If you run down the list of the great Stoics of history, you’d think of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus or Zeno or Cleanthes or Chrysippus. What do all those people have in common? They were all men. In fact, you really have to dig to come up with even one or two “accepted” female Stoics. Does this mean that Stoicism has been entirely composed of men for the last twenty five hundred years? That Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and the male Stoics had a monopoly on suffering? On courage? On mastering emotions? On being disappointed? Of having to make due with an imperfect world? No. Of course not. It’s an omission that needs to be addressed.
Women have had to deal with trials as much as, if not more than, the famous Stoics we read and hear so much about. Certainly, they had to put up with being underappreciated, misunderstood, taken for granted, and being deprived of many critical rights. They did all that on top of having to give birth…and know that they might well die going into it. The fact that they did this, along with countless other sacrifices and daily obligations, and did so bravely and patiently for so long is proof that they are true Stoics. And not only do they deserve our respect for it—but they have a thing or two to teach everyone about what focusing only on what you can control really looks like.
We interviewed Katie Wells—creator of Wellness Mama, founder of the just-launched natural personal care products company Wellnesse, and longtime practicing Stoic—and she had more than a thing or two to teach us. She talks about the quote from Marcus Aurelius that completely altered her life path, the decision to move her family to not escape but create her reality, why moms are one of the most powerful forces on the planet, and much much more. Please enjoy this interview with the Wellness Mama, Katie Wells!
Do you remember how you were first exposed to Stoicism? Was there a person that recommended them to you?
I was first introduced to Stoicism in high school when one of my favorite teachers recommended Meditations as a book that had greatly impacted his life. I read it the summer of my sophomore year and have read it every year or so since. I’m so grateful I found Meditations in particular at that time in my life and will encourage my own kids to read it during the same time in their lives.
I truly think that finding Stoicism and reading a few other formative books at that point in my life (including Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl) changed its course. At a point when emotions and hormones often take charge, yet career and life decisions are made, I think these provided clarity and guidance on how to evaluate a path forward.
Not many people know that this was part of the reason I left my original college plan and pursued a radically different option. I was the presidential scholar at a top university and was a triple major in journalism, international studies and pre-law. As an idealistic kid I saw problems in the world and hoped I could fix them through education and changing the laws. As it became increasingly clear that this was going to be difficult or impossible, one day there was a debate in class about how to navigate journalistic bias from inside the system and I remembered the quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
Shortly after, I walked away from a full ride scholarship, walked across the country for a non-profit, re-evaluated my life path, and chose a path that led to motherhood and starting a blog instead of journalism and politics. My daily hope is that through supporting moms, I am able to make a positive difference in the world.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca both talk about how we shouldn’t need to escape the busy-ness of the city and everyday life by heading to the beach, that we can look inward anytime we want (Arianna Huffington loves this quote too). Still, the beach is pretty nice no? And you’ve chosen to live here. What made you decide to move your family here and set up shop?
I joke that it was beaches and taxes, but it isn’t too far from the truth. My husband and I wanted to find a place where we could spend a lot of time outdoors with our kids and build community.
While I agree with the sentiment from Aurelius and Seneca about not needing to escape the busy-ness of daily life, my thought process probably differs from stoic thought on this. I find that living in a beautiful place actually enhances my ability to work and to be able to look inward.
Here’s what I mean:
When we lived other places, I found myself looking forward to the escape of vacation much more because it came so rarely. Living in a beautiful place enhances my creativity and sense of wonder, but is also a great reminder of the need to focus on another part of stoic thinking: getting comfortable with discomfort.
Along with immense gratitude for living in a beautiful place, I find it easier to remember to make deliberate time to work (and stick to my work time), and to get comfortable with discomfort like ice baths (more on that below), exercise, and mentally challenging things.
I also think moms have an advantage that perhaps the early stoic thought leaders did not: built in (and often forced) reminders of some of the stoic thought exercises.
For instance, I would not naturally wake up early, but being a mom makes that inevitable (voluntaryish discomfort).
Practice misfortune? Check. Ever taken a two year old to a grocery store and had him melt down completely?
Accept what you can’t control? Again, check. Ever met a two or three year old? Or teenager?
I love this question and it made me really think about what those philosophers probably meant about not needing to escape the business of daily life by heading to the beach.
