Lesson 1: FOR THE HOT-HEADED MAN
“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 11.18.5b
Why do athletes talk trash to each other? Why do they deliberately say offensive and nasty things to their competitors when the refs aren’t looking? To provoke a reaction. Distracting and angering opponents is an easy way to knock them off their game.
Try to remember that when you find yourself getting mad. Anger is not impressive or tough—it’s a mistake. It’s weakness. Depending on what you’re doing, it might even be a trap that someone laid for you.
Fans and opponents called boxer Joe Louis the “Ring Robot” because he was utterly unemotional—his cold, calm demeanor was far more terrifying than any crazed look or emotional outburst would have been.
Strength is the ability to maintain a hold of oneself. It’s being the person who never gets mad, who cannot be rattled, because they are in control of their passions—rather than controlled by their passions.
Lesson 2: A PROPER FRAME OF MIND
“Frame your thoughts like this—you are an old person, you won’t let yourself be enslaved by this any longer, no longer pulled like a puppet by every impulse, and you’ll stop complaining about your present fortune or dreading the future.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 2.2
We resent the person who comes in and tries to boss us around. Don’t tell me how to dress, how to think, how to do my job, how to live. This is because we are independent, self-sufficient people.
Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Yet if someone says something we disagree with, something inside us tells us we have to argue with them. If there’s a plate of cookies in front of us, we have to eat them. If someone does something we dislike, we have to get mad about it. When something bad happens, we have to be sad, depressed, or worried. But if something good happens a few minutes later, all of a sudden we’re happy, excited, and want more.
We would never let another person jerk us around the way we let our impulses do. It’s time we start seeing it that way—that we’re not puppets that can be made to dance this way or that way just because we feel like it. We should be the ones in control, not our emotions, because we are independent, self-sufficient people.
Lesson 3: THE SOURCE OF YOUR ANXIETY
“When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.13.1
The anxious father, worried about his children. What does he want? A world that is always safe. A frenzied traveler—what does she want? For the weather to hold and for traffic to part so she can make her flight. A nervous investor? That the market will turn around and an investment will pay off.
All of these scenarios hold the same thing in common. As Epictetus says, it’s wanting something outside our control. Getting worked up, getting excited, nervously pacing—these intense, pained, and anxious moments show us at our most futile and servile. Staring at the clock, at the ticker, at the next checkout lane over, at the sky—it’s as if we all belong to a religious cult that believes the gods of fate will only give us what we want if we sacrifice our peace of mind.
Today, when you find yourself getting anxious, ask yourself: Why are my insides twisted into knots? Am I in control here or is my anxiety? And most important: Is my anxiety doing me any good?
Lesson 4: ON BEING INVINCIBLE
“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 1.18.21
Have you ever watched a seasoned pro handle the media? No question is too tough, no tone too pointed or insulting. They parry every blow with humor, poise, and patience. Even when stung or provoked, they choose not to flinch or react. They’re able to do this not only because of training and experience, but because they understand that reacting emotionally will only make the situation worse. The media is waiting for them to slip up or get upset, so to successfully navigate press events they have internalized the importance of keeping themselves under calm control.
It’s unlikely you’ll face a horde of probing reporters bombarding you with insensitive questions today. But it might be helpful—whatever stresses or frustrations or overload that do come your way—to picture that image and use it as your model for dealing with them. Our reasoned choice—our prohairesis, as the Stoics called it—is a kind of invincibility that we can cultivate. We can shrug off hostile attacks and breeze through pressure or problems. And, like our model, when we finish, we can point back into the crowd and say, “Next!”
Lesson 5: STEADY YOUR IMPULSES
“Don’t be bounced around, but submit every impulse to the claims of justice, and protect your clear conviction in every appearance.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 4.22
Think of the manic people in your life. Not the ones suffering from an unfortunate disorder, but the ones whose lives and choices are in disorder. Everything is soaring highs or crushing lows; the day is either amazing or awful. Aren’t those people exhausting? Don’t you wish they just had a filter through which they could test the good impulses versus the bad ones?
