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Philosophy

Marcus Aurelius On Asking The Impossible

Look at the bad events that happen to us again and again—and to others—and look at how our response usually remains the same. We respond with anger and faulty perceptions.

Someone cuts us off while driving, a customer being an asshole, the bus being late—these things are so common, and yet we remain surprised when it happens to us. There comes a point in life when you’re forced to ask yourself, “Is this how I want to live? Step outside my door and let everything bother me, making me this angry whiner?”

One of the most difficult pieces of wisdom that proves to be exceedingly more difficult as I pay attention to it is said by Marcus Aurelius. He said in Meditations [emphasis mine]:

“When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To react like that brings you closer to impassivity—and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger. Both are things we suffer from, and yield to.

… and one more thought, from Apollo: That to expect bad people not to injure others is crazy. It’s to ask the impossible. And to let them behave like that to other people but expect them to exempt you is arrogant—the act of a tyrant.”

This wisdom has weight and relevance to our daily lives. Why do we complain when someone cuts us off? Why do we get surprised when an unforeseen event, like the basement flooding or getting a flat tire, happens to us? We are quick to blame karma or the universe, seeking to find some logic in what’s happening, and more specifically, why it’s happening to us right now.

But whether it happens to you at your best or worst, honestly, why does it matter? We have no control over these externalities—but how easy it is to live with this belief that we do. What Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics believed was that what we have control over is how we respond to these events in our lives—in essence, we are in control of the story that we tell ourselves about what’s happening. We can choose to see this breakup or our house burning down as a catastrophe or we can choose to be more mindful of the language we use and focus instead on what’s ahead and not what’s left behind.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said:

“Don’t try to make your own rules. Conduct yourself in all matters, grand and public or small and domestic, in accordance with the laws of nature. Harmonizing your will with nature should be your utmost ideal. Where do you practice this ideal? In the particulars of your own daily life with its uniquely personal tasks and duties. When you carry out your tasks, such as taking a bath, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature. When you eat, do so—to the best of your ability—in harmony with nature, and so on. It is not so much what you are doing as how you are doing it. When we properly understand and live by this principle, while difficulties arise—for they are part of the divine order too—inner peace will still be possible.”

Stop asking the impossible.

This has become a silent mantra that’s repeated in my head to help me manage daily stresses. One day when I was food shopping, two people were complaining about some celebrity divorce. I kept thinking how sheepish people are, how pointless it was to discuss such bullshit matters and pondered why something so meaningless took up so much space in someone’s life.

But how ridiculous it was for me to think that. Who did that help? What did that behavior essentially do for me? Make me better or bitter? To simply accept and live with the fact that people enjoy celebrity gossip, I have to stop asking the impossible. Will the world one day have non-worshippers for celebrities? No—then stop asking the impossible, stop being bothered by it, stop donning meaning to everything that falls under your attention. Will the world one day have no traffic and no bad drivers? No—then stop asking the impossible. Will the airport process get any better? Probably not, so stop asking the impossible.

Indeed, perception is what you tell yourself. Our default reaction to ask the impossible is simply rooted in human nature; it’s the workings of our mind. But learning to pause, to manage our perception, is a skill that can be honed and developed with practice. It’s a skill that helps us become more compassionate, understanding, and mindful.

Let’s first get into why we ask the impossible.

The Most Fundamental Law of Human Nature: Our Desire to Tell Stories

Narrative is one of the most interesting and beautiful concepts of human nature. From the paintings on walls to the tempest of thoughts in our head to digital books, humans are hardwired to tell stories and to seek meaning. When our ancestors felt the ground tremble and the sky flash with blinding light, they didn’t see it objectively, but rather as angry gods or spirits or forces that were unpleased with mortals. Whether they were right or wrong isn’t the point—what’s more interesting to observe was the desire to fabricate a tale.

The purpose of stories is to produce an understanding—to turn chaos into calm. It’s to provide stability of both behavior and the mind. Our brains are processing such an unfathomable amount of information that we naturally reduce things to simpler terms and concepts. Stories are indeed the infrastructure to our conscious experience.

