These Stoics Are Getting Irritating

My daughter died at the hand of her domestic abuser, and I’m having trouble being Stoic about it.

Jen McGahan
Sep 3 · 14 min read
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Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

Dear Zat, Tim, Steven, Niklas, Steven (again), Rob, Brian, Bryan, Matt, et.al. [These are the authors of the most popular posts on Stoicism on Medium, and a hat tip to Matt Lillywhite for featuring a picture of a black woman on the cover photo of your article]…

I’m thinking of making up a batch of plastic wristbands that say “What would Ryan Holiday do?” Would that fly better than “What would Zeno do?” or “WWMAD?” I need your input because as entrepreneurs I see you can read the room pretty well, and I bet we could sell a few.

Today it feels like Stoicism has been hijacked a bit. Either that, or y’all got it right; you hit the nail on the head, and I’m just riding in the bitch seat.

Sucking it up in proper Stoic fashion

So what happened, Stoics? For all your impassioned efforts to get the word out, I don’t meet that many people who know how to put Stoicism into practice.

It’s losing its luster with me, too.

Remember those days when people used the word “Stoic” with a slapdash understanding? They never actually read Meditations, but the lexicon was perfectly proper when people said things like “She stoically stood by her cheating husband,” or “He answered his boss’ 60-minute grilling with a stoic attitude.” People got the meaning, even if they got it wrong.

Sucking it up isn’t quite it, though, is it? Stoicism allows you to retain some dignity because the Stoic himself is comforted that he’s following a rational moral code and, if not fair, at least “the right thing.”

Now… (Oh my god, these days…) we have all these new rules about boundaries, narcissists, toxic people, and let’s be honest, women, who can be so emotional…

But that doesn’t mean you can’t write an exploratory article about stoicism and see to it that it satisfies the masses. Men and women alike.

So why do I cringe a little when I see an email sign up CTA at the end of a perfectly good article about stoicism?

I remember sitting in a male-dominated college course (a night class) in philosophy and wanting to run as soon as 10:30 pm rolled around. For the good of the community, I didn’t talk much, and I always put my keys between my fingers, weaponizing my little fist on the way to my car. I fear I’m getting sucked into that fighting state of mind again.

Such a little thing. Why fight? Because I can.

I get Stoicism. I do. It manifests through good behavior, which always seems easier to accomplish if you happen to be the right demographic, or if you’re the one holding the gun. Stoicism is so much about how we internalize strife, and how we appear to others.

We can lose our shit, of course. That would be cathartic in some way (cringey, but cathartic), but by living a Stoic life, we find a way to structure our grievances in a classical, logical manner.

If everyone would just behave, things could work out

Here’s the thing, though. If you want to be understood, then Stoicism is not your friend. This is why I sympathize with the BLM protests, even if it horrifies me that businesses are being ruined and people’s lives are at stake.

Because Stoicism doesn’t remove fear, confusion, and anger; which are the emotions behind people who see a cop car roll into their neighborhood while the kids are around. And the massage therapist who’s doing the best she can on a (person she thought was a) friend’s lower leg when all of a sudden a penis is exposed. A nice penis, but still, she didn’t ask to see it.

The obstacle is the way, indeed. It’s just that some people see more obstacles than the average guy. Can we all just admit that?

A 2000-year-old philosophy

How do we bridge that gap kindly, generously, and effectively? These are times when we have to find a way to answer that question. A 2000-year-old philosophy doesn’t quite cut it. And here’s why.

Stoicism gets mucky when you find yourself sifting through the flotsam of your personal experience and coming up angry because you’re not the only one. Your personal story is full of injustices that are meaningless. Stoics get that. But there’s something personal about the way you internalize shit and then pass your experience onto others. In the face of violence or injustice, Stoicism doesn’t empower anyone.

I always thought that was stoicism. Cutting out your feelings and performing in a strict, cool, calm way. Like, it’s something you do, but shouldn’t necessarily be talked about.

The obstacle is the way, indeed. It’s just that some people see more obstacles than the average guy. Can we all just admit that?

Today, I’m struggling whether to call out the family who knows what happened to my dead daughter or to “keep calm and carry on.”

