mastery
Of all that really matters.
It’s a lesson for the ages:
“While you have life in you,
While you can,
Make yourself good.”
And if you’re veering off course into
Love of status, money, looks, things--
If you’re consumed
Of what lies ahead,
And dread of what
And recall the philosopher-king
to rule them all.
He’ll set you right.
And you’ll start the next day
Ready for the fight.
Want a meaningful holiday gift you can give to yourself? Try self-compassion.
You may ask yourself: Why do I need to focus on self-compassion? Take this 10 second quiz. How many times in the last few weeks have said to yourself something like: “That was so stupid, why did I do that?” Or: "I wish I hadn't said that silly comment... It sounded dumb.” Or: “Why do I always make these ridiculous mistakes? Can’t I do anything right?”
If you’re like me, you hear that voice in your head far too frequently. And it’s a tough thing.
How did I get so hyper-self-critical? My theory is that I have used these voices to drive myself forward and to cope, however incompetently, with my worries about my performance and my mistakes.
Somehow, in the depths of my consciousness, being my own harshest critic seemed preferable to waiting for other people to notice a mistake and criticize me. And it gave me a dark momentum. The more I berated myself internally, the more I pushed myself to do challenging things. “It’s not good enough” simply meant I had to try harder and be even more critical of myself or my work.
I’ve learned from studying Stoic life philosophy, and from working with ideas from cognitive behavioral therapy, that this is NOT a healthy way to achieve motivation or to “protect” myself from outside criticism. It’s just a bad idea, and it is one that I try to help short-circuit in my daughters' thinking. (I am doing OK in that department: In fact, if my kids hear my self-critical narration out loud, they now tell me: “Mom, that's not true! That wasn't stupid!”)
Fortunately, I’ve found some better approaches: Self-compassion, and a less judgmental perspective on myself and my world based on Stoic ideas. Now, when I hear that harsh voice, I try to remember these words from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations:
“I am not justified in causing myself pain, for I have never deliberately caused pain to another.”
This thought shifted my whole perspective on the emotional harm I’m doing to myself when I let my inner critic go wild. Why cause internal pain to myself, when I’d never choose to do that to someone else?
Let’s put Marcus’ quote to work when I think about the inner monologue that started this post. Would I say the same nasty things to a friend, calling her stupid, dumb, essentially worthless? No! Of course not. I love my friends. Plus, we wouldn’t stay friends for long if I were so unkind. Would I say these things to one of my kids? No! It would be considered verbally abusive, and it would cause shame and hurt their morale going forward.
I knew my approach had to change a few years ago when I started reading the work of Kristin Neff, an academic researcher in psychology who has focused on self-compassion who also teaches and writes for the general public. I’ve learned a lot about how to cause less inner pain to myself by following her approaches. I’ll share here a glimpse into Neff’s work, and you’ll see how well it resonates with Stoic ideas.
Neff explains that self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
Self-kindness is the conscious decision to view yourself with kindness and affection, rather than ignoring internal pain or being harshly self-critical. When their expectations are not met (however unrealistic), people tend to feel increased stress and frustration, and may launch into self-criticism. But when we accept the reality of our situation, with less judgment and with more equanimity, level-headedness is possible. (This is a very Stoic concept.) In truth, all people are imperfect, make mistakes, and deal with difficulties in life. It is inevitable. Our choice to be kind to ourselves rather than express negative emotions is a choice we can all make.
Mindfulness focuses on noticing your thoughts, emotional reactions, and sensations in the present moment without judgment. Common humanity means that we understand that all humans share vulnerabilities, deal with frustrations and disappointments, and are less than perfect. It’s a recognition that we are all in the same boat—which helps us gain more compassion towards ourselves and others, as well as a pro-social connection.
Which leads me to an important point: It’s not like my inner monologue is doing any good. Neff cites research about motivation showing that people who are kind to themselves about their mistakes and failures—people who have self-compassion—are more likely to set new goals for themselves rather than ruminating about their disappointments and frustrations. They also have been shown to demonstrate healthier behaviors and stick to their health-related goals, such as quitting smoking, exercising, working towards weight loss. Self-critics are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and they harbor a fear of failure because they view mistakes as unacceptable, Neff says.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, gives kids and adults the “emotional resources” they need to pick themselves up and try again. The self-compassionate people Neff has studied find a way to accept past mistakes and acknowledge them with equanimity, while moving on.
In other words: Motivation doesn't have to rely on stark self-criticism. Instead, it can spring from the recognition that no one is perfect and we’re doing our best, and that we always have the opportunity to improve (even in small ways).
The gift of self-compassion doesn’t end after we make a decision to treat ourselves this more kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of common humanity. Like other life philosophy practices, it may take constant reminders and a long period of time to train ourselves to think differently. But what a gift if we can do so.
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.
Nothing focuses the mind better than a pandemic.
The novel coronavirus landed in my California county in late January, and the second person to die from Covid-19 in my state passed away in a hospital just a couple miles from my home. The illness is now spreading in my community. Events are cancelled; my husband and I were told to work from home. It’s just a matter of time until our kids are told to stay away from school and continue their studies on their own.
It’s a taste of the experience that ancient people felt regularly—life threatened by a menace outside their control, whether it's disease, starvation, war, or other violence. Life does not feel secure, dashing the illusion we hold onto most days that it is.
We can hope for the best, but considering how easy it seems to be to become infected, we know we’re at the mercy of outside factors. And we can’t change our age, or our pre-existing conditions, the people we encounter, or the area in which we live. All these things can cause vulnerability, as can random chance.
This all serves as a potent reminder of the conditions that prompted the rise of Greek and Roman philosophy, especially Stoicism. This philosophy teaches that many things that happen in the world are outside our control, and what's most important is the way we respond to them.
There ARE certain actions that are in our control, of course. We can practice “social distancing,” and follow the recommendations of our local health department (which caused a cascade of event cancellations last week, and the mandate to work remotely) and CDC. We can wear gloves if needed, wash our hands often, use sanitizers, clean shared surfaces, try to stop touching our own faces. We can stock our pantries (and help others do the same by donating to local food banks).
But what about working to strengthen ourselves both inside and out? To build our toughness and resistance has much as possible?
For inner strength, the Stoics are an excellent guide. First, examine those impressions. When a newscaster or social media post makes you start to panic, think twice. What's a reasonable course of action? Taking precautions with hygiene and stocking up on prescription meds and food basics = great; buying every last can of beans and toilette paper roll in the store = going overboard.
Next, think of a key virtue: courage. A sense of bravery is not an old-fashioned luxury. It is something many of need to conjure everyday. And this pandemic is bringing it home to all of us.
Now, more than ever, is a good time to share that bravery with our children. After they do the common-sense things of practicing clean hands and germ avoidance, their goal—like ours—is to live well within the confines of dangers and uncertainty. Perhaps this is a great opportunity to model how we can still life our lives surrounded by fear. A minor triumph was a trip out shopping a couple days ago with my whole family, visiting the near-empty farmer’s market, the busy food store, and the less-busy-than-usual small shops.
Another key Stoic approach is standing up to our fear. Building our character. Stoicism at its core promotes a sense of self-mastery. That’s the crux of Marcus Aurelius’ project in his Meditations: to remind himself how to manage his impressions and responses, to keep the big picture in mind, and to recall what truly has value—good moral intentions and the actions that result from them.
Fear of dying is primal in humans, and as a survival mechanism, it prompts us to work hard to protect ourselves from dangers. The message of the Stoics is quite foreign to our modern ears, accustomed to trying to prolong life as long as we can with tools and technologies. But we find that sometimes, we aren't in control of how things go.
For a 'shot in the arm' filled with truth, let’s listen to Epictetus: “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” Epictetus faced death with courage and a sense of control over his emotional response. Epictetus again: “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”
These concepts are more easily digested as one gets older; for my kids, I try to explain that dying is a part of living, a critical step in the 'circle of life' of all creatures. That doesn't help cure young ones' fears by any means, but I think it is better than sweeping the idea of death under the rug completely. It's what we do with our time that matters, and I'd rather not spend each moment quaking in fear and sadness. That, too, they can understand. And heck, now that they're being forced to stay home from school for a few weeks, maybe they'll have more time to learn about philosophy (LOL!).
For physical strengthening in this trying time, we can strive to make healthy choices every day. I am not a doctor, but lots of healthy living advice that I've read is pretty much common sense. Science shows that good habits can help us be more resilient to disease. Resilient people may get an infection, but they can over come it. Of course, hygiene is critical; we’ve been told so often to wash our hands. I’m a germaphobe and that’s not new to me, nor to my kids, who hear that refrain constantly... And who have been getting doused with Purell regularly since their toddler days!
Also: Try to get a good night’s rest. This is obvious, but it's also really, really important, for kids and grown-ups alike. With all our 24/7 entertainment, our busy work lives, and all our childcare and housekeeping responsibilities, this can be hard for many adults. But now more than ever let’s make it a priority.
In addition, doctors remind us to reduce sugar and processed foods (though I think just a little stress-eating of Girl Scout cookies, especially after reading about coronavirus, shouldn’t cause too much guilt!). Consuming veggies, fruits, and lean proteins is always good, and other things in moderation. Easing children's love for sweets isn't easy, but reminding them "that's a dessert food" seems to help confine sugary foods to fewer instances.
Exercise helps, around 30 minutes a day or more; if weather permits, head outside for a burst of fresh air and movement. Maybe even consider meditating. Even if it’s just 10 minutes of deep breathing, it helps soothe the mind and body and bring us back to what’s important, rather than a frantic ratcheting-up of fear. I like to sit on a cushion, turn on some gentle sounds (rain, waves, Tibetan bowls!) and breathe slowly, clearing my mind of aggravating or stressful thoughts.
And finally: We can accept that our lives are forever in danger, and that we are ultimately mortal beings, while also striving to live a values-driven life RIGHT NOW. Life is not meaningless because it’s unpredictable and finite—we can MAKE it meaningful.
This was a lesson I learned from reading existentialist Albert Camus many years ago, and I’ve also found that this concept motivated many Stoics to make themselves and their existence better. That including Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: ”Don’t behave as if you are destined to live forever. What’s fated hangs over you. As long as you live and while you can, become good now.”
“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.
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.