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From Vol. 4, Issue 7, July 2022

Wise Up


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“It is never too late to become less stupid.”

bookKaren Duffy’s Wise Up is a gentle book on the Stoic way of life in the modern world, written as a series of letters addressed to her son as he approaches adulthood and prepares to leave home. Due to her neuropathy, Duffy has to live with chronic pain every day. Yet this is not a book by one whose life is defined by pain but one who rises up to the challenge and chooses to live a vibrant life, teaching her son her Stoic philosophy of life. Each letter aims to impart a lesson, more or less, in Stoicism. (See inset for a summary.)

The letters are informal, chatty, and heartfelt. They are not meant to teach Stoicism to the reader. Rather, they give you a glimpse of what a life looks like when it is interwoven with Stoicism. Karen Duffy (Duff for short) lives with a form of disability that causes excruciating physical pain. Her letters vividly describe how she carries on with her life in spite of her pain. She does not just tolerate her pain or dwell on it but attempts to live joyously despite it while bringing up a son in Stoic ways. This lends her letters intrinsic authenticity.

The letters are light-hearted and casual. There is no attempt to preach or to convert. They are irreverent at times, humourous at times, serious at times, and even irrelevant at times. Each letter is an amalgam of Stoicism and its relevance to life, shared experiences between a mother and her son, with a lot of random knowledge thrown in – such as etymology of words and meanings, biographies of little- and wellknown people, what to do after you die (seriously though, don’t die before reading it), and several factoids of tenuous relevance to the topic on hand. It even contains occasional Stoic quotes that the ancient Stoics seemed to have updated after the invention of the internet. Some may find such a patchwork quilt approach somewhat distracting, but we must remember that we are eavesdropping. We are reading letters by a mom to her son on how to ‘wise up’. It is up to her what she wants to say to her son and in the way she wants to say it.

The authenticity of the author’s message is unmistakable. Living a life of joy and responsibility while your body is not under your control is not only authentic Stoicism, but the essence of Stoicism. We emphasize the Stoic tenet “Don’t worry about what is not under our control”, but tend to ignore its corollary, “Make best use of all you have control over”. Duff ’s letters point to the glorious life we can all have if we, under any condition, ask the question “What is under my control in this situation and how can I best use it to move forward?” If you lose an arm, don’t dwell on why you lost an arm, but ask yourself “What can I do with the one arm I do have?” That’s the Stoic way.

What does her son Jack, to whom all these letters are addressed, have to say about it? We know, because the last letter is written by him in response to his mother’s letters. As he is leaving home, the grateful son addresses his mom with these moving words, “You have been like a mother to me.” And then he turns to his dad to remind him gently that his carefree days are over that he has new responsibilites now: “Dad, you are now the man of the house.” How can you resist reading what the mother who brought up such a lad has to say?


1. Have a philosophy of life. Your philosophy of life is your operating manual. If you don’t have a philosophy to guide you, when times get rough, you will fall back on bad habits. You’ll rely on unhelpful conditioning. Bad habits and laziness will imprison you because stupidity, ignorance, and envy are powerful motivators.

2. Resist the urge for immediate gratification. You can be selfish and gratify yourself or be good and look for your shot to be useful to others. You have a choice – to be useful or useless. Choose to be useful.

3. Happiness is every moment. Don’t look for happiness in big moments. Extract it from every moment of your life: email from a friend, snow days, David’s Tea. Live in harmony with your life’s purpose. You won’t find happiness focussing on happiness but focussing on what is good. Doing small acts or good will bring you to experience eudaimonia.

4. If you understand what is good, you understand what love is. You don’t have a finite, limited reserve of love. You have a vast reservoir that constantly refills and flows. At the end of your life if you ask yourself what you have done, the best and only answer is love.

5. Don’t let your choices be fear-based. Courage is your judgment that something is more important than fear. Anxiety and fear want to protect you from harm, but they end up keeping you from the good things in life.

6. Be joyous and laugh` with your friends. Don’t claim victimhood. Don’t be after revenge.

7. Choose between licking and pushing an envelope.

8. Small goals add up. The most important thing you do is act. Take the first step.

9. Hang on to your youthful enthusiasm. The simplicity and clarity of Stoic philosophy will bring you peace and tranquility in tough times and good. Everyday is the prime of your life.

10. It is never too late to become less stupid. Expose yourself to wisdom by reading.

11. [To herself] Parenting is a Stoic exercise. Accept your progressive loss of control over your child.

12. Learn from your mistakes. Your best teacher is your last mistake.

13. Progress happens when you work on every day.

14. There is good in the world to be done, so do it. Have faith. It is a way to interpret our lives.

15. Use the traumatic incidents in your life to grow. Accept life’s difficulties and use them to grow.

16. Memento mori … also memento vivere. Remember death and so remember to live.


Karen Duffy. Wise Up. Irreverent enlightenment from a mother who’s been through it. 289p. Seal Press, 2022.