There is such a filter. Justice. Reason. Philosophy. If there’s a central message of Stoic thought, it’s this: impulses of all kinds are going to come, and your work is to control them, like bringing a dog to heel. Put more simply: think before you act. Ask: Who is in control here? What principles are guiding me?
Lesson 6: DON’T SEEK OUT STRIFE
“I don’t agree with those who plunge headlong into the middle of the flood and who, accepting a turbulent life, struggle daily in great spirit with difficult circumstances. The wise person will endure that, but won’t choose it—choosing to be at peace, rather than at war.”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 28.7
It has become a cliché to quote Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, which lionizes “the one whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly . . .” compared with the critic who sits on the sidelines. Roosevelt gave that speech shortly after he left office, at the height of his popularity. In a few years, he would run against his former protégé in an attempt to retake the White House, losing badly and nearly assassinated in the process. He would also nearly die exploring a river in the Amazon, kill thousands of animals in African safaris, and then beg Woodrow Wilson to allow him to enlist in World War I despite being 59 years old. He would do a lot of things that seem somewhat baffling in retrospect.
Theodore Roosevelt was a truly great man. But he was also driven by a compulsion, a work and activity addiction that was seemingly without end. Many of us share this affliction—being driven by something we can’t control. We’re afraid of being still, so we seek out strife and action as a distraction. We choose to be at war—in some cases, literally—when peace is in fact the more honorable and fitting choice.
Yes, the man in the arena is admirable. As is the soldier and the politician and the businesswoman and all the other occupations. But, and this is a big but, only if we’re in the arena for the right reasons.
Lesson 7: FEAR IS A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY
“Many are harmed by fear itself, and many may have come to their fate while dreading fate.”SENECA, OEDIPUS, 992
“Only the paranoid survive,” Andy Grove, a former CEO of Intel, famously said. It might be true. But we also know that the paranoid often destroy themselves quicker and more spectacularly than any enemy. Seneca, with his access and insight into the most powerful elite in Rome, would have seen this dynamic play out quite vividly. Nero, the student whose excesses Seneca tried to curb, killed not only his own mother and wife but eventually turned on Seneca, his mentor, too.
The combination of power, fear, and mania can be deadly. The leader, convinced that he might be betrayed, acts first and betrays others first. Afraid that he’s not well liked, he works so hard to get others to like him that it has the opposite effect. Convinced of mismanagement, he micromanages and becomes the source of the mismanagement. And on and on—the things we fear or dread, we blindly inflict on ourselves.
The next time you are afraid of some supposedly disastrous outcome, remember that if you don’t control your impulses, if you lose your self-control, you may be the very source of the disaster you so fear. It has happened to smarter and more powerful and more successful people. It can happen to us too.
Lesson 8: DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER?
“You cry, I’m suffering severe pain! Are you then relieved from feeling it, if you bear it in an unmanly way?”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 78.17
The next time someone gets upset near you—crying, yelling, breaking something, being pointed or cruel—watch how quickly this statement will stop them cold: “I hope this is making you feel better.” Because, of course, it isn’t. Only in the bubble of extreme emotion can we justify any of that kind of behavior—and when called to account for it, we usually feel sheepish or embarrassed.
It’s worth applying that standard to yourself. The next time you find yourself in the middle of a freakout, or moaning and groaning with flu like symptoms, or crying tears of regret, just ask: Is this actually making me feel better? Is this actually relieving any of the symptoms I wish were gone?
Lesson 9: YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE AN OPINION
“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 6.52
Here’s a funny exercise: think about all the upsetting things you don’t know about—stuff people might have said about you behind your back, mistakes you might have made that never came to your attention, things you dropped or lost without even realizing it. What’s your reaction? You don’t have one because you don’t know about it.
In other words, it is possible to hold no opinion about a negative thing. You just need to cultivate that power instead of wielding it accidentally. Especially when having an opinion is likely to make us aggravated. Practice the ability of having absolutely no thoughts about something—act as if you had no idea it ever occurred. Or that you’ve never heard of it before. Let it become irrelevant or nonexistent to you. It’ll be a lot less powerful this way.
