Welcome to the first in a series of discussions on philosophy! Exactly what you expect in a fatherhood blog, right? Well, I didn’t pick the name for this blog because it was catchy. My intention with this series is take some time to step back from the day to day of being a Dad, and take some actual time to think. Specifically, I’ll be talking about how the Stoic philosophy can help me become a better Dad.
Make no mistake, I am not a philosophy teacher. The same way I don’t claim to be a parenting exert, I am not an expert on Stoicism. I am here to learn, not to teach. About a year and a half ago I started reading “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. As I went, I underlined parts of the book that stood out. My plan is walk though those sections and think about them though the lens of a parent, and see what nugget of wisdom is in there to help me be a better Dad.
“There is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return”
The cliches about time flying gloss over the very import fact that it is absolutely true. When you look at your kids and they suddenly aren’t babies anymore, it is easy to say something about how you blinked and they grew rather than take a look at how the time that is now gone was actually spent. Did it fly by because you weren’t living in that moment with intention? Did it fly because you were trying to do a hundred things and once, but none of the one thing you should have been doing in that moment? Maybe it flew by because you just weren’t paying attention.
Time is limited. Nobody lives forever, we know that. Frustratingly, just how much time we get on this planet is completely out of our control. A difficult thing to do is balance the idea that death it not something to be feared, but just a natural action. To the Stoic, something that is in accordance with the true nature of things can’t be bad, therefore death is not a bad thing. But I find that the fear of death is often what motivates the living to make the most of the moment and to fully live their lives. Then again, are the people using fear as their motivation for living using that time to free and grow themselves, or are they actually trapped by fear? The YOLO lifestyle may make for good Instagramming, but does it make for a good life?
So if we don’t fear death, then our motivation to use our time isn’t to cram as much living into that time, but to truly use that time to better ourselves. If I know I only have a set amount of time with my kids, am I going to try to take them to every park, play every game, color every picture? Or am I going to slow down and try to do less in that time? It feels contradictory, but doing less with more intention could actually be the better way to use your time. I almost typed “fill your time” there, but I don’t want to “fill” my time. I can fill my time with my kids by watching Frozen for the 52nd time. I want to use my time.
What then does it mean to “free yourself?” This is more than just freeing up more time, we already know that more time isn’t guaranteed to anybody. You could free up your calendar for next month and get hit by a car tomorrow. We need to free ourselves from noise, distractions, things that go againts the virtues we are trying to pursue. Wouldn’t you love to be able to spend some of your time sitting in the quiet, having time to think and reflect? Time that you can use to grow? Time where you don’t have texts or emails to think about. Time that you don’t have meetings or appointments. To kick off Stoic Saturday, I set my alarm for 5:50 am. That is about a half hour earlier than I set it for on a workday. Why? Because I wanted to be able to sit in stillness and quiet to write this. In a house with three kids under five, before sunrise is the best option to get quiet. Have I achieved freedom at 5:50 in the morning? No, but I think I’ve made a step in the right direction.
It is easy to fall into the pattern of spending time with my kids by just doing the things – get them fed, get them dressed, get them clean, get them to bed. Of course these things need to happen, there is no way around it. But am I just moving from one thing to next? Are snacks and diapers the kid version of texts and emails? I should be careful not to confuse using time to accomplish the baseline parental tasks with spending quality time with my kids. Recognize the difference between activity and productivity. Quantity and quality. Will my kids remember the time I efficiently got them fed and out the door for school in time? Probably not. Will they remember how I asked them about their day and actually listened? I sure hope so.
There is good, there is bad, there is indifferent. Spend time pursuing the good, spend time avoiding the bad, don’t waste time on the indifferent. By investing time – time alone or with my kids – in pursuing the good, you will achieve freedom, and truly be making the most of your time. What would I do with my kids if my time wasn’t pulled away by things that don’t matter – either out of habit, or worse, by conscious choice?
Today’s takeaway – choose to use time on the good, on the virtuous. Make an effort to realize my choices in how I spend my time, and change habits that’s waste time.
My kids are awake now. My quiet stillness has been promptly replaced by a baby the needs a clean diaper and full belly, and two sisters who already need to be kept apart from each other. Each one taking their turn to cry. Such is life. But while the quiet may be gone around me, the stillness can still carry on inside.