Karen Duffy, WISE UP: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who's Been Through It

Karen Duffy, WISE UP: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who's Been Through It

Guest host Allison Pataki interviews actress, former MTV personality, and New York Times bestselling author Karen Duffy about Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It, a book of letters about living a beautiful life, inspired by the teachings of Stoic philosophers. Karen talks about how studying philosophy has helped her cope with her chronic illness and describes how she spends each day–reading voraciously, writing handwritten thank-you notes, and peacefully cohabitating with her pain. Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring authors and reveals everything she is currently working on, from a star-studded film to a new book.


Allison Pataki: Hi. I’m Allison Pataki. I am here with Karen Duffy, author of the incredible new book, Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It. Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Duffy: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really a gift to share the wisdom of the Stoic philosophers with as many people that can listen.

Allison: Absolutely. This book is definitely a gift to the world and to readers. I cannot tell you. I laughed. I cried. I learned so much about you and just about how to live a good life. Will you start by telling us how and why you wrote this book, Wise Up?

Karen: I wrote Wise Up initially as a — I was contracted by a publisher to write a book for millennials. Then I was thinking, no way. I can’t do that. That’s not my métier. I gave the money back. I wrote the book that I wanted to write, which was how reading the Stoic philosophers and connecting to classic wisdom has given me a scaffolding, a backbone. It’s helped me think when I don’t know what to think. The book’s thesis is based on a Stoic philosopher named Epictetus. He said if you make beautiful choices, you will make a beautiful life. That reverberated through me like a firecracker in a silverware drawer. I’m like, yes, it’s so simple. Making beautiful choices, you will make a beautiful life. I wrote the book as a series of essays. I really wanted the reader to feel like I had my arm around their shoulder and we were having a conversation. I wanted this radiant feeling of love. I asked my son, “May I address the letters to you?” There is a Stoic tradition where they wrote in the epistolary form. Meaning, they wrote letters to each other. My amazing son said yes. I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “I’m just going to ask you, use my real name because I’m really proud of you.” It was very nice that my son Jack allowed me to use his name. Jack stands in for the reader. I just wanted to get into the intimacy of a letter.

Allison: Oh, my goodness. He’s proud of you, as he should be. Also, you can feel the radiant love, as you said, for him too and just what a wonderful young man you’re raising. I’m going to come back to Jack in one minute. For those of us who, unlike you, are not able to quote the Stoics, ancient Greek and Latin, Roman philosophers at will — you’re just amazing, the knowledge and the depth of familiarity you have with these Stoic writers. Will you set the stage for all of us? Who were they? Why do they have such a prominent role in inspiring you in your life journey? How you wove them in not only to your life, but into this book.

Karen: It’s interesting. We’re familiar of the word Stoic meaning a stiff upper lip, but that has nothing to do with the Stoic philosophers. The world stoa in Greek means porch. In the Golden Age of Greece, Plato had his Academy. Aristotle had the Peripatetic school of philosophy. Meaning, he believed that our highest thoughts came in peripateo when we were walking. He had the walking school. There were all these philosophers, but they were hidden away. The Stoics said, no, this is a philosophy for everyone. This is simple, practical guide points. It’s interesting that when Emperor Constantine of Rome was baptized a Christian, all of the philosophers were banished. What’s interesting, they left the writings. A lot of that became the New Testament. The Stoics call on us to act for the greater good. Marcus Aurelius says, how long will you wait to expect the best of yourself?

I love that they are very clear and practical. It is not bogged down with a lot of language. When you think about philosophy, you imagine people in turtlenecks smoking to being impenetrable. I find that Stoic philosophy and Epictetus — there’s a beautiful translation by my friend Sharon Lebell called The Art of Living. That book is a masterpiece. It changed my life. I highly suggest that we all read that. Every page has maybe five to ten sentences. For moms who don’t have time to read books, this is a perfect book. It’s impacted my life where I can handle the fact that I live with chronic pain, chronic illness. I have multiple disabilities. I had a career at one point and then got sick. I had to mourn for my old life and figure out a whole new life, as many people do. I have just found the Stoics to be a wonderful motivation. I’ve been reading them every day for thirty years. I think I’m a slightly better person for it.

Allison: Just some light Stoic philosophy over breakfast, right? You said your family — you’re always reading. You’re always discussing this. It’s been part of the fabric with which you’ve raised your son and built your whole life. Also, thank you for teaching us all how to pronounce Epictetus. I loved reading everything you said about him in the book, but I didn’t actually know how to pronounce his name. There you go.

Karen: I stick to Epictetus. There are a few Greek pronunciations. Yes, it was interesting. In our family, there’s no tech at the table, only the sports pages and philosophy books. I figure at some point, my son might actually crack one open. I am a reader. It’s interesting. My husband and son are jocks. They read, but not to the passionate level that I do. I can read a book a day. I can go to bed with a book. My husband will wake up, and I’ve just finished that one. I’m onto the next. I have read myself a new brain. What I love is that — we forget eighty percent of what we’ve learned the day before. Unless you write it down or teach yourself mnemonics, little memory aids, we often forget. I’ve really made an effort to memorize quotes so that they live inside me. If somebody’s really being a jackass, I can just remember that Marcus Aurelius says the best way to deal with an adversary is to not be like them. Then I’ll try not to be a jackass. It seems to work out.

