“I don’t know how to take compliments, Mom,” one of my daughters said. When someone praises her—even one of her parents—she often looks distinctly uncomfortable. She says she doesn’t know what to do in response to our words. “It makes me feel embarrassed.”
I’ve asked her about this, and I discovered that part of her reaction comes from the fact that she does not want other people to feel less-than compared to herself. Also, she’s genuinely concerned that the praise might just come from others “being nice” to her, rather than making objectively true statements.
In this sense, she is quite unlike a lot of adults. Most of us love to hear “great job” or “you’re awesome” or “you’re better than the rest.” We don’t necessarily stop to question the praise.
Why are we so taken in by flattery? Why is it so easy to sway our minds with compliments? Perhaps as we get older—as we suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in our daily lives—we’re just happy for any kind words that come our way?
I’ve wondered about this question for quite a while. And my recent close reading of Stoic writer and Roman statesman Seneca has given me even more food for thought when it comes to flattery and what it can lead us to think—and do. This is particularly relevant in today’s political landscape.
In letter 59, Seneca focuses on “Why does stupidity have so firm a hold over us?” He goes on to say this about why we can’t shake free of “stupidity” (underlining below is my own):
“The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. If we find someone to call us good people, cautious and principled, we acknowledge him. We are not content with a moderate eulogy, but accept as our due whatever flattery has shamelessly heaped upon us. We agree with those who call us best and wisest, although we know they often utter many falsehoods; we indulge ourselves so greatly that we want to be praised for a virtue which is the opposite of our behavior. A man hears himself called ‘most merciful’ while he is inflicting torture, ‘most generous’ while he is plundering, and ‘most abstinent’ in the midst of drunkenness and lust. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.”
This passage fascinates me, in part because it’s still so true today. We are happy to think we’re already top-notch and don’t need improvement. The Stoic project of “making progress” only appeals to those who feel they want to do and be better.
And taking an even closer look at Seneca’s words, they made me think back over the 2020 US presidential election, and the violence last week at the US Capitol. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of extreme behavior has been fostered by “shamelessly heaped” flattery, especially by those who “often utter many falsehoods.” The soon-to-be-former president knows how to use flattery as a tool expertly. The day of the storming of the Capitol, he said this to the assembled audience, some of whom soon became rioters: “But just remember this. You’re stronger, you’re smarter. You’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
There is irony there, given what the crowd went on to do at the US Capitol right after this speech—tear down the fences guarding the Capitol building, attack police officers, break windows and doors, destroy and loot government property, and send Congress members (as well as the vice president) and their staffs into hiding to avoid the violence. My daughters and I watched it happening on TV in shock. Now teens, my children are old enough to grasp the importance of what happened. Across America, parents have been explaining these unheard-of events to their kids.
It was a day that Americans won’t soon forget, and rioters are now being tracked down by law enforcement and arrested for their illegal actions.
Congress members are now quoting the words of an American framer of the constitution, Alexander Hamilton, on his warning against would-be despots who use flattery and chaos to gain power. Hamilton wrote about his fears in a letter to George Washington. Here’s the full quote (note the passage using the word "flatter," in my underlining):
“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
This description suits current situation well. Fortunately, many leaders have been quick to condemn the current devolution into violent “storm” as well as the person “directing the whirlwind.”
Since these events, I’ve done more reading on why flattery works—even if it is not based on the truth. Psychologists point out that when a person delivers a compliment, the automatic response of most individuals is to feel more positive towards the one delivering it. A 1978 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “The Extra Credit Effect in Interpersonal Attraction,” demonstrated that subjects liked the people who praised them more than other people, a phenomenon they called “return liking.” This was true even when the subjects realized that the flattery might be a means of getting something from them, and/or it was obviously inaccurate. A psychology professor, Bob Cialdini, put it this way in describing the research: “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true. That’s how powerful praise and compliments and statements of liking [are] for us.”
So let’s take our cue from Seneca. Like my daughter, we should beware of compliments—and especially, beware the flatterer telling us what we’d like to hear, rather than what’s true. Remember: The person whispering in our ear might just be manipulating us into liking him or her, despite his or her own bad motives or flaws, and our own. We need to keep a clear-eyed, rational grounding in reality and combat being swayed by flattery.
