Beside the gospel, stoicism has probably influenced my outlook on and approach to difficulty in life more than any other concept, and this is especially true for the period starting in December of 2015 when my youngest son was diagnosed prenatally with inoperable heart defects. In 2016 he had a heart transplant at four months of age. Over the next year he was in and out of the hospital many times. He hit the lowest point over Christmas of 2017 when, after a prolonged illness he lost a lot of weight and then just at the moment it seemed that he was going to get better, he had an ileus and couldn’t eat for several days. I’ve talked about it before elsewhere on Reddit, but considering stoicism helped me be a better man and a better father during this time, I thought I would share some of my experiences with it among men and fathers.
The three “big names” in stoic philosophy that I’ll be pulling from are from the first two centuries AD. The first is Seneca, a statesman and author who spent time in exile, advised emperor Nero, and was three times sentenced to death. The second and third are Epictetus the slave and his student Marcus Aurelius the emperor. Marcus Aurelius kept a private journal and after his death it was published as Meditations.
Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power.
In The Enchiridion Epictetus says:
Things themselves are indifferent; but the use of them is not indifferent. How then shall a man preserve firmness and tranquility, and at the same time be careful and neither rash nor negligent? If he imitates those who play at dice. The counters are indifferent; the dice are indifferent. How do I know what the cast will be? But to use carefully and dexterously the cast of the dice, this is my business. Thus in life also the chief business is this: distinguish and separate things, and say, “Externals are not in my power: will is in my power. Where shall I seek the good and the bad? Within, in the things which are my own.” Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
In Discourses Epictetus says:
But what says Zeus…? “I have given you a small portion of us, this faculty of pursuing an object and avoiding it, and the faculty of desire and aversion, and, in a word, the faculty of using the appearances of things; and if you will take care of this faculty and consider it your only possession, you will never be hindered…” But now when it is in our power to look after one thing, and to attach ourselves to it, we prefer to look after many things, and to be bound to many things, to the body and to property, and to brother and to friend, and to child and to slave. Since, then, we are bound to many things, we are depressed by them and dragged down. For this reason, when the weather is not fit for sailing, we sit down and torment ourselves, and continually look out to see what wind is blowing. “It is north.” What is that to us? “When will the west wind blow?” When it shall choose, my good man, or when it shall please Aeolus; for God has not made you the manager of the winds, but Aeolus. What then? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.
When my son was first diagnosed with heart defects at the 20 week ultrasound, beside the blow of that itself, the thing most difficult to deal with was that what we thought was certainty in our lives was only an illusion. There is no certainty. We’ve since become accustomed to that uncertainty, but it’s still funny for us to observe family members struggling with that – “what do you mean you don’t know what will happen when his dose is changed?!?”
When he was laying in the hospital waiting for a heart there was perpetually something new going wrong in his little body. When a heart doesn’t pump enough blood the function of all the other organs suffers as well and as a result he was approaching death and all we as his care team could do was react to what his little body was doing. Coming to realize that your child’s life is in danger and beyond anybody’s control, and then coming to realize that actually, it’s not just this child but it’s all children and all people as well is like getting into a mine elevator on a sunny day and going down and down further into the darkness until all sound and light is gone. You finally reach the bottom and there’s absolutely nothing there. It’s the loneliest place on Earth. And that’s all it really is – all we have is our own self. Nothing else is really within our ability to dictate or control.
Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy
Marcus Aurelius says:
Things themselves touch not the soul, not in the least degree; nor have they admission to the soul, nor can they turn or move the soul: but the soul turns and moves itself alone, and whatever judgements it may think proper to make, such it makes for itself the things which present themselves to it. It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements… As to living in the best way, this power is in the soul, if it be indifferent to things which are indifferent. And it will be indifferent, if it looks on each of these things separately and all together, and if it remembers that not one of them produces in us an opinion about itself, nor comes to us; but these things remain immovable, and it is we ourselves who produce the judgements about them, and, as we may say, write them in ourselves, it being in our power not to write them, and it being in our power, if perchance these judgements have imperceptibly got admission to our minds, to wipe them out.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
Marcus Aurelius says:
That which rules within, when it is according to nature, is so affected with respect to the events which happen, that it always easily adapts itself to that which is and is presented to it. For it requires no definite material, but it moves towards its purpose, under certain conditions however; and it makes a material for itself out of that which opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it, by which a small light would have been extinguished: but when the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the matter which is heaped on it, and consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.
Do you ask what is the foundation of a sound mind? It is, not to find joy in useless things. I said that it was the foundation; it is really the pinnacle. We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of externals… Above all make this your business: learn how to feel joy.
