How Stoicism Has Helped Me As a Father
When I first heard of the stoics I had many mistaken ideas. First, that Marcus Aurelius was closer to Aristotle and I wanted as much to do with the former as I did with the latter. None. Second, like Tim Ferriss recently admitted on his podcast, I thought that Seneca was a Native American rather than an Ancient Roman. Finally, I viewed stoic thinking as indifferent and inhuman, lacking emotions like compassion and love. I’ve incrementally corrected these errors but more meaningfully, I’ve begun applying stoic thinking to my life. Like a mechanic who find the value in the leverage a wrench provides, I’ve using stoic thinking to leverage the best and worst moments of being a parent.
My daughters are four and six and as wonderful as they are, they sometimes do things I don’t like. It’s been in these moments of frustration, as emotions of anger, frustration, and impatience rush through my body, preparing to explode from my mouth, that I needed stoic thought. Before reading Meditations or Letters from a Stoic, I would only hope to escape from these emotions, like someone who runs from a small fire. With stoic thinking though, I draw on that wisdom like a firefighter who can carefully extinguish the blaze.
In Meditations Marcus Aurelius writes, “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” He was writing about the Roman court but could easily have been referencing the little rascals in our homes. Our children won’t be like this everyday, but they will have moments. Sometimes I find myself frustrated by their actions, but they are children, and it’s wise to heed Aurelius’s words. If anything children have more of an excuse than the adults Marcus writes about. Children enter the world unable to live without us and we think in a few years time they will be able to live mistake free lives? At our house a constant challenge is not spilling drinks during meals. Each week it happens, and while the spilled milk remains the same, my frustration with each spilled cup has been less and less. I don’t expect my daugthers to be “jealous or surly,” though they can be on rare occasions, but instead I’ve morphed Marcus’s thoughts to include children. They will be mistaken prone and needy, and have many questions about things I’ve told them about a hundred times. This isn’t something to be perturbed by, so much as something to welcome as part of the condition of parenting.
Later in Meditations he writes that we should correct what we can and for a parent this is every moment. The adage Rome wasn’t built in a day is ironic as I use thoughts from those builders to raise my daughters. Marcus writes there will be some people we can’t change, and for them we can only wish them well. In parenting though, we get to embrace the challenge of helping them grow. Without this challenge it would be a dull life we lead.
Another quote from Meditations that has been paramount in my growth as a stoic and father is that “Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure.” This is true now that my daughters are entering elementary school, but more so when they were babies. For the last six years I’ve been a stay at home father, but the last two years have been the most joyful. Early on I was dismayed by what caring for babies required. There weren’t things that needed fixed, as I tend to orient myself towards. Rather, it was a test of endurance. Those moments when kids are small is the time to appreciate the little things rather than get caught up by the number of soiled diapers. Raising babies felt undurable, but the problem wasn’t the baby, it was my spirit. The stoic side of my thinking laughs at the weakness of my spirit when younger children, knowing now that we can endure.
From the stoics I’ve learned to develop the fortress of my soul and thoughts. Kids take over everything; social lives, extra bedrooms, sleep schedules, marriages. One area they can’t take over is what parents think and how they feel. This ethos has been best explained in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and it would be trite to say parenting is anything like that but the method applies to both. What a stoic mindset, and Frankl’s explanation has shared is the process dealing with any situation. It doesn’t matter if your biggest challenge is getting kids off to school when they don’t want to go. If that’s all you have to guard against, then guard against it well.
To have this thought, that we can endure and maintain our fortress of the soul we must remember to quantify external things as they are. Marcus Aurelius repeatedly goes back to considering things on a microscopic level. If, for example, it rains on your way to work and you end up late because of the weather, then there is really no reason to be upset. The weather is just a combination of molecules that precipitated at some part of the day, in the poor coincidence while you were driving. Parents of more than one children will see this when their children play nicely with each other, and then suddenly don’t. At our house this often means that someone found a long lost toy. It could have been hidden for months, never wondered about, and never sought after. But, if someone randomly stumbles across it and it ignites the powder keg known as “It’s mine, no it’s mine.” then parents can be quick to anger. This used to, and still happens to me, but less frequently and less severely. I can be more serene, knowing it was a random coincidence and it’s good practice in sharing.
Throughout Meditations is the idea of embracing what happens, whether it was something we desired or not. Toward the end of book four Marcus writes that even the unfortunate should be welcomed because it gives us practice. When the right clothes aren’t clean for school or someone is vomiting in the other room, we don’t need to wonder why all this is happening to us. Rather it’s like an emotional tornado has passed our spiritual fortress to see how well we have constructed it.
My oldest daughter is in first grade and like other parents I want everything to be perfect. I want her to get good grades, to have great friends, and be happy while at school. As most parents know, these things do not happen. Like a rare eclipse, it’s the odd day that everything is perfect, in school or out. When things didn’t go perfectly, or anywhere close, I could try to fix whatever didn’t work. Thinking like a mechanic in a factory, that if I got this one piece of the assembly line running differently then maybe tomorrow’s product would be a little better. This was part of the reason I wasn’t a great parent when my daughters were little. Now though, I realize the challenges of life are good. My daughters will never have a life without problems and rather than solve their problems, I’m teaching them how to do it themselves. I would never have thought to teach this alongside their alphabet and numbers if I didn’t learn it first through the stoics.
Each of these things about my daughters is really about me. It’s my journey through life that I can control. Like the captain of a ship who needs to work with and against the winds of our course. Stoic thinking is like making the journey with an old deckhand, someone who has been through these passages before and knows where the rocks are. He won’t tell me where they are, but can tell me how to fix the boat if we hit one.