Allison: It also seemed to work out that your son absorbed it, that you got through to it. We hear from Jack at the end. He writes a letter back to you. Gosh, how did you feel when you read his letter?

Karen: Allison, it was amazing. This is my fourth book. He’s grown up with me writing and collaborating. I travel the world speaking about Stoic philosophy. I’m actually off to Greece in two days for a week to speak at three conferences, which is amazing because I’m with the greatest human library of modern Stoic thought. I’m like, I’m the person from Dumb and Dumber. The philosopher that is putting it together, he was like, “Duff, I don’t know how you do it, but you find all the funny stuff in philosophy.” I was like, “Because that’s what I look for. You’re looking from an academic perspective. I’m looking for a way to take these ancient ideas that feel as if the ink is still wet.” They feel so modern and contemporary. Reading Jack’s letter was such a gift. I asked him permission. Then I asked him to read the book. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to write a letter back.” We always joke around because in France, if a mother posts a photo or writes about her child, that child can then sue the mother in court. I was like, “In case you’re litigious, just make sure you read it.” It was really beautiful. He always says, “Mom, it just seems like the mother is the worst role in all the books.” He’s like, “Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald. We don’t even hear about little Pammy, the daughter.” He was very funny in saying, “I’m proud that you’re a good mom and a good writer.” Greek fire ignited in my heart.

Allison: Excellent. The proof is in the letter. You pose this question to the reader that it seems like you posed to yourself basically every day of your life, which is this question of, how does a person live a good life? How do you define that? Then how would you define that for us?

Karen: I think in order to live a good life, which the Stoics would call eudaimonia, they didn’t believe in chasing after happiness because happiness is fleeting. That wouldn’t be worth your time because it would never happen. You could never really be happy all the time. They are more after purpose, what they call flourishing. I heard Joe Biden give a great definition of finding your purpose. He said having your purpose is having something to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. I think that you may not get all three on the same day, but it’s a great idea to have that in the back of your mind. Something to do, something to love, something to look forward to. Part of my daily life is, I live with a chronic illness, so it takes me about two or three hours when I get up in the morning to take medicine that I’m well enough to put on clothes. Otherwise, I’d be doing this topless.

In this quiet time, I write thank you letters. That is part of my practice. I don’t have a return address because it’s not about the idea of expecting people to respond. There’s no pressure. I am just sending a thank you out into the world. It could be somebody that I read about in the paper or someone local. I just love sending thank you notes through the US postal system. That is a great little gift for me. We all have a lot of obstacles. It allows me to find something to be grateful for and then share it. Then when I’m ready to attack the world, I’m like, wow, I’ve done one thing. The Stoics always talk about having manageable steps. As Martin Luther King says, you don’t have to take the whole staircase. Just take the first step in faith. Just taking small, actionable goals is a way, I believe, that you can find your purpose and live happiness. I think right now, we’re all in this sense of transition and being awake to that and taking actions where we understand that we have a choice. We can be useful or useless. Every box I can tick that I’ve been a bit useful is a win.

Allison: I love that. You also write a lot about humor. You look for the imp of the perverse, whether it’s in motherhood or marriage or friendships or your professional work. Can you talk a little bit about how you bring laughter into human connection and just everyday life and your relationships?

Karen: It’s interesting. Laughter is the way that homo sapiens groom each other. Primates will truly groom each other with their monkey paws and going through their monkey fur. In humans, laughter is essentially social grooming. I read that on all these Match.coms, the first thing that people want is somebody who’s funny. Then I think, are you funny yourself? I think people are a lot more humorous. We’re not professional comedians, but finding the lighter side of life is such a gift. I read that laughing for an hour burns off two hundred calories an hour. I’m like, okay, maybe that will be my physical fitness plan for this upcoming fall.

Allison: It’s a win/win. Everyone around you gets to win too. Can you talk about your background and your journey to get here with your chronic illness and your pain and not only how laughter has been such a medicine for you, but how the Stoic philosophy has been and how you attack each day as a survivor? With your incredible outlook, I think we’re all inspired by you.

Karen: Thank you. I feel so grateful for every day. I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis of the central nervous system. It’s a rare disease. I grew a tumor or a lesion in my brain that grew so big — your skull is a contained environment, so it crushed the nerves from about my ear to the top of my shoulder. This whole quadrant of my body, it feels like I have this evil phantom parrot that just landed on my shoulder. It pecks and bites. It doesn’t stop. I realized that in medicine, we often use so many war-like metaphors. We’re going to battle this. We’re going to blast it. We’re going to kill these cells. We’re going to eradicate. It’s just so many war-like metaphors that I told my doctor, I was like, “Whoa, I’m a lover, not a fighter.” If I hated my illness, my incurable illness, which I don’t give up on by saying that — hopefully, there’ll be a better treatment. If I hated sarcoidosis and if I hated and feared chronic pain, that would be fearing way too much of my life. I decided that I had to — they always say you’re suffering with an illness. I’m not suffering. I’m not enjoying it. I would say I am peacefully negotiating. I am cohabitating with it. I think that comes from acceptance. I got here because I have spent just maybe five minutes every day reading through the Stoics the way you would a devotional. It is a philosophy. It’s not a faith. Although, it is connected. Many faiths draw from the Stoics. Just the beauty of being a leader, being kind — Marcus Aurelius says when you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to live, to laugh, to love. That, to me, says it all. If I could read that in the morning, I’m ready to go face the subway station at Union Square.