Marcus Aurelius says:
If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain? But some insuperable obstacle is in the way? Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on thee… Therefore the mind, which is free from passions, is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for, refuge and for the future be inexpugnable.
Transplanted hearts don’t last very long. The longest any pediatric heart transplant recipient has ever lived is about 30 years. While it’s not exactly a fact, it is a near certainty that if I live to an old age I will get to watch my son die. And even more acute, when he was sick there were times when he was mere days away from death. In that situation the natural response is to be miserable, but you know what would be more miserable than watching my child pass away? Being miserable before my child passed away and for the rest of my life knowing it was in my power to enjoy that time with him before he died and to be happy but that I had chosen not to and chosen instead to be miserable while he yet lived. That’s the worst of all. Having everything stripped away in the darkness of the mineshaft is empowering because one realizes what it means for the self to be in control of the self – it’s the power to laugh in the face of death.
You don’t have to be miserable when bad things happen. You don’t have to give control over your mind to externals. Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
In The Martian, Mark Whatney gets stranded alone on Mars and he says “At some point, everything’s going to go South and you’re going to say, this is it: this is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”
That’s really it. Every morning we would go to the hospital and just solve problems from morning until night. And then we would go home and sleep. And eventually we did it for long enough that a heart was available. And then the heart was put in and there were more problems. And we just worked on them; we just worked on problems. We just put our head down and worked. There was one time when my mom found lice in my daughter’s hair and was shocked about how well we took it when she told us. To us it was just the 79th problem on the list because that’s how we were looking at life at the time – there’s no point in whining or wishing, the only thing to do is get to work.
This is important for men in particular because it is often men who are called on act or take the lead during emergencies or other situations when people are likely to let outside events determine their response. Control over the self is most important in situations when it is most difficult.
Also and in general this is an easy “free” life improvement. Everybody can do it with no resources other than their own mind and I think a lot of the ills of the day could be significantly improved for a lot of people on an individual level if this was more widely adopted. We don’t have to be victims. Marcus Aurelius said that the mind doesn’t need to lend itself to the other parts of life when they are harmed – let those parts themselves complain about the harm while the mind continues on.
What one hath suffered may befall us all.
Marcus Aurelius says:
Everything which happens is as familiar and well known as the rose in spring and the fruit in summer; for such is disease, and death, and calumny, and treachery, and whatever else delights fools or vexes them… Remember that as it is a shame to be surprised if the fig-tree produces figs, so it is to be surprised if the world produces such and such things of which it is productive; and for the physician and the helmsman it is a shame to be surprised, if a man has a fever, or if the wind is unfavourable.
We never expect that any evil will befall ourselves before it comes, we will not be taught by seeing the misfortunes of others that they are the common inheritance of all men, but imagine that the path which we have begun to tread is free from them and less beset by dangers than that of other people. How many funerals pass our houses? Yet we do not think of death. How many untimely deaths? We think only of our son’s coming of age, of his service in the army, or of his succession to his father’s estate. How many rich men suddenly sink into poverty before our very eyes, without its ever occurring to our minds that our own wealth is exposed to exactly the same risks?… How can you think that anything will not happen, when you know that it may happen to many men, and has happened to many?
Marcus Aurelius says:
Take me and cast me where thou wilt; for there I shall keep my divine mind tranquil, that is, content, if it can feel and act conformably to its proper constitution. Is this change of place sufficient reason why my soul should be unhappy and worse than it was, depressed, expanded, shrinking, affrighted? And what wilt thou find which is sufficient reason for this? Nothing can happen to any man which is not a human accident, nor to an ox which is not according to the nature of an ox, nor to a vine which is not according to the nature of a vine, nor to a stone which is not proper to a stone. If then there happens to each thing both what is usual and natural, why shouldst thou complain? For the common nature brings nothing which may not be borne by thee.
When I was a small child I had my appendix out at the Children’s Hospital where my son had his heart transplant. From the time 25 years ago when I was young until now that hospital has been full of sick and dying children every single day. On average fifteen children die there every month. Month after month. Year after year. There was a time when my son was in the hospital for a while, and we got to know another family whose infant son was also there on the cardiac floor. After we were discharged we went home and they went out of our minds. Nine months or so later we were at the hospital for labs and I crossed paths with the mother of that other little boy. He had never left. He had been there the whole time. And by the time his mother and I chatted, he was near death. This is part of the story of children’s hospitals. How many such mothers are there at each hospital and how many such hospitals? There’s nothing that can happen to any of us that hasn’t happened to others before us. And there’s nothing special about any of us that will keep us from being subject to the same troubles as all others.
When we were first talking about transplant, the hospital helped us get in contact with another LDS family who had a child with a heart transplant. One of the things that the child’s mother said to us was that they realized that his transplant was no different in category than any of the other troubles they had with any of their other kids; it was only different in that it was a lot of trouble all at once rather than spread out over years.
Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes.
Today it is you who threaten me with these terrors; but I have always threatened myself with them, and have prepared myself as a man to meet man’s destiny. If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives comes in a new and sudden form, and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty. This is proved by the fact that men endure with greater courage, when they have once become accustomed to them, the things which they had at first regarded as hardships. Hence, the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance. We sometimes hear the inexperienced say: “I knew that this was in store for me.” But the wise man knows that all things are in store for him. Whatever happens, he says: “I knew it.”
You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time. For as winter is to the fig, so is the whole pressure of the universe to that which it destroys. And therefore in the very moment that you take pleasure in a thing, set before your mind the opposite impressions. What harm is there in whispering to yourself as you kiss your child, “Tomorrow you will die”.
We are deceived and weakened by this delusion, when we suffer what we never foresaw that we possibly could suffer: but by looking forward to the coming of our sorrows we take the sting out of them when they come.
Never say about anything, I lost it, but say I have restored it. Is your child dead? It has been restored. Is your wife dead? She has been restored. Has your estate been taken from you? Has this then not also been restored? But he who has taken it from me is a bad man. But what is it to you, by whose hands the giver demanded it back? So as long as he may allow you, take care of it as a thing which belongs to another, as travelers do with their inn. You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours.
Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practised how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen. And since things are all the more serious when they are unfamiliar, continual reflection will give you the power, no matter what the evil may be, not to play the unschooled boy.
This is one of the most amazing things the stoics came up with – the premeditatio malorum, or premeditation of evils. When my son was diagnosed, the thing that scared me more than anything else was the thought that I might have to tell my other children that their sibling had passed away. Even now writing it I feel the fear. Instead of being subject to that I spent time imagining that instead of a potential it was a reality. I would drive home at night from the hospital imagining that my son had passed away that day and that I was going home to tell his siblings. I thought about the words I would say, the place we would sit, and how I would deal with each possible reaction from them. In a little while I had gone from being too afraid to face the idea and having it always at the front of my mind to knowing exactly how I would respond and exactly what would be said. And then I put it behind me and didn’t have to think about it any more and could focus on my son while he was still alive. The idea is that if you think about what bad things could happen ahead of time, you can make a plan for how to face them, and you won’t be caught off guard if they do come to pass. Not to dwell on them, but to prepare and appreciate what you have.
Seneca has a way of thinking about it that is particularly vivid – he says to imagine yourself a soldier attacking a city, and whenever you hear about something bad happening to someone, to think of it as if it was a spear thrown toward you, only that it missed and hit someone else instead.
Both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius thought that when fathers were giving their children goodnight kisses they should think “tomorrow you may die”, and I faced that for real. There were a lot of nights when I kissed my son goodnight with the real chance that he would die the next day. I made it a habit at the time of having that thought every morning and every night before I left the hospital because I didn’t want to live with the regret of “I should have…” At the end of every day, even now, he and I have private time alone and I tell him I love him and that I will always love him no matter what happens and that he will always be a part of our family. Because one day he will die. There will be a last night and there will be a last kiss. I don’t know when that time will come, but I do know that when it comes I will take comfort in knowing I said everything I wanted to say to him.
I used to tell my wife all the time – instead of perpetually being in a middle place of fear for a death that has not yet happened, imagine that he is already gone and think about what you would do if you had more time, and then come back from imagination and do those things. Marcus Aurelius said don’t talk about what makes a good man, just be one. And that’s similar to this – don’t live in fear of wishing you would have done something different, just do that thing.
A lot of these principles were picked up by people who have experienced really hard things. Like Viktor Frankl who survived the holocaust in a concentration camp and who later wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man 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.”
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy incorporates a lot of the stoic techniques, and is regarded as being very effective for a lot of the “smaller” mental illness categories like low-end depression, PTSD, etc. Not the major big scary ones, but the more common ones that you hear a lot of people dealing with.
To end, as fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and men, take the advice of emperor Marcus Aurelius: be like a promontory against which the waves are always breaking. It stands fast, and stills the waters that rage around it.
For further reading, pick up Letters From a Stoic by Seneca, Discourses or The Enchiridion by Epictetus, and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. All are quick reads, digestible in small chunks, and available in full length online.