Karen Duffy is a NYT bestselling author, television personality, and actress. Her memoir of her personal accounts on coping with chronic pain, Backbone: Living with Chronic Pain Without Turning Into One, is funny and profoundly inspiring. She passes on Stoic lessons from both living with a life-threatening disease and being a mother in her highly-anticipated upcoming release, Wise Up: Irreverent Enlightenment from a Mother Who’s Been Through It.
How did you become interested in philosophy?
I became interested in studying philosophy as a teenager. My brother and I are Irish twins (we were born within 13 months of each other). My brother is a polymath. Jim was always reading philosophy books and passing them on. When I read Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’ words reverberated through me like a cherry bomb in a cymbal factory. His work ignited my passion and my daily devotion to reading the Stoics. I’ve been at it for over 3 decades.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
When I was in my early 30’s, I was diagnosed with an inoperable brain lesion. I live with chronic pain, a condition called “Complex regional pain syndrome”. My career as an actress, which was really starting to take off, was derailed. It was like I had built an airplane by hand, and just when I was going to take it off on the runway, I had to take it back into the hanger. I became uninsurable as an actor, as I cannot pass a pre-filming physical. I understood that we can’t control what happens, we can only control how we respond, the dichotomy of Control. I am a Recreational Therapist, a grief counselor at the 9/11 family assistance center and am a certified hospice chaplain in the Buddhist tradition. I am a patient advocate and I often share the life of Epictetus with my community. He wrote about living with pain, and his image often includes his crutch. He was beaten so savagely, his leg was broken and he lived in chronic pain. I love the words from Marcus Aurelius, “Look well into yourself, there is a source of strength which will always spring up if you will look”.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
Philosophy is for everyone. It’s not just eggheads in black turtlenecks smoking Gauloises to the filter arguing over The Discourses. The wisdom of the Stoics reads as if the ink is still wet, yet it was written twenty-four centuries ago. Stoicism is enduring. The art of living in our modern age can be enhanced by reading the classics. The qualities that the study of philosophy offers are profound; it creates a framework, a backbone of character. If you drift off course, it is a compass to navigate you back to your path to meaning. The wisdom you need to follow your own way is readily available. As Epictetus said, it’s all up to you and your way of thinking.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
It is endlessly fascinating that our alphabet only has 26 measly letters. Yet when you line them up, you can create a sentence that will set off an explosion in your mind. Epictetus wrote that “Beautiful choices make a beautiful life.” Just 6 words, and it is the quote that illuminated the work of the Stoics.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
I have a long, interesting career. I was a model/actress, MTV VJ, drugstore perfume pitchwoman and winner of the “Ernest Borgnine Look-a-Like” contest. I’m on People Magazine’s “Worst Dressed List” in the head-to-toe horror category. I am most proud of my work as a writer, mentor and patient advocate. I produce documentaries and coming in 2022, a huge Hollywood movie staring Russell Crow, Zac Ephron and Bill Murray. It is titled The World’s Greatest Beer Run.
4 Replies to “Karen Duffy: Resiliency and a Stoic “Backbone””
Your bio is impressive particularly your virtues of charity and compassion as a patient advocate and hospice chaplain in the buddhist tradition. As buddhist chaplain do you have a doctrine on the soul? As a Stoic, do you believe in creation?
I didn’t see your name attached to the list of producers of the movie. You may want to look into that if you are not getting credit.
Great interview, Duff! It was totally Duff which is to say that you came across as kind, generous, educated, and a sui generis wise-ass, which Marcus Aurelius would have loved! Onward and upward! See you in Dublin!