Allison: Absolutely. Karen, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Karen: To aspiring writers, I would say, thank you, keep writing. A very well-known writer is one of my best friends. She is infuriated anytime anybody writes a new book. She just is like, nope, books are mine. I was like, okay, that’s not the way. I feel that the best advice that I ever got was to get as much black on white, get as much ink out of the paper onto the page — I still write longhand. Every day from one to three are my writing hours. I have my reading hours. I have this set time where I work with an editor. That, to me, is a great relationship. This is within the past, say, six years. Prior to that, I was always doing it on my own, but I found being accountable to an editor. Reading, you can’t be a great writer without being a great reader. Books are not lump-less of paper. They are minds alive on our shelves. Galileo said that — he said this in the 1500s. He said reading is like a superpower where we can transcend time. I just think if you’re going to be a great writer, you’ve got to be an even greater reader.

Allison: That is what this feels like. It feels like you have invited us to come sit on your porch with you and just hear your mind. You’re sharing the wealth and the wisdom that you have acquired through study and life and experience and love and relationships and loss. This book is truly a gift. I love this book. I dogeared and read with a pen because I love your advice to come back and memorize those little nuggets and quotes. There’s so much in here to digest. I know you’re writing every day from your designated hours of one to three. Are you writing your next book? What are you working on now?

Karen: Yes. I’m a producer of a new film coming out on September 30th, which just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last night. It’s called The Greatest Beer Run Ever. My son’s babysitter, he was a film student at NYU. He’s such a great, smart kid. I saw his first movie, which won the Tribeca Film Festival. We started a production company. We made a documentary about Bill Murray, which closed the Cannes Film Festival last year. This is a story that is an amazing — it’s a true story. Andrew Muscato is the producer. He was the gentleman that was a student when I met. We were out at a party. I introduced him to a journalist friend of mine. He asked the greatest question. He asked her, “What is the best story that you never reported on?” She told us the story of the greatest beer run ever, how in 1967, Chickie Donohue, who lived in Inwood, who had served as a marine — six of his best friends were drafted. Inwood in northern Manhattan is a zip code that had more young men than any other zip code in the US because it’s a population of working-class immigrants. Chickie got on a munition ship and snuck into Vietnam with a duffle bag of Pabst Blue Ribbon and brought Pabst Blue Ribbon to his best friends who were serving. Last night, all the veterans were together, and the actors, which stars Zac Efron, Russell Crowe, and Bill Murray. It is a beautiful film. I love working on that. I’ve got another film. I’m speaking all over the world about Stoic philosophy, which is such a gift. I have a new book that I’m working on right now, which is about liminal spaces, the in-between-y time.

Allison: Amazing. Liminal is such a great word. Liminal. I don’t know that everyone uses that word that regularly. It’s such a great concept. Was that also from the Greeks, or is it Latin?

Karen: Yes.

Allison: It’s a Greek concept?

Karen: In Greek, liminal means your threshold at your door. I tend to write to women. Our lives change so many times. We’re within a cultural revolution. Women are the readers. I love that Seneca said every new beginning comes at some other beginning’s end. My kid just went away to college. I am figuring out a whole new life. It’s beautiful. People are saying, oh, empty nest. I was like, do I look like somebody who needs a full nest? The way that mothers know that we’ve done it right is when we become obsolete when they fly the coup. When I dropped Jack off at school, I gave him a hug. “Just remember, your mother was your first home. Now you’re out in the world.”

Allison: Karen, because of you, I used that quote for my own daughter at the beginning of her new schoolyear too. This book is just chock-full of wisdom and love and pearls that we can all live by. How can readers find you and connect with you and learn about all of these amazing, exciting projects you have going on?

Karen: Thank you. We have a website called Wise Up Stoic where we have lots of information if you’d like to read more about Stoic philosophy. I’m @DuffyNYC on Instagram and Twitter. You can find the book anywhere.

Allison: You’re headed to Greece. You’re producing movies. You’re working on liminal space, but nothing liminal about this. Wise Up, available to readers, Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It. Karen Duffy, thank you so much. All the best. We are going to keep reading everything you’re putting out.

Karen: Thank you so much, Allison. Right back at you. I can’t wait to read your next one as well. Thank you so very much. Great to meet you. Cheers, honey. Buh-bye.

Allison: All the best. Thank you. Buh-bye.

WISE UP: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It by Karen Duffy

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop.

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts