Brittany Polat is an author of two books, a blogger at Living in Agreement, and a contributor to the Modern Stoicism site. She has a keen interest in the application of the Stoic principles in modern life, and also works on the Stoicare project.
It was great to be able interview Brittany recently, and without further ado here are her answers!
How long have you been practising Stoicism and why do you think it has held your interest so well since you were first introduced to it?
I’ve been studying for almost four years now—the first book I read was William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life! One of the wonderful things about Stoicism is that it is a philosophy of human nature, which means we can continue to learn about it our whole lives and still not be finished learning. Human nature is a puzzle that can never be fully solved: Why do people act the way they do? How do we live a coherent and happy life? How do we become excellent people, not just in theory but in actual practice? Stoicism guides us toward the answers, but it’s up to us to figure out how to answer these questions in our real lives. It’s a fascinating and lifelong process.
Although Stoicism seems to be growing in popularity, how would you recommend introducing it to those who may benefit from its ideas but who have little interest in philosophy?
On a personal level, I think the best way to introduce Stoicism to other people is to show them how well it works in your own life. When people notice that you are calm, content, and altruistic, they will ask you what your secret is. Most of the time a good example is worth more than a good philosophical argument. As for the broader culture, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional ethical options in our society. More and more people are starting to look for alternatives to mindless consumerism and the pressures of 21st century life, and Stoicism is one of the best options. At its core, Stoic philosophy is very countercultural. When you realize that pursuing external things—money, social status, consumer items—can never result in a happy or meaningful life, then you’re ready for Stoicism. Epictetus says that the starting point of philosophy a willingness to reflect on your life and admit you might be doing some things wrong. This was certainly the entry point for me, and I believe it is a great starting point for most people. I don’t think Stoics should go preaching to other people about what to think or how to act; not only is it presumptuous, it is also ineffective. But when people start looking for a better alternative to conventional morality, that’s a great opportunity to present them with Stoic ideas on how to live a meaningful life.
Your most recent book is ‘Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged’ – how did Stoicism influence this work and how does it guide your parenting in general?
Stoicism guides my parenting at every level. When I had kids I realized I needed some kind of framework for making good decisions and raising my children to be good, happy people. Stoicism provides us with that framework. We can develop a parenting philosophy based on our life philosophy, and then as we need to make decisions in everyday life—Should I sign my child up for basketball? Should I make her eat her vegetables?—we can refer back to our core philosophy. And of course, Stoicism helps us to deal with the frustrations and challenges that arise daily in raising children. As a parent you’re responsible for your child, but you do not control your child. This can lead to great frustration when your child doesn’t do what you want them to do. Stoics have solutions for resolving these challenges, and even staying calm and at peace while you do it. And maybe most important of all, Stoicism can help us stay in the present moment and enjoy the special time we have with our children.
Do you have plans to write more Stoicism-inspired books?
Maybe some day! At the moment I’m exploring a program of Stoic development that creates a whole-life practice: reading, contemplation, combining physical and mental exercise in Stoic yoga, charitable actions toward others, and maintaining an appropriate mental attitude in daily activities. Even mundane tasks like washing dishes or doing laundry can become part of our Stoic practice if we approach them in the proper spirit. I’m trying to find the right balance of reflection and action, because Stoicism is a philosophy of engagement as well as introspection. I think this balance will look a little different for each person, depending on the circumstances of your life. But we can make much more progress as Stoics if we think of everything we do as an exercise in wisdom and virtue.
What is the most useful Stoic writing or thought exercise that you regularly do?
I find it useful to do exercises that help me get outside myself, by focusing on other people and the big picture. The Buddhist loving-kindness meditation is a time-tested exercise that helps us overcome our self-focus and feel connected to other people. As Stoics we should develop a sense of kinship with other people, even the ones who seem to be annoying or unkind. I like to meditate on the connections between myself and others: what do we have in common? In what ways are we all just doing what we think is right? You can do this as a general exercise, or you can use it as a corrective when you are annoyed or angry at someone. When someone annoys you, think about your commonalities with that person—you both had breakfast this morning, you both want to be happy, you both get frustrated when someone disagrees with you, etc. In the end, you can tell yourself, “He was just doing what seemed right to him.” This helps to keep things in perspective and maintain the proper attitude toward other people.
What are your favourite Stoic resources currently? (e.g. blogs, podcasts, social media accounts)
Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) is offered by the Modern Stoicism team every year, and it’s coming up in May 2020. It’s a wonderful training program, whether you are a beginner or an expert in Stoicism. I would strongly encourage everyone to take part if you can!
A slightly open-ended question to finish off – in terms of what the philosophy means to you, what is Stoicism?
Stoicism helps us decide what matters to us and who we want to be. We don’t want our character or our happiness to depend on external events. We don’t want to be reactive, disordered, or small-minded. Instead, we want to be strong, resilient, and, as Epictetus puts it, “noble-minded, great-hearted, and free.” The Stoics give us very specific guidance about how to become that sort of person. We can reach our full potential not by chasing pleasure or wealth, but by striving to become virtuous. It takes a lot of hard work, but the benefits—a sense of well-being and a meaningful life—are well worth it!