I am a natural Stoic. I was able to find many of the ideas of Stoicism on my own, by struggling to make sense of my life as a young person.
When I encountered Stoicism as an adult, I could see how closely aligned the ideas of the ancient Stoics—whose lives were unimaginably different from mine—were to those I had arrived at in my youth. I have talked with other adults who grew up in similarly difficult circumstances and have found that re-creating elements of Stoicism on one’s own happens frequently.
Here are some parts I came up with as a young person:
- virtue is the only good
- kindness is the greatest virtue
- no one errs on purpose
- many things are not under my control
- Much of what is wrong with the world is caused by other people trying to control things they cannot
- things that are vitally important can disappear at any moment
- many of the things that people claim bring happiness do not do so
- we can reason our way to wisdom
The particulars of what happened to me in my early life that lead me to synthesize the above principles all began when I was seven, when, I became an orphan. My mother knew she was dying, and made plans for what she thought would be best for me. Although my mother could have chosen one of her aunts or her father and stepmother, she chose someone she knew from work, a childless female executive, and her husband, also a successful executive. They were much better off than anybody in my family — my mother and I lived in subsidized housing — and they lived in a lovely house in the toniest of the Detroit suburbs.
My new parents did not want my old family around. So, they somehow arranged for all the people I had previously known to disappear from my life. No one explained this to me. I inferred they no longer cared about me. After a few weeks in my new household, it was clear that I was on my own in this new world and there was no escape.
My new parents were prone to frequent, strong anger. For the first ten years of their marriage they operated under a kind of truce whereby they didn’t interact much. This truce broke down with the arrival of a seven-year-old, grieving child in the house. Neither of them had had so much as a younger sibling or cousin. They knew nothing about children. It turns out that caring for children takes time and family coordination. Having their busy, stressful work routines disrupted by a seven-year old apparently destabilized their mental health.
On top of that, everything about me was wrong, largely because I had come from a lower income family with a correspondingly different set of manners, behaviors, vocabulary, and pronunciations than they wished me, as their child, to present to the world. They set about fixing everything about me. Nothing in my world was stable except the contents of my head. I had to figure out how to navigate this environment. I developed Stoicism.
I think I remember the moment it crystallized. My new mother and I had listened to a news program about a person who was in a Soviet prison for decades. She asked me, “Do you know what the only thing is that no one can take away from you?” I liked riddles and this was a good one. I had personally had the experience of my family, house, school, clothes, furniture, pets, and friends being taken away. People could even cut off your hand but I was pretty sure if they took out your brain you’d die. That seemed like the best answer.
“Close!” she said, “Your memories. If you were in prison for years, like the man we just heard about on the radio, you could comfort yourself by thinking about how nice your last Christmas was. I would think about my vacation to Spain with your father. Then I wouldn’t feel so bad. Your jailers couldn’t make you forget your happy memories, no matter what kinds of torture they did.”
“Really?” I thought. Someone is torturing you and your best defense is thinking about lying on a beach? Beaches are nice, but these pleasant thoughts felt so flimsy against the kind of onslaught I knew someone could bring to you. I imagined a pleasant memory: when my older cousin showed me how to use a sewing machine. It was a lovely memory, basking in the attention of my older, incredibly cool, college freshman cousin.
Then I imagined the rain of blows that was likely to happen later that evening, blows that happened most nights, for reasons I could never understand. This memory, nice as it was, actually made things worse. It was unattainable; I had not seen my cousin in a long time. I could not do anything to get to see her. What sustained me through those episodes was thinking that I would not allow them to change who I was. Outward things that didn’t matter, like how I said, “milk” and what clothes I wore could change, but I would make sure that these blows could not reach inside of me, to the real me. I would remain virtuous. I would know I was still virtuous because I could see how I treated other people. I would never become mean or violent like my new parents. I could not understand why they wanted me to be unhappy, but I would not allow them to succeed. And, what’s more, I would never act in a way to make anyone else feel the way they were evidently trying to make me feel.
I would not yell at other people or call them names or hit them regardless of how angry I was or what they had done. No one could make me be mean. They could torture me as badly as the Soviets tortured the guy we heard about on the radio, but I wouldn’t cave. I would not give in to them. I would not treat other people badly.