Lesson 10: ANGER IS BAD FUEL
“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane—since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.”SENECA, ON ANGER, 3.1.5
As the Stoics have said many times, getting angry almost never solves anything. Usually, it makes things worse. We get upset, then the other person gets upset—now everyone is upset, and the problem is no closer to getting solved.
Many successful people will try to tell you that anger is a powerful fuel in their lives. The desire to “prove them all wrong” or “shove it in their faces” has made many a millionaire. The anger at being called fat or stupid has created fine physical specimens and brilliant minds. The anger at being rejected has motivated many to carve their own path.
But that’s shortsighted. Such stories ignore the pollution produced as a side effect and the wear and tear it put on the engine. It ignores what happens when that initial anger runs out—and how now more and more must be generated to keep the machine going (until, eventually, the only source left is anger at oneself). “Hate is too great a burden to bear,” Martin Luther King Jr. warned his fellow civil rights leaders in 1967, even though they had every reason to respond to hate with hate.
The same is true for anger—in fact, it’s true for most extreme emotions. They are toxic fuel. There’s plenty of it out in the world, no question, but never worth the costs that come along with it.
Lesson 11: HERO OR NERO?
“Our soul is sometimes a king, and sometimes a tyrant. A king, by attending to what is honorable, protects the good health of the body in its care, and gives it no base or sordid command. But an uncontrolled, desire-fueled, over-indulged soul is turned from a king into that most feared and detested thing—a tyrant.”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 114.24
There is that saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely. At first glance, that’s true. Seneca’s pupil Nero and his litany of crimes and murders is a perfect example. Another emperor, Domitian, arbitrarily banished all philosophers from Rome (Epictetus was forced to flee as a result). Many of Rome’s emperors were tyrants. Yet, not many years later, Epictetus would become a close friend of another emperor, Hadrian, who would help Marcus Aurelius to the throne, one of the truest examples of a wise philosopher king.
So it’s not so clear that power always corrupts. In fact, it looks like it comes down, in many ways, to the inner strength and self-awareness of individuals—what they value, what desires they keep in check, whether their understanding of fairness and justice can counteract the temptations of unlimited wealth and deference.
The same is true for you. Both personally and professionally. Tyrant or king? Hero or Nero? Which will you be?
Lesson 12: PROTECT YOUR PEACE OF MIND
“Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.3.6b–8
The dysfunctional job that stresses you out, a contentious relationship, life in the spotlight. Stoicism, because it helps us manage and think through our emotional reactions, can make these kinds of situations easier to bear. It can help you manage and mitigate the triggers that seem to be so constantly tripped.
But here’s a question: Why are you subjecting yourself to this? Is this really the environment you were made for? To be provoked by nasty emails and an endless parade of workplace problems? Our adrenal glands can handle only so much before they become exhausted. Shouldn’t you preserve them for life-and-death situations?
So yes, use Stoicism to manage these difficulties. But don’t forget to ask: Is this really the life I want? Every time you get upset, a little bit of life leaves the body. Are these really the things on which you want to spend that priceless resource? Don’t be afraid to make a change—a big one.
Lesson 13: PLEASURE CAN BECOME PUNISHMENT
“Whenever you get an impression of some pleasure, as with any impression, guard yourself from being carried away by it, let it await your action, give yourself a pause. After that, bring to mind both times, first when you have enjoyed the pleasure and later when you will regret it and hate yourself. Then compare to those the joy and satisfaction you’d feel for abstaining altogether. However, if a seemingly appropriate time arises to act on it, don’t be overcome by its comfort, pleasantness, and allure—but against all of this, how much better the consciousness of conquering it.”EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 34
Self-control is a difficult thing, no question. Which is why a popular trick from dieting might be helpful. Some diets allow a “cheat day”—one day per week in which dieters can eat anything and everything they want. Indeed, they’re encouraged to write a list during the week of all the foods they craved so they can enjoy them all at once as a treat (the thinking being that if you’re eating healthy six out of seven days, you’re still ahead).
At first, this sounds like a dream, but anyone who has actually done this knows the truth: each cheat day you eat yourself sick and hate yourself afterward. Soon enough, you’re willingly abstaining from cheating at all. Because you don’t need it, and you definitely don’t want it. It’s not unlike a parent catching her child with cigarettes and forcing him to smoke the whole pack.
It’s important to connect the so-called temptation with its actual effects. Once you understand that indulging might actually be worse than resisting, the urge begins to lose its appeal. In this way, self-control becomes the real pleasure, and the temptation becomes the regret.
Lesson 14: THINK BEFORE YOU ACT
“For to be wise is only one thing—to fix our attention on our intelligence, which guides all things everywhere.”HERACLITUS, QUOTED IN DIOGENES LAERTIUS, LIVES OF THE EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS, 9.1
Why did I do that? you’ve probably asked yourself. We all have. How could I have been so stupid? What was I thinking?
You weren’t. That’s the problem. Within that head of yours is all the reason and intelligence you need. It’s making sure that it’s deferred to and utilized that’s the tough part. It’s making sure that your mind is in charge, not your emotions, not your immediate physical sensations, not your surging hormones.
Fix your attention on your intelligence. Let it do its thing.
Lesson 15: ONLY BAD DREAMS
“Clear your mind and get a hold on yourself and, as when awakened from sleep and realizing it was only a bad dream upsetting you, wake up and see that what’s there is just like those dreams.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 6.31
The author Raymond Chandler was describing most of us when he wrote in a letter to his publisher, “I never looked back, although I had many uneasy periods looking forward.” Thomas Jefferson once joked in a letter to John Adams, “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!” And Seneca would put it best: “There is nothing so certain in our fears that’s not yet more certain in the fact that most of what we dread comes to nothing.”
Many of the things that upset us, the Stoics believed, are a product of the imagination, not reality. Like dreams, they are vivid and realistic at the time but preposterous once we come out of it. In a dream, we never stop to think and say: “Does this make any sense?” No, we go along with it. The same goes with our flights of anger or fear or other extreme emotions.
Getting upset is like continuing the dream while you’re awake. The thing that provoked you wasn’t real—but your reaction was. And so from the fake comes real consequences. Which is why you need to wake up right now instead of creating a nightmare.
Lesson 16: DON’T MAKE THINGS HARDER THAN THEY NEED TO BE
“If someone asks you how to write your name, would you bark out each letter? And if they get angry, would you then return the anger? Wouldn’t you rather gently spell out each letter for them? So then, remember in life that your duties are the sum of individual acts. Pay attention to each of these as you do your duty . . . just methodically complete your task.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 6.26
Here’s a common scenario. You’re working with a frustrating coworker or a difficult boss. They ask you to do something and, because you dislike the messenger, you immediately object. There’s this problem or that one, or their request is obnoxious and rude. So you tell them, “No, I’m not going to do it.” Then they retaliate by not doing something that you had previously asked of them. And so the conflict escalates.
Meanwhile, if you could step back and see it objectively, you’d probably see that not everything they’re asking for is unreasonable. In fact, some of it is pretty easy to do or is, at least, agreeable. And if you did it, it might make the rest of the tasks a bit more tolerable too. Pretty soon, you’ve done the entire thing.
Life (and our job) is difficult enough. Let’s not make it harder by getting emotional about insignificant matters or digging in for battles we don’t actually care about. Let’s not let emotion get in the way of kathêkon, the simple, appropriate actions on the path to virtue.
Lesson 17: THE ENEMY OF HAPPINESS
“It is quite impossible to unite happiness with a yearning for what we don’t have. Happiness has all that it wants, and resembling the well-fed, there shouldn’t be hunger or thirst.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.24.17
I’ll be happy when I graduate, we tell ourselves. I’ll be happy when I get this promotion, when this diet pays off, when I have the money that my parents never had. Conditional happiness is what psychologists call this kind of thinking. Like the horizon, you can walk for miles and miles and never reach it. You won’t even get any closer.
Eagerly anticipating some future event, passionately imagining something you desire, looking forward to some happy scenario—as pleasurable as these activities might seem, they ruin your chance at happiness here and now. Locate that yearning for more, better, someday and see it for what it is: the enemy of your contentment. Choose it or your happiness. As Epictetus says, the two are not compatible.
Lesson 18: PREPARE FOR THE STORM
“This is the true athlete—the person in rigorous training against false impressions. Remain firm, you who suffer, don’t be kidnapped by your impressions! The struggle is great, the task divine—to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquility.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.18.27–28
Epictetus also used the metaphor of a storm, saying that our impressions are not unlike extreme weather that can catch us and whirl us about. When we get worked up or passionate about an issue, we can relate.
But let’s think about the role of the weather in modern times. Today, we have forecasters and experts who can fairly accurately predict storm patterns. Today, we’re defenseless against a hurricane only if we refuse to prepare or heed the warnings.
If we don’t have a plan, if we never learned how to put up the storm windows, we will be at the mercy of these external—and internal—elements. We’re still puny human beings compared with one-hundred-mile-per-hour winds, but we have the advantage of being able to prepare—being able to struggle against them in a new way.
Lesson 19: THE BANQUET OF LIFE
“Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. It hasn’t yet come? Don’t burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. Act this way with children, a spouse, toward position, with wealth—one day it will make you worthy of a banquet with the gods.”EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 15
The next time you see something you want, remember Epictetus’s metaphor of life’s banquet. As you find yourself getting excited, ready to do anything and everything to get it—the equivalent of reaching across the table and grabbing a dish out of someone’s hands—just remind yourself: that’s bad manners and unnecessary. Then wait patiently for your turn.
This metaphor has other interpretations too. For instance, we might reflect that we’re lucky to have been invited to such a wonderful feast (gratitude). Or that we should take our time and savor the taste of what’s on offer (enjoying the present moment) but that to stuff ourselves sick with food and drink serves no one, least of all our health (gluttony is a deadly sin, after all). That at the end of the meal, it’s rude not to help the host clean up and do the dishes (selflessness). And finally, that next time, it’s our turn to host and treat others just as we had been treated (charity).
Enjoy the meal!
Lesson 20: THE GRAND PARADE OF DESIRE
“Robbers, perverts, killers, and tyrants—gather for your inspection their so-called pleasures!”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 6.34
It’s never great to judge other people, but it’s worth taking a second to investigate how a life dedicated to indulging every whim actually works out. The writer Anne Lamott jokes in Bird by Bird, “Ever wonder what God thinks of money? Just look at the people he gives it to.” The same goes for pleasure. Look at the dictator and his harem filled with plotting, manipulative mistresses. Look how quickly the partying of a young starlet turns to drug addiction and a stalled career.
Ask yourself: Is that really worth it? Is it really that pleasurable?
Consider that when you crave something or contemplate indulging in a “harmless” vice.
Lesson 21: WISH NOT, WANT NOT
“Remember that it’s not only the desire for wealth and position that debases and subjugates us, but also the desire for peace, leisure, travel, and learning. It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another . . . where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 4.4.1–2; 15
Surely, Epictetus isn’t saying that peace, leisure, travel, and learning are bad, is he? Thankfully, no. But ceaseless, ardent desire—if not bad in and of itself—is fraught with potential complications. What we desire makes us vulnerable. Whether it’s an opportunity to travel the world or to be the president or for five minutes of peace and quiet, when we pine for something, when we hope against hope, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Because fate can always intervene and then we’ll likely lose our self-control in response.
As Diogenes, the famous Cynic, once said, “It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little.” To want nothing makes one invincible—because nothing lies outside your control. This doesn’t just go for not wanting the easy-to-criticize things like wealth or fame—the kinds of folly that we see illustrated in some of our most classic plays and fables. That green light that Gatsby strove for can represent seemingly good things too, like love or a noble cause. But it can wreck someone all the same.
When it comes to your goals and the things you strive for, ask yourself: Am I in control of them or they in control of me?
Lesson 22: WHAT’S BETTER LEFT UNSAID
“Cato practiced the kind of public speech capable of moving the masses, believing proper political philosophy takes care like any great city to maintain the warlike element. But he was never seen practicing in front of others, and no one ever heard him rehearse a speech. When he was told that people blamed him for his silence, he replied, ‘Better they not blame my life. I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.’”PLUTARCH, CATO THE YOUNGER, 4
It’s easy to act—to just dive in. It’s harder to stop, to pause, to think: No, I’m not sure I need to do that yet. I’m not sure I am ready. As Cato entered politics, many expected swift and great things from him—stirring speeches, roaring condemnations, wise analyses. He was aware of this pressure—a pressure that exists on all of us at all times—and resisted. It’s easy to pander to the mob (and to our ego).
Instead, he waited and prepared. He parsed his own thoughts, made sure he was not reacting emotionally, selfishly, ignorantly, or prematurely. Only then would he speak—when he was confident that his words were worthy of being heard.
To do this requires awareness. It requires us to stop and evaluate ourselves honestly. Can you do that?
Lesson 23: CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE NO CARE FOR OUR FEELINGS
“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38
A significant chunk of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is made up of short quotes and passages from other writers. This is because Marcus wasn’t necessarily trying to produce an original work—instead he was practicing, reminding himself here and there of important lessons, and sometimes these lessons were things he had read.
This particular quote is special because it comes from a play by Euripides, which, except for a handful of quoted fragments like this, is lost to us. From what we can gather about the play, Bellerophon, the hero, comes to doubt the existence of the gods. But in this line, he is saying: Why bother getting mad at causes and forces far bigger than us? Why do we take these things personally? After all, external events are not sentient beings—they cannot respond to our shouts and cries—and neither can the mostly indifferent gods.
That’s what Marcus was reminding himself of here: circumstances are incapable of considering or caring for your feelings, your anxiety, or your excitement. They don’t care about your reaction. They are not people. So stop acting like getting worked up is having an impact on a given situation. Situations don’t care at all.
Lesson 24: THE REAL SOURCE OF HARM
“Keep in mind that it isn’t the one who has it in for you and takes a swipe that harms you, but rather the harm comes from your own belief about the abuse. So when someone arouses your anger, know that it’s really your own opinion fueling it. Instead, make it your first response not to be carried away by such impressions, for with time and distance self-mastery is more easily achieved.”EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 20
The Stoics remind us that there really is no such thing as an objectively good or bad occurrence. When a billionaire loses $1 million in market fluctuation, it’s not the same as when you or I lose a million dollars. Criticism from your worst enemy is received differently than negative words from a spouse. If someone sends you an angry email but you never see it, did it actually happen? In other words, these situations require our participation, context, and categorization in order to be “bad.”
Our reaction is what actually decides whether harm has occurred. If we feel that we’ve been wronged and get angry, of course that’s how it will seem. If we raise our voice because we feel we’re being confronted, naturally a confrontation will ensue.
But if we retain control of ourselves, we decide whether to label something good or bad. In fact, if that same event happened to us at different points in our lifetime, we might have very different reactions. So why not choose now to not apply these labels? Why not choose not to react?
Lesson 25: THE SMOKE AND DUST OF MYTH
“Keep a list before your mind of those who burned with anger and resentment about something, of even the most renowned for success, misfortune, evil deeds, or any special distinction. Then ask yourself, how did that work out? Smoke and dust, the stuff of simple myth trying to be legend . . .”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 12.27
In Marcus Aurelius’s writings, he constantly points out how the emperors who came before him were barely remembered just a few years later. To him, this was a reminder that no matter how much he conquered, no matter how much he inflicted his will on the world, it would be like building a castle in the sand—soon to be erased by the winds of time.
