Drama: it is the defining characteristic of high school life. Hundreds of hormonally-charged kids, jammed together seven hours a day, five days a week, none of whom have any more of a clue as to what’s going on than the next but each one completely convinced that their struggle is unique. As parents, we can’t be there to personally guide our kids through every emotional obstacle, nor should we want to. Instead, we should be instilling in them the tools they need to cope with whatever life may throw their way. Helping them to find their own personal philosophy is key in developing those coping skills.
To be clear, philosophy is not religion. None of the ideas I describe below should conflict with any major religious beliefs. Rather, philosophy is…
Let me pause here for a second as, if you’ve ever taken philosophy classes in college, this is probably the point in the article where you’re about to bail. Wait! I promise I’m not going to start defining a bunch of -isms or throwing Locke quotes at you. I’m not talking about philosophy in the grand, academic sense. Think of it instead as a “system of principles for guidance in practical affairs”. Choosing a philosophy and applying it to your life can help you cope with unexpected situations, become a more effective leader, and generally result in a much happier you. One philosophy that may work well for your teen is modern Stoicism.
Stoicism is “an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge, and that the wise live in harmony with the divine reason (also identified with fate and providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.” Modern Stoicism sets aside discussion of determinism and physics and focuses on the idea that while there are countless events in our lives both within and without our control, we, and only we, control how we feel and respond to those events.
What does it mean to be “indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain”? One thing it does not mean is to be cold and emotionless. Stoicism is not about abandoning your feelings and becoming a robot. On the contrary, because they do not expend their emotional energy on trivialities, stoics can be quite passionate (if you’re a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, think Captain Picard rather than Commander Data). I’m personally fond of the Urban Dictionary definition of a stoic, at least the first part before it devolves into the vulgarity you expect from UD:
Someone who does not give a s**t about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter…
Consider Andy Dufresne in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Andy is the perfect stoic, yet nobody would ever accuse him of being cold and emotionless. He simply didn’t allow his situation or the actions of others to influence how he chose to feel. As he sat in solitary after his incident with the record player, he wasn’t regretting his decision, agonizing over his punishment, or worrying about what others thought of his actions. Instead, he reflected on his music and the thought that “there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.”
I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say… I liked Andy from the start.
It’s no coincidence that stoic characters like Andy, or others such as Captain Picard, Yoda, or Spock, are almost universally admired by others. People recognize stoics as dependable. You never have to worry about them flying off the handle for no reason or being overdramatic. Stoics are the rocks that others ground themselves on. They’re the guy in your class who, after getting pantsed in PE or spilling his lunch, simply shrugs it off and goes on with his day. They’re the kids who are cool without trying, who probably don’t even consider themselves cool.
The first step in adopting a stoic philosophy is to recognize that your emotions are yours to control. Many emotional responses are learned, either consciously or subconsciously. Put a baby in front of an axe-wielding man in a hockey mask, and she’ll probably try to play with the shiny metal end. Until that baby has been exposed to a few slasher movies, or at least understands that an axe is dangerous, there is no reason for her to fear. Similarly, there is no correct way to emotionally respond to bad drivers, angry customers, or your school’s version of Regina George; we feel the way we do because that is how we have been conditioned to feel by our peers, parents, and media. Once you accept this, you can begin to change how you respond emotionally.
There’s no situation in America where the relationship between emotional response and level of control is more irrational than when stuck in traffic. A person will scream obscenities, offer unique cannibalistic dining recommendations, or curse another human being’s descendants unto the third generation for having the audacity to delay them 15 seconds on their trip to pick up a pizza that they’ll have to wait another five minutes for once they arrive, anyway. Take a second to assess the situation and recognize there is absolutely nothing you can do about the other 500 drivers on the road trying to pick up their own pizzas, or the teacher who just announced a pop quiz, or the rain that just dumped on you during your walk to school. Once you recognize that something is out of your control, you realize there is no reason to allow it to affect your emotions. One way to help with this is to put a negative occurrence in the context of the entire situation.
My wife and kids like to tease me for my overuse of “In the grand scheme of things…”, but I think they also recognize its merit. If we take a moment and look at the big picture, it is rarely worth allowing a single event to negatively alter our emotional state. Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to expecting perfection in everything. Our sense of entitlement has even led us to the point that we have coined a phrase for it, as if acknowledging a problem as a #firstworldproblem somehow justifies being unhappy about it. Instead of being angry that your fork was dirty at the restaurant, recognize that you are in a clean restaurant, about to eat a meal that consists of more food than many in the world will eat in a week, and that there are literally dozens more clean forks just a few steps away that someone will bring right to you if you simply ask.
To get started, here are some simple stoic behaviors that I have found to be effective in my own life.
- Every morning, tell yourself “Today, I will meet angry, unhappy, ungrateful people. Only my response to their actions, not the actions themselves, can affect my life.” This is a very short rewording of a meditation by Marcus Aurelius, one of the most prolific stoic writers. Change it up from time to time so that it does not become routine (e.g. “Traffic will likely be slow this morning. However, I’ve planned for it, and it is out of my control, so I will not allow myself to be upset about it.”, “I may be asked to speak in class today. I do not need to be nervous because the reactions of my fellow students are beyond my control, and in the grand scheme of things, whatever I say in one small classroom for 30 seconds is inconsequential.”)
- Consider past situations and how you might have handled them better. Recognize that these events occurred in the past, and are therefore beyond your control, so there is no need to be angry or unhappy about them, but they can still provide you with an opportunity to learn.
- Practice negative visualization. This can be difficult at first. You are training your mind to respond appropriately to negative stimulus, as well as preparing yourself emotionally for when bad things do happen.
- Practice self-denial. Learning to do without the “stuff” in your life will not only help you be grateful for what you have, but will prepare you for how to respond when things outside of your control are taken away (e.g. the television breaks, the internet is down, the grocery store is out of your favorite brand of ice cream).
Adopting a stoic lifestyle will not eliminate the barrage of emotions that teenagers are dealing with, but it may help them to recognize and respond in a more positive manner. And in changing their response, your teen may find an emotional balance they didn’t have before.
For more information regarding stoicism, both modern and historical, the Stoicism subreddit FAQ is a good starting point, or you can browse through these quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to begin to understand how to think like a stoic.