This past week was Stoicon 2020, the biggest annual gathering of the modern Stoic community. As I tuned in to this year’s virtual talks – and as I gave one on Stoic Parenting at Stoicon-X Midwest (video coming soon!) – I thought about the core principles that first drew me to this way of thinking and living.
I’d like to share my intro to modern Stoicism here for anyone just getting started or as a brief review for anyone who has practiced for a while. And this quick summary could potentially help older kids or teens get a sense for what Stoic life philosophy is all about.
Here are the Stoic ideas that I use to stay grounded in my family life, confident in my work, and resilient in coping with my challenges:
First: Remember what you can and can’t control. Take the time to discern the difference, and then act on what is within your power.
Stoicism’s most famous principle is the “dichotomy of control”: some things are in our power, including our thoughts, choices, judgment, actions, and beliefs; some things are not in our power, basically everything else, including our health, wealth, physical appearance, and reputation, as well as how other people behave. Mixing up what’s “our business” with the externals that we cannot control is crazy-making. It causes us to place our focus and sense of personal worth onto things that don’t really matter for a truly good life, in the Stoic sense of accessing human excellence.
Not being able to control an outcome doesn’t mean we can’t do something about a problem. We can “act with a reserve clause” as Marcus Aurelius pointed out: The reserve clause tells us that we may not succeed in having an impact, but we can still do what’s within our own power to try to make a difference. So we should go full-speed ahead on what is within our control, even if things may seem nearly impossible to change. Also, we need to be able to steel ourselves to ignore or forget about the rest: the fear, anger, guilt, frustration, put-downs from others. I try to tell myself: “This is my life. I’ll what’s within my power to make it an excellent one.”
Second: Question your impressions and focus on making good moral judgments.
What are impressions? They are the knee-jerk reactions to what we experience in the world. We all have them. It’s what we do with those reactions that determines our future. If we could stop and think, and tap into our inner spark of reason that the Stoics believe we all have inside of us, we could make better choices—ones that are free from anger, hate, fear, anxiety. At every step, with everything we’re about to say or do, we have to question it on some level. And this approach is reflected in modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – questioning our misguided beliefs and our thoughts. CBT derives many fundamental ideas from Stoicism.
Thankfully, humans can access their reason to question these instantaneous reactions, and we can learn to tune out a lot of the distractions and temptations around us, to focus on making good judgments.
How can we tell if a judgment is good? We ask ourselves if it aligns to the Stoic virtues. The key virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control or moderation. These are our yardsticks for how we’re developing our character… and for what’s truly good in this world. With each action or behavior or statement, you ask, does it meet the standards of the four Stoic virtues: Is it wise? Is it just? Is it brave? Does it demonstrate moderation / self-control? All of these concepts are open to interpretation. But our personal moral progress/development demands that we try to answer these questions. The more practice we have in thinking this way, the more we’ll learn. This is our Stoic education!
Put another way: In Stoicism, happiness or well-being (eudaimonia in Greek) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct,and aiming to practice the virtues (aretê, which can also translate as excellence) provide the skills and character development needed to attain it.
Remember the importance of choice here too (the Greek prohairesis). By exerting the power of choice, it is possible to make virtuous choices, aiming towards an overall moral good. Epictetus said: “You yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.”
Third: Focus on the facts.
You may have heard that living “in accord with nature” is a Stoic goal. For ancient Stoics this meant living in sync with our own human nature, including heeding the spark of reason that’s inside each human, and connecting with and helping other people as our brothers and sisters. More modern interpretations, for instance by the late Lawrence Becker, that say living in accord with nature means following the facts, and making fact- and science-based judgments.
Although our abilities to research and understand the facts of our universe have greatly increased since ancient times, we see that the facts of science are still being disputed in some quarters. We should elevate facts whenever possible. We can ask: Is it true? What’s the evidence?
Let’s take a real-world example: If some people say they don’t believe the latest scientific research on coronavirus, and don’t think there’s a reason for social distancing, here’s a way to think about it. First, you could conclude that they are separated from their reason and can't analyze the facts in a rational way. Second, as a Stoic, you could still express compassion for those people as human beings, despite their misguided beliefs: you can recall our common humanity, try to be a good role model, and keep doing what you can do to make things better. Inside us, there is potential to become a fully realized, excellent human being, and there is also an inborn, constant connection to our common humanity with other people.
Fourth: Make peace with mortality.
