For this edition of “Five Questions,” we’re honored to have these pages graced by Brittany Polat. Brittany writes about Stoic moral psychology and philosophy at her website, Living In Agreement. She is a steering committee member of Modern Stoicism, and serves on the board of The Stoic Fellowship. Brittany is also the co-founder of the new nonprofit Stoicare, which aims to share Stoicism with everyone who cares about people and the planet. Basically, if it’s Stoic, Brittany is involved. Check out her work at all of these places, and follow her on Twitter!
1. What led you to embrace Stoic philosophy?
It was a mid-life crisis of sorts. I was going through a really difficult time: we had moved to a new town where I didn’t know anyone, I had left my academic career and didn’t know what was in store for me, and I had three young and very energetic children to care for. It was a time of uncertainty, confusion, and very little sleep. I knew I needed some kind of North Star to guide me through it, and I started looking around. I tried a few different spiritual/self-help directions, but nothing really spoke to me. One day I happened across William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, and I was immediately hooked on Stoicism–here was the holistic, deep-rooted system of wisdom I was looking for. I started reading everything I could get my hands on, and the more I read, the more sense Stoicism made. In the years since then, I’ve continued to read and think about Stoic principles, and I’m happy to say that Stoicism continues to make more and more sense with every passing year. It’s truly a philosophy for life.
2. How does Stoicism shape your relationship with the natural world?
This is an important question, and it’s one that no one has ever asked me before. Just as Stoicism encourages us to treat other people with care and respect, it also engenders an attitude of care and respect for the natural world. But it can be difficult to put this into practice in daily life, since we as individuals often have very little direct influence over the natural environment. So I think there are two main ways we can incorporate care for nature into daily Stoic practice.
One is to cultivate an active appreciation of the natural world through study and contemplation. Personally, I love watching documentaries about anything related to nature, and I find that these stay in my head for a long time and help me feel more connected to the planet. If you have the option to get out in nature (hiking, kayaking, camping, gardening), then obviously that’s a great choice too.
Another way we care for the planet is in our choices as citizens and consumers. Stoicism has helped me become more conscious that each of my actions has an environmental impact, even if only in small ways. For example, I try to reduce my family’s consumption of Stuff (toys, clothes, gear, etc.), which reduces the energy needed to create and transport all that Stuff across the world, and ultimately it reduces landfill waste. We try to run appliances less (air conditioning, dishwasher), reduce our disposable products (reusable grocery bags, reusable napkins), and just generally live in a more sustainable way. Although we would like to make some more radical changes in the future, these are simple things that every person can do every day. As a Stoic, I find it helpful to focus on the positive changes that are within my control right now rather than fretting over the thousands of things that are not in my control.
3. Your book “Tranquility Parenting” is about using Stoic ideas to raise children. Was there a moment as a parent when you really felt “This is working for me! This is working for my child!”
Well, a few days ago my youngest son asked, out of the blue, “Mama, how do you always stay so calm?” (I told him: lots of practice.) So maybe that’s a sign that this Stoic parenting thing is working! Our kids are always watching how we behave, and they notice how we react to things and how we approach life in general. Some of my proudest parenting moments come when I see my kids creatively applying the principles I teach them–like generosity, hard work, and critical thinking–in their own lives. For example, my daughter once initiated a peace conference with another child in her third-grade class because he was behaving disrespectfully toward someone else. I’m proud of her for standing up for what she thinks is right.
However, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, because I don’t want people to think Stoicism is a magic bullet that makes parenting easy. Raising a child will never be easy. There will always be headaches, heartaches, bruises, and tears along the way. It’s normal to sometimes struggle and wonder if you’re doing the right thing. But at the end of the day, Stoicism is the best toolkit I’ve found to help raise good, happy children while staying good and happy yourself. It really does work.
4. Your new book is called “Journal Like A Stoic.” What sets it apart from other books on journaling?
“Journal Like a Stoic” is specifically designed around three main goals: living with greater acceptance, less judgment, and deeper intentionality. So although it’s oriented around Stoicism and uses Stoic advice, the purpose is very targeted rather than just being broadly about Stoicism. I think that makes it easier to see progress within a short period of time, and when we can see progress we’re more motivated to keep going.
The format is also a bit different from many other journals. It’s a 90-day program, divided into three 30-day courses, and each course progresses in psychological complexity. The lessons early in each course are foundational to the more complex lessons at the end of the course. In this way, it’s designed to move the reader/journaler from a basic understanding to a more integrated understanding of Stoicism in their life.
Plus, I selected some of my favorite quotes, the ones that have inspired and helped me the most on my own Stoic journey. So I’m very excited to share them with readers, along with some creative and thoughtful journaling prompts. The goal is to dig deep and do the hard psychological work necessary for growth and flourishing. I hope readers find it to be an enlightening, reflective, and also motivating journaling experience!
5. When was the last time you screamed your lungs out for any reason?
It’s actually a scary story. I was walking with my kids to a doughnut shop a couple blocks from our house. We waited patiently for our turn to cross the road, then as we started to cross, a car turning across the intersection gunned its engine and barreled straight towards us. The driver either didn’t see us or was actively trying to run us over! My middle son, who was 6 at the time, was a few steps in front of me, directly in the car’s path. I screamed with all my might for him to jump back to the curb. Thankfully, he managed to jump out of the way just in time, and the car missed him by a few inches and sped off down the road. It was a crazy experience that could have ended very differently–truly one of those memento mori moments. I credit my Stoic training for enabling me to stay calm and react quickly rather than panicking. So it may not be an exaggeration to say that Stoicism helped save my son’s life.
Bonus: What’s your favorite doughnut, and what’s the worst doughnut?
The hardest question of all! Hmmm…I don’t think there are any bad doughnuts in the world, so my vote for the worst doughnut is just the one you’re not supposed to eat. The best doughnut is definitely glazed blueberry. Blueberry muffins are my favorite food ever, so anything resembling a blueberry muffin automatically jumps to the front of the line!
Agreed- stoicism leads to tranquility and blueberry glazed is the best donut.