On the one hand, my work follows me everywhere, with all of the kids and the businesses. So even at the beach, I’m certainly not escaping the reality of life. That said, I find that the beautiful scenery helps me stay present and grateful in several ways:
Living near the ocean is a constant reminder of letting go and of how small and insignificant we actually are. Just staring into the vastness of the emerald water, or going for a swim and feeling the strength of the current, are reminders of how little power we actually have in so many aspects of life.
The beauty of a sunset or a view of the ocean naturally evokes a sense of gratitude. After being here for years, I still feel overwhelming gratitude for being able to live here when I see the clear skies and stars at night, or the dolphins dancing in the sunset.
We also make it a point to cultivate gratitude in our daily life as a family.
At dinner, we ask our children several questions including “What are you grateful for today?” This encourages all of us to look for the good and find something to be grateful for each day. (We also ask them what they failed at that day, what they learned from it, what hard questions they asked that day).
Our family motto is that “we were made to do hard things,” and to that end, I also voluntarily practice things that help me stay present and grounded, including fasting and rigorous exercise.
I find fasting especially helpful and have done this for years. I begin each year with a 10-day water only fast. I find that while this is physically difficult for the first couple of days, the real battle is to stay mentally tough the last few days. Going without something that we often have several times a day (food) is a good reminder of our mental toughness and how we can live without nearly as much as we often think we need.
During the year, I often do 24-36 hour fasts once every few weeks or so, or eat in a shortened window a couple of times a week as a reminder of this lesson.
With all that you have going on—family, work, writing, podcasting, your own personal development—is there anything you do to practice stillness in your life? To get to what the Stoics called apatheia—that state of peace and clearness, where you’re not being jerked around by a million forces and things and worries?
This was one of my tougher lessons of adult life in several ways. I’m very type-A and driven, and for years, I would just power through and always do more work with any free time I had. I thought I could just continue to push and power through, and for many years, I did.
Then, I reached a point of burnout and realized I was using the business to avoid stillness and to avoid facing some internal emotional struggles. This led to a multi-year path of voluntarily facing these things and learning to find stillness again.
I really like what Ryan Holiday wrote in Stillness is the Key about this…that stillness doesn’t always mean physical stillness. I think I fell into that trap for years, thinking I needed to find a way to be at peace by sitting still and meditating.
Instead, I eventually found stillness in the focus and challenge of an all-encompassing activity. Sometimes this looks like a long run (I’m not a natural runner but find focus and stillness in a challenging run). More often, it looks like art or writing, or some other activity that replenishes me and is my stillness.
I keep a handmade sketchbook close by and spend time daily drawing or writing it in. This type of stillness brings me that peace and clearness.
You’ve not only had six children yourself but you’ve worked as a doula for many other women. What do you think that’s taught you about pain and pain management? Having been through something like that, how does it change your perspective?
For those who aren’t familiar, a doula is a person who provides physical and emotional support to a mother during labor and delivery. While the doctor or midwife is focused on the baby, the doula is there to serve the mother. The word doula comes from greek and means “woman servant.”
Often, this means 12-24 hour days supporting a laboring mother through the entire experience, along with a follow up visit a day or two later. During labor, a doula offers support physically (pain relief measures, massage, or even physically holding up the woman during pushing), emotionally (encouragement) and logistically.
Assisting several dozen births as a doula (and birthing six of my own babies), I’ve noticed a few recurring trends that shape my perspective of pain.
First, that fear and worry almost always make things worse. In labor, the ability to relax and stay calm during contractions helps labor progress more quickly and with less pain. Often, our response to pain is to resist and fight it, and labor is a wonderful teacher of the power of letting go of things we can’t control.
Birth is also the perfect example of the obstacle being the way. In a literal sense, the only way through it, is through it. But right before I had my first son, someone told me that birth is each woman’s ultimate reality. Once I experienced it, that quote made sense.
Certainly, a healthy baby is a major goal of labor, but I’ve noticed an equally important goal that is often overlooked in the laser focus on baby’s health: the experience of the mother.
In a good scenario, the experience of birthing a child shows a mom strength she may not have known she had. After my own births, I felt invincible, realizing I could face something more difficult than I would have imagined (I had a few tough births). Labor is also a great reminder than most pain is temporary, survivable, and builds character.
On the flip side, a less than optimal birth experience can leave a mom with lasting pain, doubts and frustration.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, you’re also a practitioner of ice baths, correct? Why is that important to you? What do you feel like you get out of voluntary suffering?