I include mortality because of its central place in Stoic thinking. Ancients Stoics believed that if you accept death and aren’t afraid of it, you won’t act out of fear and anxiety in your life.
This principle isn’t easy; everyone wants to keep living as long and as well as we can. It is particularly tough to talk about in a society that worships youth and hides or diminishes death. But if we can acknowledge and accept the reality that there’s a beginning, middle, and end to life, we can become more capable of living in the present, less burdened by anxiety about our trajectory in this world.
A parting thought: I use these principles of Stoic life philosophy as a framework to guide me forward. I’m no Stoic sage, so I can tell you that I don’t always adhere to all these ideas in my daily life—but they give me something to aim for, to work towards. When I succeed in applying these concepts, I feel a sense of progress; when I don’t, I recall that I’m doing the best I can. For me, the act of living is a way of learning, too.
A few years ago, I staked out my spot as the first person in line in front of a university chapel. After a long time standing there in the dark, the doors opened and everyone rushed inside the cavernous stone building. I found myself in one of the front pews. Still, when the speaker appeared on the stage, it wasn’t easy to see that tiny figure. But as she began, her words were even more powerful than I expected—and despite her stature, she spoke with the dignity and intelligence of the giant that she was. It was worth the wait to hear Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about her work and the principles that guided her life.
The news this past week of Ginsburg’s death at age 87 launched a collective mourning among those who saw this Supreme Court Justice as not just one of the foremost jurists of our age, but also as a role model. She fought massive battles to equalize the sexes before the law in her early career. And despite illness, in her later years she worked tirelessly to interpret American law, moving it towards recognizing more civil rights and equality while on the Court.
In fact, I believe that Ginsburg should be viewed a Stoic role model, someone to pattern ourselves after while following a modern Stoic life philosophy.
I’ve thought about this idea for years. For me, Ginsburg not only served as a model of perseverance and grit in the face of bias, but also of an ethical and brave life. That rang true when I saw her speak that day at the chapel. Already in her 80s, she’d faced many scary things (on a personal level with her and her family’s illnesses, and on a professional level with exclusion and marginalization and judicial defeats). And yet she was brave, carrying on to achieve remarkable firsts.
Ginsburg’s approach was in sync with my own Stoic life philosophy, where the central pillars are to examine all our impressions and judge them by their wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline (the four Stoic virtues). To me, "the notorious RBG" was a powerful example of a life lived with meaning and purpose—accomplished with a Stoic-like sense of working towards these virtues in any way we can.
Ginsburg sought to enshrine equal justice into the interpretation of the law, stemming from her own experiences of inequality. She grew up keenly aware of the differences in opportunities and treatment in society of men and women. Later, she had the tremendous good fortune of a marriage that was an equal partnership in the 1950s. Her husband Martin encouraged her to pursue a law degree, an extreme rarity at the time—Ginsburg was initially one of just nine women in her law school class. She did earn her degree, while giving birth to and raising children (again, with support and help of her family), and caring for her husband when he became ill. And though she was a mother of two in an era where most mothers did not work outside the home, she and her husband shared responsibility for their children, allowing her to continue her own career.
When Ginsburg struggled to find traditional legal jobs at New York law firms who turned her down because she was a woman and a mother, she changed direction. Ginsburg persevered to become a law professor and legal advocate who argued before the Supreme Court in favor of eliminating sex-based discrimination.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Ginsburg was how she created change in a hidebound system. She found pathways into a legal world that was set against her as a woman working in the field, and set against other women (and some men) in laws and regulations upheld by long tradition and precedent.
Ginsburg was deft at appealing to others to see a lack of fairness. One of the remarkable things about legal cases is how they represent in concrete and human form our lofty abstractions about what’s right and wrong. But judges—even Supreme Court Justices—are humans, prone to biases and misleading “impressions,” in the Stoic sense. Those can cloud their reason and judgment. To shine a spotlight on the Golden Rule to these jurists, Ginsburg chose to argue cases before the Supreme Court representing male defendants who resembled, in a way, the justices themselves. This brought home the idea of “how would you feel if this happened to you?” and, from there, the essential “do unto others as you would have done to you.”
Here’s how a Ginsburg obituary described her approach in a key case:
“Knowing that she had to persuade male, establishment-oriented judges, she often picked male plaintiffs, and she liked Social Security cases because they illustrated how discrimination against women can harm men. For example, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she represented a man whose wife, the principal breadwinner, died in childbirth. The husband sought survivor's benefits to care for his child, but under the then-existing Social Security law, only widows, not widowers, were entitled to such benefits. ‘This absolute exclusion, based on gender per se, operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children,’ Ginsburg told the justices at oral argument. The Supreme Court would ultimately agree, as it did in five of the six cases she argued.”