I blame that on Stoicism, built into a woman who admires the ideal, but which I find lacking. I hate myself for it. Kindness, Christianity, Stoicism, temperance, whatever you want to call it… I loathe these weaknesses, these days.

The tone of stoicism is written by white guys, let’s be honest. And these guys want to talk about it. A lot. Women and minorities get it because we’ve grown up around this admonishment to get control of our emotions… It’s just that oh, there’s so much more to it. Unlike this heartfelt description of Stoicism that seems to be ubiquitous these days, some grievances never go away.

Male Stoicism vs. Female Stoicism in the 21st century

It seems a small thing, but why do I remember this so vividly?

Once, I had to pick up all three of my children from activities at exactly the same time… 4:30 pm. Dance pickup was 4:30. Soccer pickup was 4:30. Baseball pickup was 4:30. What’s a mom to do?

Here’s what I did. I pulled my son’s pick-up time back to 4:25, thinking that I could test the patience of my other kids’ instructors/coaches with a later ETA (not that I shared that with them), and a bit more wiggle room. This “4:25 Coach,” let’s call him, I figured he might release my son early when he saw me waiting at the sidelines. “Your mom’s here,” is what I thought he’d say when he saw me anxiously waiting for practice to end. This was an unspoken assumption. I tried to read him. I figured he would be the one to understand that Some Parents Don’t Always Pick Up Their Kids ON THE DOT. When you’re a coach, you’re in for that, right? My theory was wrong.

Five minutes early to precise pick-up time. And this was me, being Stoic. Fiercely Stoic. Frustratingly Stoic.

I stood at the edge of the baseball field, trying to look patient — but earnest — and in a hurry. I may have looked at my phone once or twice. Yet none of the coaches paid any attention to me. I finally had to walk out on the field and interrupt the head coach’s huddle with his 11-year-old players, and snag my kid; apologies all around.

No offense at the interruption, I hedged. My family has this unusual circumstance today. It won’t happen again. It’s a fluke. “Everyone needs to be picked up at the same time today,” I said. (Sorry.) This means I must get my child into the minivan at exactly no later than 4:28 and be on our way. This doesn’t mean I value your coaching sacrifice any less… Explain, explain, explain. I got so good at these apologies when I was a mom to my kids, without backup… OK, See you next Tuesday.

Why he couldn’t read me as I stood on the sidelines, I don’t know. But there’s this thing men do — maybe it’s called Stoicism — that blunts a man’s ability to read a room.

I humiliated my kid that day, and I clearly pissed off the coach. I felt foolish, too, because I happened to be wearing some very inappropriate shoes and I had to tiptoe out to center field to retrieve my son. I disgraced us all, and it had longlasting effects on my relationship with the coach and the team… probably even those 11-year-old budding men. Certainly my own son.

This is the accountability I am willing to own: The wearing of the wrong shoes, the wrong timing, the inescapable fact of having to be in three places at once. Being a mom and a business owner who had to be at a meeting at 5:30 and wouldn’t have time to change between it and my chauffeur duties.

Stoicism isn’t working for me right now

In the exact same way, I feel like I’m violating the Stoic’s space just by writing this. I’m trespassing on the Stoic ground.

I’ve always felt this way about the Greek and Roman philosophers. I feel like an outsider.

I’m reading F*ck Feelings by Michael Bennett and Sarah Bennett, which is pretty much a 21st Century Stoic’s guide to life, without mentioning Marcus Aurelius. I appreciate it, except for the abundance of slashes which could mean anything from “This is what you could do/this is what is expected/this is what you want to do/this is what would serve you best.” (The content is good, just hard to read.)

Same with these Medium articles about Stoicism. There’s a moat I cannot cross. I want to say something, I just don’t know what. Therefore this article. Here, I can present a premise that’s missing from the Stoic’s philosophy.

I guess it’s kindness

Or outreach, or some other fluffy thing that gets overlooked because it doesn’t fit with the image of a person meeting obstacles, as if things are happening “to him.”