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.
Here in California, we have entered our second lockdown.
We have a 10 pm curfew. Kids’ socially-distant meetups at the park are put on hold. Local cafes packed up their outdoor chairs and tables this week. Haircuts have to be done at home again, and grocery stores have outdoor lines building up, so the interior space won’t surpass reduced capacity. For the holiday season, we won’t host family who don't live with us, or attend in-person parties. Anything and everything involving other people will be done online, or not done at all.
All this is to say that right now, our choices about many externals are extremely limited. That's not something we're used to dealing with in the darkest months of the year, the times traditionally brightened by holiday and New Year celebrations.
If we can avoid the many pitfalls of the pandemic - illness, extreme isolation, job loss, and lack of income - there could potentially be an upside. We can practice acceptance, and, if we are fortunate, we can spend more of our time and energy focused on developing our inner faculties, our mind, and our character.
I do want to say this first: Steering clear of the many terrible problems facing Americans and people around the world is not easy. I now personally know more people who have contracted Covid-19 (some are better, some are still fighting the virus). I know others who have lost jobs, or had to leave jobs to take care of children at home. And then there are those who have to work in essential or retail jobs where they could be exposed to illness, a risk that they didn't choose. And yet others are isolated, home alone without social contact aside from video chats.
In my case, I am lucky. My problems don't rise to that level. I'm not facing severe isolation. I have avoided the virus so far. I've kept working remotely. My kids are older and don't need constant supervision. And though my children have a lot of valid critiques of online learning, they are still participating in school virtually, absorbing what they can and spending lots of time on homework.
It's hard for children outside of their classes and learning, too. Both my kids are now teens, a time when seeing and relating to peers has a huge significance. But reality has set in for them, too, and they are old enough to understand what's going on. Both my daughters have learned about the science of the Covid-19; my younger daughter is even planning a webinar about kids’ health with her Girl Scout troop aimed at teaching younger students ways to stay safe.
And now, as we cope with another severe lockdown, they are practicing acceptance.
My younger daughter remarked: “We have been through it before, and we can get through it again. We know how this works now.” In other words: No need to panic. We can do this. We know at least that we are fortunate to have a home with heat, wifi (when it works), and food (and, I think, enough toilet paper) to get us through.
I’d thought that she’d complain that her friend’s upcoming outdoor party was cancelled. But instead, she’d taken quite a different approach, dare I say a Stoic one?
(Granted, I do hear periodic moaning from my kids, and also myself, filled with frustrated comments about 'when will this end?!' ...but at least some sense of resilience seems to have taken hold!)
All this to say that in fact, even in this time of limited choice, we do still do have choices.
We have choices about how we react to the situation we are in.
About how we help our kids find healthy outlets for their energies and, yes, their frustrations. About how we treat other people when we see stride towards that last bottle of hand sanitizer on the shelf. About how we find ways to support distant family and friends who are experiencing isolation. About how we do our work while staying home, collaborate with colleagues remotely, and fulfill all our roles and responsibilities.
As always, these are the really important choices, ones that can improve our character and moral progress, and they are still available to us. They are not dependent on externals but on ourselves and our character, something we can work on no matter the circumstances.
With these efforts, we can focus on determining for ourselves what we “wish for” in this holiday season—so often focused on material goods—and how we aim for a virtuous life.
And while kids can’t be expected to fully grasp the impact of all their choices or their assent to impressions yet, they can start to explore this fundamental Stoic idea: It’s not the things that happen to you that matter, it’s how you respond to them.
Explaining the reasoning behind how we react and think about life under lockdown is a powerful means of educating our children, and guiding them on how to behave in both the best and worst of times. The best way to do so is to try to serve as a rational role model through this difficult time.
And in the absence of get-togethers or outings, maybe we can find renewed opportunities this December to improve ourselves on our own. I've been focused on learning more about Stoic philosophy and other new ideas. In the past few weeks, I have read about psychology / psychotherapy as well as speculative science fiction, expanding my perspective on life and my role in it. This is just one effort to make progress. There is a wide potential for others.
I include a few quotes for inspiration in getting through this dark winter:
“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.”
“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”
“Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.”
Viktor E. Frankl:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Stay strong, and stay safe, my friends!
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.
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.
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.