When someone cuts us off, it’s hard to just simply accept it as a vehicle operated by another human merging into your line of sight. Instead, we take it personally, spinning a story on why this person was out to get us, why life is hard, and why they’re the asshole.

And yet… when everything settles, what remains? The person is gone, headed to their destination, while we’re here stressing and our blood boiling. How does that affect our day, our next conversation, our next interaction with a stranger? Must we live like this?

When I finally grasped a glimmer of understanding of this wisdom, I felt relieved. “So I don’t have to react negatively to these everyday occurrences, meaning I actually have some say in it?”

We do. But it takes disciplined daily practice to overcome our deeply rooted, evolutionary behaviors.

How to Stop Asking the Impossible

To suddenly stop complaining about ordinary, essentially meaningless events requires a drastic behavioral change. What does that life look like? Imagine it: you stop stressing out when you’re driving; you accept that every now and then you’ll have a bad experience at a restaurant; you don’t become surprised anymore that driving between the hours of 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. are the worst; you stop criticizing people who worship celebrities or go shopping on Black Friday for the sake of boosting your own ego and ignoring your own insecurities.

If you’re wondering why I retreat to Aurelius’s wisdom, it’s because of his story and the way his teachings are so easily digestible. Here is a man who rose to power in the most powerful empire in the world. During his reign, he had to face the loss of his wife, war on all ends, and treachery. Did he lose his calm, throw a tantrum, act belligerently? No, Marcus Aurelius wrote in his journal all the teachings throughout his life that focused on persevering through adversity and hardship with courage, humility, duty, self-awareness, justice, and honesty.

The logic, of course, follows: if a man this powerful can overcome threats to his empire, both foreign and personal, while dealing with the loss of his love, then we, too, have the resilience to turn trials into triumph. It’s not based on circumstance—us normal people versus a Roman Emperor—but rather based on human nature: all man’s ability to persevere and to use their perception as both an offense and defense.

The Stoics loved the idea of following nature’s laws to help them understand their own personal lives. Here is a quote from Aurelius that’s a common theme throughout his Meditations focused on stripping everything down to its bare essentials and looking at it for what it is:

“To the stand-bys above, add this one: always to define whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return. Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. To look at it in such a way that we understand what need it fulfills, and in what kind of world. And its value to that world as a whole and to man in particular—as a citizen of that higher city, of which all other cities are mere households.

What is it—this thing that now forces itself onto my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it—tranquility, courage, honesty, trustworthiness, straightforwardness, independence or what?

So in each case you need to say: ‘This is due to God.’ Or: ‘This is due to the interweavings and intertwinings of fate, to coincidence or chance.’ Or: ‘This is due to a human being. Someone of the same race, the same birth, the same society, but who doesn’t know what nature requires of him. But I do. And so I’ll treat them as the law that binds us—the law of nature—requires. With kindness and with justice. And in inconsequential things? I’ll do my best to treat them as they deserve.”

Believe me, I understand how difficult this mindset can be. It’s difficult to suddenly look at a leather bag as a leather bag with drawings on it versus a Birkin or Louie Vuitton. But that’s the “spiritual” practice: to strip everything down to its essentials, to see it for what it is, not what culture says it is. See what I mean? We take objects and attach meaning to them. That meaning is rooted in a story. But this topic on branding is a whole other story.

So how do we stop asking the impossible? Thus far, we’ve touched up on perception, our nature to tells stories and seek meaning, and the perspective of the Stoics. To not ask the impossible is to simply learn to be more understanding, compassionate, and content. It is to relinquish control to that which we have no control. It helps free the mind from unnecessary burdens and provocations and helps us be vigilant to that which helps us live well, grow, learn, and contribute.

The fault, obviously, is not in our stars but in our perception. Being mindful of our perception is a skill that requires discipline and attention.

I don’t have all the answers and I use what’s been synthesized to help me develop my own mind and understanding, so I’ll end with Aurelius:

“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.

They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice?

A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained.

To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.

How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, and humility.”

 

(Meditations was one of those books that profoundly changed my life. I reread it from time to time. I have to thank Ryan Holiday for introducing me to this work and to philosophy. Be sure to check out his book, The Obstacle Is The Way.)

— PAUL JUN