Not everyone gets a voice of reason because not everyone is functioning on the same level.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand Stoicism. I read this stuff in college, which was one thing, and now that I’m reading again in middle age, I take something new from it. I grow calm as I read Marcus Aurelius. I believe I can bear all because I imagine myself discussing all this rationally in a room where we’re all on the same level.

OK, I admit it, I imagine sitting at the feet of Seneca, as a boy. And that’s what calms me. I wonder what I’ll think in my old age.

There’s something about Stoicism that doesn’t address how messy life is. How you have to pussyfoot around some people to keep “community” alive, and how you have to be a bitch and hurt some feelings to accomplish some of your goals, or your bare minimum rights. As a woman, I’ve never known this NOT to be true. I’m acutely aware of how I’m trampling on certain Stoic tenets by inserting an acknowledgment of others’ feelings. This makes me lower than the lowest common denominator of this philosophy.

But then again, I’m a woman.

The rock on the path leading to the kingdom is something a strong man can leverage. And he can share the gold with the woman hushing the kids she travels with. While he finds the stick in the ditch, she’s figuring out a way to stay relevant to a traveling male companion, sharing bread from her stash to keep people from getting “hangry” as they wait for the wise (and physically strong) Stoic to come along and move the rock.

Get inside her mind. She could teach him a thing or two.

Stoics get to be alone

It’s easier there. This is something I’ve always craved, even though it doesn’t serve me… as a woman. If you have to be told “What’s best for the community is best, period;” then you don’t live in the mud with the community. Because here, we learn that lesson young.

People just expect women to function better among others. Stoics relish what they know to be true because their philosophy serves “all people” associated with the problem at hand. Removing oneself from the chaos and gathering one’s emotions and inner strength — that in itself is a luxury.

For women — wives and mothers — we don’t live like that. Even today.

There’s a huge difference between things being “NOT FAIR” and accepting them as a contributing philosopher in ancient Rome; and things being “NOT FAIR” and accepting them as a woman serving the philosopher in ancient Rome… because how else could it have gone down?

Trust me, the self-loathing that‘s born of that statement is so uncomfortable I want to end this right now. But I have to say it: Women and minorities are naturally Stoics. Y’all are preaching to the choir.

There is a disconnect between what’s taught and what is right. So in the interest of the philosophy itself, I’ll push through.

How can I explain this?

Stoicism in modern entertainment

I’m through only the first two episodes of Episodes, a series on Netflix about two British screenwriters who move to Hollywood and attempt to bring their award-winning show to an American audience. (I know, I’m late to the party.)

While I don’t exactly like the character, at least I understand Beverly. She never lets things slide without some effort and a contortion of her face. And when that doesn’t work, she cuts to the bone. It’s messy and uncomfortable. Her character is fierce but caged by her ingrained good behavior.

She practices Stoicism, I would say; she understands the rules. She says her piece and sucks it up when necessary. With effort, we can all do this. A classically educated person can do this with effort.

But what’s missing from Stoicism is the acknowledgment that it’s built into people who manage to live graceful lives in the shadow of perpetual injustice.

It’s only new if you’re one of the privileged

I read an article about a freelancer who found out he was a Stoic when he became a freelancer, it’s true!

Dear God, please help me not roll my eyes because here’s the thing; freelancing doesn’t test your mettle. (Sorry.) Freelancing is an uber privilege of a privileged culture. If that’s the test, well then count me in.

Marcus Aurelius lived in an age when people were born into slavery and only finished half their job before they died. We’re missing an opportunity here, in these troubled times. These 21st century Stoics should acknowledge that they’re late to the party. Stoicism is not new. It’s just new to Zat, Tim, Steven, Niklas, Rob, Brian, Bryan, and Matt.

In 2020, here’s where we get an opportunity to refine its value, for there is certainly value here. If I could do one thing right now it would be to expose Stoicism for what it as and what it could be. Me and my middle-aged bout with Stoicism, Me, and my focus on a minority-centric bout with Stoicism.

I have to say it: Women and minorities are naturally Stoics. Y’all are preaching to the choir.