About that case, she later said in an interview: “The aim was to break down the stereotypical view of men’s roles and women’s roles.” Ginsburg believed that both men and women should have equal opportunities to become full citizens and participants in society. This is an idea that I strongly support in my own life, and especially for my two daughters: I would like them to have every chance to become productive, brave adults working to make our world better.
Ginsburg worked towards equality of women and men before the law little by little. It’s hard to believe that there was, very recently, a time when women couldn’t sign up for a credit card, a car loan, or a mortgage on their own; when women couldn’t serve on juries, deciding cases of their peers; and when laws barred women from holding certain jobs. As Ginsburg and others argued cases to equalize the rights of both genders, the Supreme Court’s rulings began to shift the tide, knocking down these barriers.
And then when she was named a justice on the Supreme Court herself, in 1993, she worked to advocate for equality before the law from the bench. Exercising well-reasoned judgment, and insisting on correct procedure, were hallmarks of her work on the Court.
And even when the Court’s majority went in another direction and she found herself outnumbered on a decision, she still made a difference. This is a very Stoic attitude: even if we can’t change something directly, we can still seek the virtuous path and act in ways that influence others. So RBG couldn’t always win outright, but she could share strongly-worded dissenting opinions based on her vision of justice and wisdom, an act of courage—three Stoic virtues all in one action.
In fact, Ginsburg wrote lengthy dissents that made a major impact on the law—not through the court’s decision of course, but by prompting Congress to create new legislation. The most well-known example was her dissent on employment discrimination, which led to Congress passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Her dedication to long hours and hard work were well known. RBG’s ability to get by on just 2 or 4 hours of sleep (by her own telling) helped. Ginsburg’s perseverance in the face of illness stands out, too. She was still determined to do her job despite being sick, scheduling treatments so she could keep working.
Both the way she lived and her approach to influencing the legal world seem quite Stoic to me. She worked to change the things she could change. And by pushing on the definition of what she could influence, Ginsburg managed to make a difference for others despite the huge barriers raised before her. For all this, she is a remarkable Stoic role model.
RBG’s life shows how change happens in unexpected ways—which is why Stoics and those inspired by Stoic ideas should always seek out opportunities to provide virtue-oriented leadership, when possible.
In a recent interview, Ginsburg recalled a conversation she had with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now retired. As the first two women on the Supreme Court, both acknowledged that they had been denied a traditional corporate legal career due to their gender. Yet it was because of that fact that both ended up as Supreme Court justices rather than as retired law firm partners. Ultimately, from their seats on the court they were able to make a much larger impact on our country than they would from the offices of a “white shoe” law firm.
It’s our good fortune now that Ginsburg kept on pursuing her work for equality before the law, and I hope that my daughters will benefit from this even more than I have. As Stoics, we have gained a role model in RBG that we can continue to turn to when we need to remember to persevere, to keep chipping away at what we can change, and to stay true to the virtues and values we believe in, even when it’s hard… and even when we find ourselves as lonely voices, a minority opinion. We can exercise well-reasoned judgment and, whenever possible and in often unanticipated ways, make a difference in our world.
“No justice – no peace!” This was the rallying cry as more than 1,000 demonstrators filled the streets in my suburban city this weekend. My teenage daughter and I were there, along with many other community members. The demonstration for Black Lives Matter was peaceful, purposeful, and filled with energy. Demonstrators held signs honoring and mourning George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black people killed by police. Despite the pandemic, we’d decided to come together for this public act against racism, hatred, violence towards black people and other people of color—and to advocate for equal justice in America. As we marched through wide suburban roads, we saw people of all ages and backgrounds walking beside us, chanting the same words. The same image of protest was repeated all across the US and the world this week.
We know there’s a very, very long way to go. But it's time to do what’s in our power: to read, listen, reflect, learn, write, donate, speak out, protest, vote… to work to change ourselves... and to find new ways to act to support justice.*
In Stoic practice, the word justice carries great weight. It’s one of the four Stoic virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Self-Control. Right now, we need to employ all of these virtues to fight a system that is not living up to any of them. Justice, for Stoics, was rooted in the golden rule; it is represented by the reciprocal nature of "do unto others what you would have them do unto you" or, put in the negative, “don’t do something to another person that you wouldn’t want done to you.” That rule spans many belief systems, philosophies, and ideologies. But we need to make it a reality in the way our cities and towns are organized and run. We need to re-consider what justice means in a society where many feel threatened by, and are harmed by, those designated "officers of the peace."
