Parenting basics

Repairing your value judgments

As Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man on earth. That’s why it’s so touching to read his personal reflections on topics that all of us must face: putting up with other people, striving to be good in a world that doesn’t understand you, the temptations of money and status, the impermanence of material things. His meditations are a poignant reminder that no matter how rich and powerful you are, you are still just a person.

Despite his wealth and rank, Marcus had to deal with more than his share of hardship. His empire was beset by war, rebellion, and natural disasters. He had to constantly deal with rumors of his wife’s infidelity, and people made fun of him for being “school-masterish” and dull. But even more difficult  was facing the death of several of his children. In the ancient world, losing a child wasn’t unusual. Life was precarious, and many children did not reach adulthood. Sickness, death, and bereavement were everywhere.

In his Meditations, Marcus clearly grapples with anxiety about his children’s health. Consider, for example: “Say nothing more to yourself than what the first impressions report. You have been told that some person is speaking ill of you? That is what you have been told. As to the further point, that he has harmed you, that you have not been told.” You could read this as a straightforward explanation of eliminating negative value judgments. But then Marcus goes on to say, “I see that my little child is ill? I just see that; I do not see that his life is at risk. And so in this way, always keep to first impressions.”

In other words, Marcus is using the same mental technique–eliminating false value judgments–to overcome anxiety about his children. It’s very touching that in the emperor’s most private thoughts, he struggled with the same worries that we still feel almost two millennia later. And it offers us hope that if he found a way to cope with such heartbreaking loss, we can find the courage to overcome our own anxieties.

At first glance, it might not seem obvious how different emotions like anger, frustration, fear, and anxiety are connected. But remember, Stoicism teaches that all negative emotions result from mistaken beliefs about the world. You will feel insulted only if you believe that someone else has the power to insult you. If you change your beliefs, you also change your emotions. So if this strategy can help you deal with insults and frustrations, can it also help you stop worrying about your kids?

Let’s think again about the process of forming of impression. Remember, this is how the Stoics describe the “uneducated” way of looking at the world (from Robertson, p. 172-173):

  1. We perceive an external object or situation
  2. We form an impression based on sensory information, prior experience, attitudes, beliefs, etc.
  3. We create a value judgment about the impression

Those value judgments might seem like they are an integral part of the impression, or like they are inseparable from the raw sensory information we receive about the world. But the value judgment is really just an opinion that you add on to the sensory information. It is not an objective truth. If you eliminate or change the false judgment, you are not distorting your view of reality. In fact, you are actually bringing your mental processes more in line with reality.

Before I adopted a Stoic approach to life, I saw everything in the world as a potential threat to my children. And if something was a threat, then I had to be constantly on the lookout for harm. Cars, fevers, food, playgrounds, and pretty much everything else raised alarm bells in my mind. The problem with this way of seeing the world is not that it is false, but that it is not the whole picture. Yes, there is a small possibility that any of those things could harm my child. But should that remote possibility guide my thoughts and behavior?

When you worry too much, it means that you are making the wrong value judgment about a situation. Just to give you an example, let’s say your child comes down with a fever. This is what my old, anxiety-filled thought process looked like:  

  1. Perception: Freddy’s temperature is 102
  2. Interpretation: Freddy has a fever
  3. Value judgment: Freddy’s life is in danger

As you can see, my perception and interpretation in this situation were completely accurate. Freddy’s temperature was an objective fact, and a fever in children is objectively defined as core body temperature above 100.4. But the value judgment was simply my opinion, based on all the scary stories I’ve read and my natural tendency to worry. The idea that Freddy is in danger is my own judgment of how dangerous this situation is. After all, some parents don’t start biting their nails the minute their child gets a fever (and they love their child just as much as I love mine). They simply have a different judgment of the situation.

Just like we’ve seen before, we can reduce negative emotions by getting rid of the false negative assumption that we add to our impressions. Just because my child has a fever does not mean his life is in danger. And it does not mean I have to start worrying. As Marcus reminds himself, “I see that my little child is ill? I just see that; I do not see that his life is at risk.” I see that Freddy has a fever, but I do not need to see this as a life-threatening situation.

So here’s what a more productive way of thinking might look like:

  1. Perception: Freddy’s temperature is 102
  2. Interpretation: Freddy has a fever
  3. Decision: I should stay calm, make Freddy comfortable, and keep an eye out for other symptoms
  4. Reaction: give Freddy some extra care, review our doctor’s advice on dealing with fevers

I can still make a rational decision to keep an eye out for anything worrisome, while not worrying about it myself. I’m certainly not advising anyone to be cavalier and not care about their child’s health. We should always take reasonable precautions. But it’s all about your approach. If you sit around expectantly waiting for something bad to happen, then you are adopting a false view of the situation. That is not healthy for you or your child. If you instead take a wait-and-see approach, you can calmly try to make the situation better without fretting. You can focus on what is in your control, like bringing the fever down and helping your child rest. You can inform yourself about the risks without worrying about them. And in any case, it’s not like you’re going to make things worse by staying calm and thinking clearly.

Obviously, the purpose of this mental technique is not to make you ignore real dangers to your child. The purpose is to change how you react to those dangers. You can still be an attentive and protective parent, but you should hold a realistic view of the situation, not an alarmist view. As William Irvine suggests in A Guide to the Good Life (p. 80), you might think of it like being a meteorologist studying weather patterns. A meteorologist carefully looks at all the available information and keeps an eye out for tornadoes and other hazards. But that doesn’t mean she thinks a tornado is about to come after her.

We all have to find the best response to the available information. We get a lot of information about the many things that could harm our children, but we need to filter it through the right thought processes. Caution is a reasonable response, but worry is not. Try to repair your value judgments by focusing on what is objectively true. In other words, don’t jump to conclusions–just focus on the facts and on what you can do to help.

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