This is what’s under my Christmas tree as of today. At first glance, you wouldn’t think such a materialistic tradition would deserve mention in a blog about Stoicism. But there is a lesson here that reflects Stoic principles; a lesson I’m glad to be learning from my 5-year-old daughter.
I should mention my wife LOVES Christmas. Even in a 1-bedroom apartment, she used 7 storage boxes of decorations to celebrate the season. I’ve never really cared for Christmas, so I didn’t understand or appreciate my wife’s exuberance. But I went along with my wife’s wish to make the season special for our daughter. It was hard to justify not making Christmas a great season to be a kid. All of the early presents in the picture above are for our daughter to open before Christmas eve.
The funny thing is, almost none of those packages contains something new, and my daughter knows it. The bulk of them are books she already has, many handed down in one side of the family or the other over the years. She gets to open one of those every night between the beginning of December and Christmas Eve. The few packages that do contain something new are little crafts or seasonal knickknacks that my wife bought at post-Christmas clearance sales last year (usually at several for a dollar or two). She gets to open and complete one of those crafts or play with one of those knickknacks a few nights each week in the 25 days leading up to Christmas. She’s always so excited to tear into and read, build, or play with each one.
My daughter’s reaction to all of these gifts is complete joy. Whether it is a book I’ve read her a dozen times, a plastic baggie of pom poms, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes, or a cheap windup Santa Claus, she responds to each gift with happiness and gratitude. When I remarked to my wife that I found it so remarkable that my daughter could respond that way to these little things, it hit me–it shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be natural. None of these things make her happy by themselves. Instead, it is her attitude toward them that helps her maintain her happiness. And that is a perfectly Stoic insight.
A Stoic understands that belongings cannot create happiness. Only virtue can create happiness; all other things are indifferent. In addition, none of those other things are our own. As Epictetus is reported to have said, “nothing is your own that it does not rest with you to procure or to keep when you will.” Discourses, Book IV. And elsewhere, Epictetus likened all externals, whether belongings or loved ones, to a pretty shell examined by a sailor on shore leave; something temporary and to be cast aside at the bidding of the Captain.
But Stoics are not Cynics, they do not cast aside externals or disregard them entirely. Preferred indifferents are to be appreciated for what they are. They are not sought, but should be appreciated for the temporary benefits they provide. Seneca referred to continued life, one of these preferred indifferents, as something to be regarded as a “windfall” each morning. Epictetus continually reminded his students to live with gratitude, coining aphorisms such as “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
So I want to take this lesson from my daughter. A Stoic should respond to all of the preferred indifferents with the same kind of joy and vigor that she takes to those presents. Whether it is waking up in the morning, heading out to represent my clients, or opening an almost-expired pint of half & half to pour a splash in my tea, I want to have that attitude of gratitude and joy she displays over rediscovering her old belongings. None of those things are guaranteed to me, I control none of them. And while they cannot contribute to happiness in lieu of virtue, by responding to them virtuously, I can grow closer to real happiness.