Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”. Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today. And now, Jim’s post!
In a few days’ time, I will start my 10th year as Primary School Headteacher by taking whole school assembly and retelling children the traditional story of ‘The old woman in the vinegar bottle’
In this story, the old woman’s continual aspirations for a bigger home and bigger and better material possessions are dashed and she ends up back where she started, in the bottle! Perhaps, an age appropriate theme on the stoic virtue of temperance? If not, certainly an opportunity to reflect on life, hopes and dreams.
I take pride in the fact that in my Primary School we seek to engage children in activities that will get them reflecting on some of the stoic values like justice and courage in their learning. Over ten years, I have sought to embed the more important life skills of problem solving, reflective thinking and emotional literacy into the curriculum alongside providing a nurturing environment. There are mentors to support pupils with emotional issues, ADHD, autism, training for staff on mental health and attachment, parental workshops and engagement programmes. Of course, it is never enough. A large majority of children come from vulnerable families, have child protection issues, witness domestic violence, experience mental illness and social deprivation.
My job is a busy one. It gives me meaning but it is challenging, and I have learnt to develop perspective and resilience.
I have also needed to draw upon these qualities in my personal life.
My mother died of cancer when I was seven. Both my wife and sister suffered from cancer and recovered. My brother has, at 50, developed terminal cancer. My sister’s adoption of two children has resulted in emotional turmoil. My wife and I also have 2 adopted boys who are now teenagers. Despite experiencing significant challenges, themselves and challenges for us as parents, we now watch them grow into adulthood with good health, remarkable resilience and emotional stability.
From one perspective, my work and personal life have been and continue to be emotionally tough. I am not alone in sometimes asking ‘Why me?’
The stoic response, is of course, a good one. ‘Why not me?’ The only thing that we can control is our attitude and perception to events. We have to look inwards not blame or put responsibility on external events.My family and close friends all demonstrate remarkable virtuous behaviour – they are kind, sensitive, temperate, self-sufficient and unmaterialistic. Have you noticed how many of those people who have suffered deeply, have virtuous dispositions?
My own children and the children in my school show remarkable resilience and appreciation to overcome adversity. It is these qualities we need to acknowledge and emulate and vital that we learn from them.
The Stoic archer (an example from Antipater) is a wonderful metaphor for life. We take careful aim, we seek to do the best in our personal and work lives but accept that any blast of wind can blow us off course and fate will take over.
If we were to write a book about our lives for others to read, the important thing is surely that our intentions were good, to do the right thing rather than whether we were ultimately successful.
Our attempt to be happy in our lives is clearly about practising and learning virtuous behaviour. It is quite some ideal to strive for!
Whilst not usually labelled as a Stoic, I’m attracted to the ideas of Victor Frankl whose ‘logotherapy’ is based on the motivation for life being ‘meaning’ rather than happiness. In many cases, of course, what makes us happy is what we find important, our commitments, our passions and a dedication to a cause.
For me happiness and meaning lie in learning: learning to regulate our thoughts and emotions, learning to reflect deeply on life and the obstacles we face, learning to practice acceptance without resignation.
Learning is a life -long process of discovery.
Jim is a Headteacher of a Primary School in the South West. He has developed a renewed interest in Stoicism. He is looking forward to attending Stoicon 2018 in September.