I was flying home from visiting my daughter in Utah in 2017. She was all-in for a year of wilderness therapy. Climbing rocks like a bear cub, following a sassy, dreadlocked 10-year-older therapist through the remotest parts of the state, and weekly van rides to a weekly shower and laundering sesh. I still haven’t the heart to let these good people know my daughter is dead, at the hand of her boyfriend. After all their work, it’s not fair. (There’s that word again, fair.)

When I saw Katie that weekend, she was healthy and gorgeous, rolling her eyes and dishing out all the details she knew I’d love. Part of her shtick was entertaining me. A beautiful girl with slapstick in her bones, she was genuinely funny. She tested her physical humor on everyone who got close to her. Sometimes she let me in, and sometimes I was shocked. But mostly I marveled. I laughed. She delighted me. She could dance, climb mountains, hula-hoop, turn aerials, and tell jokes with her body; and she could pitch a fit, too. Which is why she was in Utah, to begin with.

All along, I tried to give her some Stoic tools she might use. Her therapists preferred Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She was a writer, verbally intense. She could polish her act and suppress her emotions. She could make her life better, with practice.

In this vein, I released her and flew home to Austin.

I guess it’s kindness. Or outreach, or some other fluffy thing that gets overlooked because it doesn’t fit with the image of a person meeting obstacles, as if things are happening “to him.”

I read Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is the Way on the way home from that trip, and prepared for the week ahead. Clients, carpools, a Meetup with Austin marketers, and my boy-kiddos, still needy and here with me. I was one of you Stoics. I was doing a Stoic’s work, trying to stay put-together.

And I’m not sure that served my daughter.

I hesitate to go there, but it may be time to see if I dipped that iron in this fire, what would emerge? Would Stoicism win out, or would it be my comeuppance? I’d truly like to know.

Did Stoicism serve my daughter?

When Katie was in 5th grade, her teacher burned a smelly candle on her desk all day every day. The fragrance gave Katie headaches, and she complained incessantly about that stupid candle. And I told my 10-year-old to suck it up.

“Katie, honey. Please. Miss Lissy likes that candle. It makes her happy. She’s your teacher. Can you not let her enjoy something so small as a candle in the classroom?” Assuming she was the only one who complained, I said all that.

And Katie did indeed suck it up. I showed her how to be Stoic, to veer around the obstacle, her pounding head, and find something good for the community, although what she knew in her bones was that I didn’t advocate for her. I taught her how to be strong and to “suck it up” and now, here we are.

She put everything she had into the fire, and it served to keep others warm.

But she lost herself there, too.

In the face of violence or injustice, Stoicism doesn’t empower anyone

I find myself thinking about Jacob Blake who was going to his car when he was shot in the back.

Maybe he thought when he got there everything would resolve. I don’t know what was really going on. Maybe he was short on gas and needed to shut the car off, or maybe he was going for his phone. I’m no stranger to weird, domestic shit happening in front of neighbors and the police. I’ve been exactly there, with an annoying and embarrassing family member yelling in the yard, maybe alcohol involved or just hormones. I’m speculating. Of course, I don’t know the whole story. I just know that we all hope that these types of situations will resolve…. only this time it didn’t. Not for Mr. Blake.

Stoicism is never shown in a Twitter feed.

He went for the car door/tried to find the cell phone/tried to leave/ tried to say a comforting word to his kids huddling inside an enclosed space/attempted to get away from the taser/etc.

Who knows what was going on in his head? Suddenly none of those options worked, and the end came.

As usual, this is an old story. Stoicism is never shown in a Twitter feed. These days, just as in all the old days, shots are fired.

Stoicism is not new. It’s just new to Zat, Tim, Steven, Niklas, Rob, Brian, Bryan, and Matt.

It wears on me. Stoicism doesn’t make the news. It’s not even an answer.

How useful is Stoicism in this day and age? Where does it get us? People are trying to tell the world, “I’ve been Stoic and it hasn’t worked for me!” So what now? I want a new drug.

I’m not comfortable with this idea anymore. I’m sad all the time. And trust me, I know: A true stoic wouldn’t have written this article.

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Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

Jen McGahan

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

Portals Pub

Fearless learning, disparate connections, and honest writing

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