The same goes for those driven to the heights of hate or anger or obsession or perfectionism. Marcus liked to point out that Alexander the Great—one of the most passionate and ambitious men who ever lived—was buried in the same ground as his mule driver. Eventually, all of us will pass away and slowly be forgotten. We should enjoy this brief time we have on earth—not be enslaved to emotions that make us miserable and dissatisfied.
Lesson 26: TO EACH HIS OWN
“Another has done me wrong? Let him see to it. He has his own tendencies, and his own affairs. What I have now is what the common nature has willed, and what I endeavor to accomplish now is what my nature wills.”MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 5.25
Abraham Lincoln occasionally got fuming mad with a subordinate, one of his generals, even a friend. Rather than taking it out on that person directly, he’d write a long letter, outlining his case why they were wrong and what he wanted them to know. Then Lincoln would fold it up, put the letter in the desk drawer, and never send it. Many of these letters survive only by chance.
He knew, as the former emperor of Rome knew, that it’s easy to fight back. It’s tempting to give them a piece of your mind. But you almost always end up with regret. You almost always wish you hadn’t sent the letter. Think of the last time you flew off the handle. What was the outcome? Was there any benefit?
Lesson 27: CULTIVATING INDIFFERENCE WHERE OTHERS GROW PASSION
“Of all the things that are, some are good, others bad, and yet others indifferent. The good are virtues and all that share in them; the bad are the vices and all that indulge them; the indifferent lie in between virtue and vice and include wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, and pain.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.19.12b–13
Imagine the power you’d have in your life and relationships if all the things that trouble everyone else—how thin they are, how much money they have, how long they have left to live, how they will die—didn’t matter so much. What if, where others were upset, envious, excited, possessive, or greedy, you were objective, calm, and clearheaded? Can you envision that? Imagine what it would do for your relationships at work, or for your love life, or your friendships.
Seneca was an incredibly wealthy, even famous, man—yet he was a Stoic. He had many material things, yet, as the Stoics say, he was also indifferent to them. He enjoyed them while they were there, but he accepted that they might someday disappear. What a better attitude than desperately craving more or fearfully dreading losing even one penny. Indifference is solid middle ground.
It’s not about avoidance or shunning, but rather not giving any possible outcome more power or preference than is appropriate. This not easy to do, certainly, but if you could manage, how much more relaxed would you be?
Lesson 28: WHEN YOU LOSE CONTROL
“The soul is like a bowl of water, and our impressions are like the ray of light falling upon the water. When the water is troubled, it appears that the light itself is moved too, but it isn’t. So, when a person loses their composure it isn’t their skills and virtues that are troubled, but the spirit in which they exist, and when that spirit calms down so do those things.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.3.20–22
You messed up a little. Or maybe you messed up a lot.
So? That doesn’t change the philosophy that you know. It’s not as if your reasoned choice has permanently abandoned you. Rather, it was you who temporarily abandoned it.
Remember that the tools and aims of our training are unaffected by the turbulence of the moment. Stop. Regain your composure. It’s waiting for you.
Lesson 29: YOU CAN’T ALWAYS (BE) GET(TING) WHAT YOU WANT
“When children stick their hand down a narrow goody jar they can’t get their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire—don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.”EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 3.9.22
“We can have it all” is the mantra of our modern lives. Work, family, purpose, success, leisure time—we want all of this, at the same time (right now, to boot).
In Greece, the lecture hall (scholeion) was a leisure center where students contemplated the higher things (the good, true, and beautiful) for the purpose of living a better life. It was about prioritization, about questioning the priorities of the outside world. Today, we’re too busy getting things, just like kids jamming their hand down a jar of goodies, to do much of this questioning.
“Don’t set your heart on so many things,” says Epictetus. Focus. Prioritize. Train your mind to ask: Do I need this thing? What will happen if I do not get it? Can I make do without it?
The answers to these questions will help you relax, help you cut out all the needless things that make you busy—too busy to be balanced or happy.