Practical advice: my mother doesn’t like my Stoic practice

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N. writes: This summer I came across the philosophy of Stoicism for the first time, reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as well as your own How to Be a Stoic. I have found these ideas have enriched many areas of my life and I am grateful to have come across the books that I have. So I suppose, first of all, thank you! 

However, I have a question, which the books just aren’t answering. Whilst personally I am thriving, happy and confident in myself and my path, my growth in character isn’t going down well with some of my loved ones. Unfortunately, my family (particularly my mother) finds me patronizing when I try to share philosophies or ideas I read about. 

Marcus Aurelius talks about an obligation to teach the ignorant, so I feel like sharing the benefits of Stoicism is the right thing to do, especially with people I love. However, I am often met with a closed mind, a short temper, and intense emotions which, if served to me by a stranger I would have no trouble reacting to calmly, making a joke about or ignoring. But this is my mother, the single woman I care most about in the world. She gets angry with me for practicing stoicism, for ‘doing the calm thing.’

I suppose my question is, what would Epictetus do? Life makes sense when you feel a part of Nature, when you don’t fight it. But we are social beings, and I love my mother. I know you aren’t a therapist, but I can’t ask Marcus or Epictetus themselves so I thought it would be worth a shot... any advice is welcome.

The answer to your question is actually rather simple: practice what Bill Irvine (in his A Guide To The Good Life — The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy) calls “stealth Stoicism.” The concept actually goes back to the ancient Stoics themselves, as illustrated by this quote from Marcus Aurelius:

No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such. (Meditations, X.16)

Practicing stealth Stoicism means that instead of talking to others about the philosophy you act according to it, leading by example. Indeed, the Stoics also counseled not to impose our way of life on others, and even to pretend to behave as they expect us to behave, if it is of comfort to them. Here is Epictetus:

When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, “What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.” As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too. (Enchiridion 16)

The notion is that some people are simply not ready for Stoicism, and if you simply preach to them they will not listen or, as you are experiencing, they will be positively hostile to it. Part of wisdom is to be able to tell when it may pay off to talk to someone about certain ideas, and part of temperance is to hold your tongue when you realize that it won’t do any good. So think of your restrained interactions with your mother in themselves as an aspect of your Stoic practice. You point out that it would be easier to deal with that sort of reaction if it came from a stranger. Indeed, but whoever said that living like a Stoic was going to be easy?

However, you are right that we also have a duty to teach others. Still, here is how Marcus, revealingly, puts it:

People exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them. (Meditations, VIII.59)

Notice that “teach them” is immediately followed by “bear with them.” You tried to teach your mother, but she is not, currently, receptive. So you move to the second option: bear with her. Don’t give up your practice, of course, but don’t be ostentatious about it either. You are doing it for your personal improvement. Improving the world is a noble task, but I’m afraid the outcome is not under your control.

I hasten to say that — contra popular misconception — this doesn’t mean that Stoicism is an inward looking philosophy, a quietist approach focused on doing what’s good for us and giving up on the rest of the world. Rather, Stoics simply recognize that while their intentions and actions are up to them, the outcomes of such actions are not. We try, but we do not expect to succeed. And that’s okay. Others will be more receptive to your message, and your mother may change her mind over the course of time, when she sees that her son is more serene and a better person as a result of his choices. In life sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. But who we are depends on how hard we try and how wisely we conduct ourselves, especially under adverse circumstances.

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