This is a time of reflection, too. A time to learn about others' experiences. Even if I can't fully understand what people of color have lived through, I can listen, learn, and stand with them. I can see more and more how entrenched the problem is, and how I benefit from clear advantages in my society that others lack. Recognizing this is an initial step against racism.
One example: For a long time, I’ve been interested in cognitive behavioral therapy and other techniques for dealing with anxiety. One that I’ve learned is called “worry postponement.” Using this method, a person puts off the worries on her mind, choosing a limited time and place to allow her brain to focus on the anxious feelings. This type of approach was advocated by ancient Stoics, too. I have tried it and found it can be effective.
What I’ve realized is that worry postponement is a luxury and a privilege that many people do not have. My own worries can be confined to a small portion of the day, if I really concentrate. Much of the time I am not directly confronted by triggers of my anxieties or fears. But this week, I’ve been thinking of all the people who can’t do that, because dangerous threats confront them constantly.
The point was brought home by mothers. A black colleague wrote that she was concerned that her son, out for a hike, wouldn’t come home safely--not due to the dangers of the natural environment, but the dangers of other people. Many cannot wrap up their fears into a specific time and place. After all, we have seen that killings could happen in homes while people are sleeping, or playing video games with young relatives… or out jogging... or walking home... or paying at a convenience store.
We know, as the ancient Stoics pointed out, that we are living in a constantly changing universe. Yet the history of racism is so deeply embedded, it feels nearly impossible to uproot. Dare we hope that the actions we can take—those that are in our control—could actually make a difference?
From a Stoic perspective, three things tell me "yes":
The only constant is change, as I mentioned above. Change can be gradual or quick. The problems of racism and unequal treatment by law enforcement are deep and longstanding, they are structural, and they won’t be solved easily. I would not claim to know the answers and turn to communities of people of color for guidance and teaching. What's clear to me is that this kind of change that is both institutional and personal. Each person has to examine herself or himself, and find ways we can behave differently.
We’re starting to see remarkable shifts in response to protests. This morning, when I opened up the newspaper, I saw that the city council in Minneapolis—where George Floyd was killed by police—has publicly promised to disband the current police department, and to try another way of approaching public safety. There were other changes, too: Congressional Democrats introduced a new bill designed to curtail police misconduct and excessive force. New York City’s mayor said he’d cut the police budget and put more money into social services. Human rights groups are calling for a UN investigation into US racism and police brutality. More communities are considering adopting some of the "8 can't wait" recommendations for reforming public safety and policing from Campaign Zero (you can check where your own city's police department's policies stand on the linked site).
For those of us wondering what we could do, I learned from black colleagues of a short list of suggestions on being an ally in an Instagram post by Mireille Charper. Also recommended were videos posted on Instagram by Light Watkins, including “For White People Who Are Asking What You Can Do?” and “Acknowledging Racism: How to Do It and Where to Start.” I especially liked this quote: “…Thinking that racism is exclusively a black problem is like thinking that sexism is exclusively a female problem.” I am learning about many other excellent resources and books on anti-racism and racial justice. Those include: How to be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning, both by Ibram X. Kendi; Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad; White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo; Just Mercy (a book and recent film) by Bryan Stevenson; and many more. In addition, numerous organizations need contributions not just today but in the long run to further racial justice and fight inequality; Bryan Stevenson runs the Equal Justice Initiative, a remarkable nonprofit, to name just one group that deserves support.
These resources could help us to observe and question our own views and knowledge on race, and to pay attention to the part we are playing in racial issues. Recognizing the severity of the problems we face in this country is just the first stage; much more work will need to be done to change not just in how power is used to control, but also how access to influence and authority is granted, how voices are heard, and who has a seat at the table.
I'd like to add that my daughters’ generation inspires me. Many young people have developed a more nuanced and critical awareness of racism and bias, and of all the ills of our societies. My kids are growing up in a world of more diverse voices than I did, a world where these topics are being discussed more openly and honestly. I can only hope that they and their peers will be a part of the massive change we need.
* Note: If any readers would like to offer suggestions on how to explore these issues, how to learn more, or what kind of wording/language to use--especially from the perspective of people of color--please share your thoughts.
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.
“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.
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.