I worked on my philosophy of life as I got older. I did not nail down the four cardinal virtues, but arrived at my own. If one was virtuous, it led to deep happiness. I could not define this deep happiness, but I could tell when I was there. My highest value was compassion really understanding what the other person had going on inside and trying to nudge them in a direction that might lead them towards more virtue, and thus some of this deep happiness. I see these as proto- ataraxia, sympatheia, and wisdom.
I noticed that people who avoided extremes tended to be happier. For example, being under the control of food—either because one was always searching for delicacies or because one was trying to avoid eating—led equally to unhappiness. A teenage version of equanimity.
I valued justice, but justice was always confusing me because compassion felt more fundamental. I would think I had figured out what was just and then someone else would come along and explain why their claim was greater and I’d be confused again.
I did not identify courage as a virtue, but certainly lived it.
I valued honesty. I vowed never to lie, even if it would have gotten me out of punishment.
My new parents demonstrated daily that money and power did not lead to happiness, another Stoic theme.
Every day, every interaction, demonstrated to me more clearly that having my own inner retreat and keeping my inner sanctuary untouched by the outside world was valuable.
As an outsider in my new family, I could see patterns of behavior that other people simply accepted as the way things were. I could notice things about one or another family member and recognize that they were acting oddly. I would wonder why they were the way they were and then often times, because I am a good listener, these people would explain themselves to me, and even as a child, I could see that they were responding to internal forces and old, extinct situations, even though their actions were affecting living people around them in the present. When I first heard the Evelyn Waugh phrase, “To understand all is to forgive all,” I felt as though a light bulb had gone off in my head. There was a way to say what I had been feeling for years in just seven words. I feel this is a succinct way of saying Meditations II.1 “Begin each day by telling yourself that today I shall be meeting with the insolent…”
As a person whose mother had died, and whose family had disappeared without warning, I understood memento mori.
These circumstances, death of a parent and having my family re-assigned, also led me to recognize the very limited collection of things that were under my control, compared to what was outside of my control. When I first saw the serenity prayer, I thought it weird that recognizing that most things were out of one’s control was a challenge for other people. I watched other people throwing themselves over and over against the wall of desire for wealth or fame which seemed an obviously losing strategy. No one is such a massive wrecking ball that they can breach these things by sheer force of will. In the process, everyone gets horribly banged up. Having been schooled in “you don’t control much” very early in life turned out to be quite useful.
The situation could not have been better designed to make it clear to me that I was on my own. There was no escape, except to turn eighteen. All I could do was make the best of it until then: develop my own plans to satisfy all my needs while keeping my core virtues intact. Many people who as children have been trapped in unpleasant situations have told me that they too developed a system for themselves involving an inner citadel, a core of their own personal virtue, and often a sense of memento mori. I think developing the core features of Stoicism is a natural human response to being in a difficult situation. I think that there are legions of natural Stoics, very few of them as articulate as Seneca, most of us born in a time when we were not particularly encouraged to share our ideas on philosophies of life.
William Irvine, in “On Desire,” describes the way humans superimpose their own life plans on top of the life plan that evolution gives us.
Consider, after all, the situation of actual slaves. They may not be able to escape from their master and his system of incentives, but they can form their own personal plan for living and superimpose it over his plan for them. They might, for example, refuse to let their bondage undermine their values. In particular, they might vow to do all they can to help their fellow slaves. This will entail periodically refusing to help their master achieve his goals, since doing so would undermine the goals they have set for themselves, in accordance with their plan for living. If for example, the master orders them to whip another slave, they will refuse. Of course, if they do this, they will likely be punished by the master’s overseer, but this will be a small price to pay in order to have a meaningful life—not meaningful in the cosmic sense, perhaps, but meaningful in the personal sense, and that is arguably what counts.
I developed my own plan for living, the core of which was that I would not make other people feel the way my new parents seemed to want to make me feel. What I have attempted to describe is the way my self-developed philosophy of life was not dissimilar from Stoicism.
I recognized virtue as the only good. I had a crowd of virtues, not a few cardinal ones. I had the germ of cosmopolitanism. I recognized the dichotomy of control. I had my own inner citadel. I agreed with the supremacy of reason. When I was introduced to Stoicism at the age of fifty, I saw that many of the ancients had been there first, confirming what my life had taught me.
Mary Braun is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients.