What a Father Controls (Stoicism)

Here’s the introduction to Stoic Sundays, my attempt to apply stoic thinking to my life as a father, husband, human.

I’ve quoted many stoic thoughts; about praying,  about imagining losses, and short thoughts on the book Meditations. Today we’ll start with the very first line of Epictetus’s The Enchiridion:

1. 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 actions.

These are common words to stoic thinking, put effort only into what you can control. On a recent walk with my sister-in-law we talked a bit about the struggles of parenting when your child is in the winds of a tantrum. Tantrums by our children are beyond our control, tantrums thrown by ourselves are within our control. Adopting the stoic thinking means to keep my cool during a tantrum, fit, or unrest by my daughter(s). I’ve seen enough of these to know that you can’t talk kids down, to do so is like yelling at the wind to stop blowing. All you can do is wait for it to pass. While I can’t control if they throw a tantrum, I can control what I do when they aren’t throwing one.

Waiting for tantrums to pass is naturally passive, there are things I can be active about. Being a father means that I can control the inputs into my daughters’ lives. Parents choose the food their kids eat, the television shows they watch, and the music they hear. Parents also choose the type and level of love, care, and compassion.

I could be neglectful and indifferent to my daughters and it’s not impossible they would grow up with a strong spirit and resilience that pushed through to success. Those aren’t bad traits per se, but the means wouldn’t justify the ends.  I also recognize that to be loving and kind means they may face failures because of a coddled and sheltered life. Two different outcomes, but ones I can’t control.

That is not to say there is no reason to work for success.  Stoicism can have a fatalistic tint but at the end of the Chapter 1 Epictetus writes:

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.

Here Epictetus reminds us to ask  “whether it concerns the things which are in our own control.”  He wants us to peel back the layers to see what a thing truly is. If we can change it and want to change it, then we should change it. Stoic thinking in this way can be like a laser beam, skipping over the things that it would have no effect on and finding the things it can.

Ultimately I’m choosing to give my daughters attention and love. I’ve experienced and read enough about parenting to know there are no silver bullets. No panacea. No Eden of advice. Being a parent is like having a garden. If it doesn’t rain (beyond our control) you can supply water (in our control). If there are weeds sprouting in our lives (beyond our control) we can pull them (in our control).

If you like these stoic posts let me know, I’m on Twitter @MikeDariano.

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