I love ice baths and they are a regular part of my routine. But this hasn’t always been the case. I avoided cold for a long time. In fact, while I’d tried ice baths many times, I didn’t make them a habit until an experience in Finland. While visiting Lapland (northern Finland in the arctic circle), our group had the chance to visit a traditional Finnish sauna and do a cold plunge in an arctic river/lake that was 24 degrees F and only not frozen because it was moving water.
I knew that the cold plunge was coming all week and I dreaded it. I realized that I dreaded it partly because of the discomfort of the cold and partly because I was terrified to brave wearing a swimsuit in front of the rest of the —as many of them were in perfect shape and my body had grown six kids and was far from perfect. In short, it was my pride flaring and that week was an excellent lesson in letting go.
At the end of the week, I not only braved the cold…I braved it three times and stayed over a minute on my last round (outlasting most of the guys on the trip). It was physically challenging but the real breakthrough was mental in facing my fear and self consciousness about my own body.
Now, we have a cold tub on our patio that stays in the 40s year round and I often do several rounds of five minutes in this tub.
Spending time in the cold can increase circulation, aid recovery, boost energy, and is good for the skin. Yet, I find that, like with fasting, many of the benefits are mental (and not just from the beta-endorphin and noradrenaline it produces).
Staying in cold is an exercise in mental toughness. It’s a reminder that temporary suffering can often lead to greater wellbeing later on (as with fasting, exercise, saving and investing money, etc.).
I also find the cold extremely meditative. As I mentioned, I find it difficult to meditate in the traditional sense, but find that getting into an ice cold bath is a way to drop instantly into a meditative state. It’s tough to keep my mind from wandering in the business of day to day, or to focus just on my breathe. Yet when I get into cold, I immediately have a singular focus and can concentrate on my breathing.
One of the things we talk about at Daily Stoic is that often times the true “stoics” are not the ones that get written about, they’re not always the ones who get statues made of them, but they are ordinary people who persevere through incredible things with courage and without complaint. Clearly that captures millions if not hundreds of millions of women throughout history—for things like childbirth and so many other sacrifices and adversities. But instead of recognizing that, cultures have tended to deny it or minimize it. You’ve talked about the power the mothers have. Why do you think we’ve been afraid to give that power it’s due for so long?
How true is that! And in so many areas of life…
I’ve long said that moms are one of the most powerful forces on the planet and I love this perspective. We’re also in a unique time when motherhood is both diminished and glorified, and both can be dangerous.
I see these extremes in the online world a lot. On the one hand, it’s common for women to have children, a home, and a career and to have to balance that with self-care, hobbies, working out, and so much more. That’s often considered the norm and the baseline and the significance of balancing everything is downplayed.
On the other hand, there’s a movement to glorify the difficulty and the beauty of motherhood in a false way, especially on social media. This has the unintended effect of creating unrealistic expectations for moms who don’t fit either of those molds.
That said, I think motherhood is a perfect exercise in learning stoic virtue, specifically in the daily practice and application of things like wisdom, self-discipline, courage and fairness.
I’d plan work time and activities and then try to fit family time, self-care, reading and hobbies in the few remaining blocks of time. I think everyone tries to fill the time we have available. If I allowed eight hours for work, I’d find things to do for that entire amount of time even if it wasn’t all a priority.
I turned this idea on its head and started putting the truly important things on the calendar first: family meals, exercise, self-care (sauna, cold, time outside, etc.), reading, art, and other things I loved.
The results were astounding. Over the next few weeks, I realized I was actually more effective at work because I was prioritizing the most important things and getting them done more quickly. Overwhelm fell away since I was taking the time to do the things that recharged me, and I felt closer to my husband and kids.
I’m by no means perfect at this balance, but that one switch has made things at least 80% better.
Do you still journal? How do you make time for that?
I do journal. Not everyday but most. I read The Daily Stoic each day and jot down some thoughts, but my real “journal” is a little less official. I keep a hand-made leather-bound journal with thick pages that is just a space for creativity. Sometimes this means writing, but often I sketch instead. I’ll spend 10-15 minutes a day drawing in ink…the ink part is important. It’s a good reminder that things don’t always turn out perfect and that we can’t always undo mistakes.
Any books you’d recommend to folks?
The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (and all of her other books)
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Four Agreements: A Pracical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield