The coronavirus and the anxiety resulting from a pandemic, has prompted us all to be at heightened levels of panic (Coronanxiety, perhaps?) But now, more than ever, parents need to remain calm and maintain a sense of normalcy for their kids and for themselves. How can we make this happen? Enter stoicism — the ancient Greek philosophy that extols that egregious emotions are corrosive; that to live calmly and with patience is necessary for a virtuous life. Now, while most parents aren’t exactly looking to live with virtue right now — they’re just trying to get through the day with their sanity intact — there’s a lot to learn from the lessons of the stoics.
Fatherly spoke to Brittany Polat, the author of Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged about how the lessons of stoicism and how they can help parents keep calm in moments of great stress through thought exercises and basic philosophy.
I think we could all benefit from a little stoicism right now. What’s the importance of this mindset?
I think upfront that it’s important to dispel any ideas that people have about stoicism as being repressing emotions, or having a stiff upper lip. That’s a common misconception, and it’s not true at all. Stoicism is not about suppressing your emotions. And it’s not about keeping anxieties inside you so that no one can see them.
I see it as a framework for making decisions about life. So it tells you what’s important about life and what isn’t so important. and, in situations of crisis, one of the first things that we often talk about is focusing on what you can control — and not worrying about what you can’t control. Epictetus, one of the most famous ancient stoics, talked about what disturbs people’s minds is not events themselves, but our judgments about events.
What do you mean?
We’re always interpreting the things that happen to us, and making judgments about what’s going on. So, what’s important is for us to not go into panic mode and say, “Ah! the world is ending!” It’s more about changing our belief, and saying, “What can I do? What can I focus on that’s in my control? And not worrying about the things that I can’t control.
Right now, with coronavirus, the world is incredibly frightening. Many parents are cooped up with their kids while trying to work for the foreseeable future. What can stoicism teach parents right now?
The biggest one, of course, is to keep yourself calm, like we’ve been talking about — because children pick up a lot from their parents, even things that their parents are not aware of. So, they’re going to be looking to us to stay calm. And as parents are panicking, the kids are going to panic, too. So, of course, it’s like the old saying: put in your own oxygen mask first.
So, one big way stoicism can help is to keep us calm. Obviously, it can also help us to keep our kids calm, and I can go through some specific strategies for those – and also, it can help parents stay sane with all these school closures and social distancing.
So what are some exercises parents can use to keep them, and their kids, calm?
First — focus on what’s in your control, not what’s outside of your control. It keeps coming up again and again in stoicism. It’s not like you want to minimize what’s going on, and put your head in the sand, but you also want to be aware of what’s going on while still focusing on what’s in your control. So, think about concrete steps that you can take. It also kind of helps to mentally break things down into their component parts. This is one exercise that stoics do a lot. It helps you to really stay objective.
So, instead of walking around saying, “Ah! There’s a pandemic out there.” You break it down and say: what is happening? I’m staying home for a while. My kids are staying home for a while. We are going to do X, Y and Z. It’s going to be a little bit difficult for a while, but I can handle this. You look at it one day and one moment at a time. So, by breaking it down, it makes it seem more manageable. You’re not looking at it as a whole big crisis, you’re looking at it as just, a series of moments, or a series of steps that you can go through.
That’s a very useful exercise.
Another thing is to balance the media that you’re consuming with more calming influences. Marcus Aurelius says, “The soul is dyed the color of your thoughts.” So, you want to make sure that you’re not just binging on panic news all the time. You obviously want to stay informed. But limit your news consumption and, at other times, try to fill your mind with something cheerful.
In this crisis, or any time I’m going through a rough time with the kids, is to think about what kind of person you want to be. Imagine you’re telling your grandkids, 30 years from now, about the coronavirus pandemic. How are you going to describe it to them, that helps you to step back a bit, look at the big picture? Let’s say your kids were telling their kids. How are they going to describe your actions? Do you want them to tell your grandkids, mom was super calm, dad was really a champ, that kind of thing. How are your kids going to see you?
Disease isn’t new. Is there any sense of how stoics directly dealt with disease in their own time?
Absolutely. There’s a great new book about Marcus Aurelius called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson. You can find a lot of his writings online, as well. He wrote about Marcus’s response during the Antonine Plague, during his reign. Obviously, in the ancient world, everybody had to deal with much more sickness and death than we have to deal with.
What about strategies for talking with our kids? Our kids need to know, obviously, why we’re stuck at home. But parents obviously don’t want to freak them out.
I think it’s great to help your kids talk through things. My oldest daughter is only in first grade, but she came home on Friday, she picked up a lot of things at school. Her teachers had been talking about coronavirus and she seemed to be kind of panicked.
She had picked up a sense of panic in the air, and older kids might pick up on that even more. It’s important for us as parents, while we stay calm ourselves, to walk our kids through that. We talked about it, we talked about some of the misconceptions she’d heard from other people. I think we can help them to take it seriously, again, without worrying about it.
Right. Teaching them how to react sensibly.
It’s all about, what are the concrete steps? We can wash our hands. We are going to stay inside for a little while. It’s important as a parent to work with your child’s developmental level, whether you’re four or 14. You know, or an adult child.
So, help them to process: okay, we’re just going to do what we can do, we’re not going to panic about what’s going on out there. We’re going to be the ones who don’t panic, even while we take rational steps to protect ourselves and others.
Another thing that we can talk about with our kids is helping them understand our responsibilities toward other people. Another misconception about stoicism is that it’s selfish or closed off from other people. That’s actually very far from the truth. So, they’re supposed to be very benevolent towards others. We have a lot of social responsibility towards others. One of the key tenets of stoicism is that humans are social creatures. We live in social groups. Part of our responsibility is towards other people.
Can you talk to me about the “view from above” exercise that’s popular among stoics?
I use this all the time, and it’s especially useful right now. Basically, you’re zooming out from your own perspective. There’s a great illustration in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: Imagine you’re up somewhere high. It could be up on a mountain top, in the 21st century, we could imagine we’re flying in a spaceship, but the point is that you’re backing away from your own, small circle of life, and you’re taking a global view. So, you’re thinking about what’s going on throughout the world. You’re not alone. You’re not the only person who is sitting at home for two weeks with your kids.
Many other people, probably millions of other people, are going through this same thing. If your child is bouncing off the wall right now, well, guess what? Millions of other parents are going through the exact same thing. You’re not alone. You’re not weird. You’re not bad.
Another thing that stoics like to do is ‘premeditation of adversity.’ Think about what’s in store for you in the day ahead, and expect that you will have some difficulties. It’s not that you want to be pessimistic. Not at all. If you want to plan, realistically and rationally, for what’s going to happen. If you know your child is going to be really energetic at a certain time of day, think about how you will respond.
Do you think that stoicism, or these kinds of approaches, are more important than ever before? Or do you think that they are equally important all of the time?
I think practicing stoicism on a daily basis, one of the big things that stoics say is that you should be prepared for times of crisis. You practice stoicism during the easy times, so that when the hard times come, you’re prepared and you’re totally fine and calm. So, for someone who is just now coming to stoicism, yes, welcome aboard. It’s a great time. But stoicism is not only for crisis. It’s for all the time.