It wasn’t until I realized how much I was hurting myself by trying to control the things I couldn’t control, and instead decided to concentrate on the one thing I could control, that my life started to get a lot better.
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Strangely, a lot of the impetus for that change came from a Roman Emperor who’d been dead 1820 years by the time I started snooping through his personal journal when I was 16 years old.
Marcus Aurelius, once hailed as a god and the lauded by historians as the shepherd who brought the Romans through some of their greatest challenges, didn’t write a book for the consumption of the world.
He wasn’t looking for fame among his people or trying to pen an autobiography that would last through the ages.
Instead, while out on campaign, guarding the northern frontier of the Roman Empire from the unrelenting press of German tribes trying to break through, or holed up in the capital, fending off sycophants and dealing with the endless demands of his office, he took time from his busy day to scribble reminders to himself on some scrolls he kept nearby.
What did he write? Things like:
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
“Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.”
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”
It is almost unbelievable that this journal – intended for personal reflection – got copied and recopied by generations of monks and scholars while hundreds of other classic texts were lost to fire, war, and ignorance, but it happened, and I consider myself to be one of the beneficiaries.
But how did a 16-year-old in the turn-of-the-millennium United States come to be reading these odd little notes from a long-dead autocrat? I was a weird teenager (and am now an unusual adult, to be fair).
See, sixteen-year-old me was miserable. I’d been suffering from what might qualify as self-induced depression since I was in junior high. I was obese, despite eating the same foods and portions as my slim older brother. I was failing socially, and barely scrapped by academically, despite trying and being a voracious reader. I had horrible migraine headaches multiple times a week which left my writhing on the floor, and my digestive system was unrelentingly messed up, which would be diagnosed as colitis years down the line.
In short, when I looked out onto the world and surveyed my lot in life and likely future, I could see nothing worth being happy about. My world seemed dark, and so my thoughts followed suit.
But one of my odd interests was Greco-Roman history. To me, the ancient Greeks and Romans seemed to have their priorities more in the right place than the current cultures extant on planet Earth. From the high worth they placed on science and philosophy, their development of physical culture, and their public gymnasiums, baths, and theaters, I saw a lot that seemed saner than what I found in my own world.
In some of my readings I heard about Meditations, the collection of short journals entries Marcus Aurelius had written, and got myself a copy.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but these odd statements, full of esoteric mumblings, were just not it. I remember abandoning it multiple times, only to keep picking it up to try and make sense of it.
I didn’t know at the time that Marcus was regarded by philosophers and historians as one of the greatest practitioners of stoic philosophy, and that Meditations was considered the ultimate example of how one could put this very-utilitarian system of thought and action to good use during even the most trying of circumstances.
At 16, the intricacies of stoic philosophy were likely above my head. My takeaway was stilted, and not an accurate representation of the philosophy as a whole. In the years to come, I would gain a better understanding of it and would benefit even more. But 16-year-old Andrew took three key points away from his reading, and they lead to a lot of positive change.
Stoic Takeaway One:
The Struggles Of Those Who Have It All
Marcus was the most powerful man on in the Western world; he had all the money he could want, the respect of the usually-fickle senate, the adoration of the common people, and command of the most competent military on the face of the earth…and yet he didn’t have it easy. All his many accomplishments, and all the things he had going for him, could not keep him from racing about, putting out fires. In fact, Marcus is so well regarded by historians mostly because he accomplished so much in some of the worst times the Roman empire even faced.
Why would this make in impact on a 16-year-old?
I’d never lost 12 of my children to disease and childbirth, or a quarter of my subjects to a plague. I’d never been betrayed by a friend who wanted to seize my throne, nor had to repel multiple invasions at once with a plague-decimated army. I hadn’t been kept up at night, trying to decide between drafting farm workers into the legions and seeing my population starve, or deciding to leave them in the fields, only to watch them cut down by invaders. I’d never been saddled with an incompetent co-emperor, nor a tyrannical son and heir.
One thing that snapped into place for me then was that the understanding that the rich, beautiful, influential, powerful, healthy, and athletic people of the world all had their share of problems, and even if they were remarkably free of them, without the right mindset, they’d suffer anyway. Even an ideal life seems a horror show if you look at it the wrong way.
Marcus, with his stoic practices and mindset, managed to be happy in the midst of problems far greater than any I’d faced. In comparison, it made me feel pretty pathetic that I was so continuously miserable in relative safety, comfort, and freedom.
And if Marcus could be happy with such a stressful life, couldn’t I, with all I had before me?
Stoic Takeaway Two:
Accomplishments Don’t Matter.
Being The Type of Person Who Does The Right Things Matters
There are a few lines in Meditations and other Greco-Roman literature that have dramatically changed my approach to life.
Marcus wrote, “…The fortunate person is the one who gives themselves a good fortune. And good fortunes are a well-tuned soul, good impulses, and good actions.”
Stoic philosophers were big on taking virtuous action, but also realized that you’ll never have the intended results totally under your control. Thus, if you based your happiness and self-worth on outcomes, you’d frequently be left disappointed.
On the other hand, if you managed your thoughts (which are always under your control) well, acted virtuously, and always strove to be the type of person your ideal self would want you to be, you would be happy. Stoic philosophers urged adherents to imagine a trusted adviser or mentor – or maybe a kind of idealized version of themselves – was watching their actions at all times.
How would you act if you knew you were being watched by someone whose respect you valued? Would you do more of the right things?
Beginning to act in ways my ideal self would approve of started an avalanche of positive changes in my life. Suddenly, it wasn’t important that I was obese when others in my family were thin eating the same diet; I could eat more like my highest self would, and be content with that, regardless of how my body reacted.
It didn’t matter that I wasn’t athletic; I could put the same type of effort into being fit and healthy as my highest self would, regardless of if I ever became a top athlete.
It didn’t matter that I wasn’t gifted academically – I would strive in the mental realms how I’d expect my ideal self to strive.
Achievements might take years of work, or never show up at all – the point wasn’t achievement, but being a person who practiced a skill or worked toward a goal relentlessly, no matter how advanced or inept my efforts were.
Marcus was a peaceful scholar at heart, and lacked the conquering drive and fighter’s spirit of many of his predecessors. Yet by the end of his reign he’d become a competent general and strategic thinker who drove off multiple invading armies.
He was noted as being physically weak as a child, yet he wrestled and did strengthening exercise to become robust and healthy.
So in young Marcus, I could see a different version of myself.
Within a few years of adopting the mindset of always taking the right actions and mental positions (or trying to, anyway) instead of cursing how disadvantaged I was, I’d cleaned up my diet, dropped a ton of weight, become a pretty competent athlete, improved my academic performance remarkably, beaten my colitis, gotten rid of my headaches, and was a lot happier – all from thinking the thoughts and taking the actions that my highest self would have taken, regardless of how far away my goals seemed.
There’s a Roman aphorism that I really like – it’s the only tattoo I’ve consider having branded onto me (but haven’t):
“Material superabat opus”: (The workmanship was better than the material)
Yes, my raw materials may have been subpar in some ways (but certainly not all!). But man, have I ever made the best of them. I’ve taken those ragged boards and nails and created something pretty sweet, and damn am I happy with it.
But the results are not the biggest thing for me. It’s being the person who strives in a way that happens to bring results most of the time.
“But what does Socrates say? ‘Just as one person delights in improving his farm, and another his horse, so I delight in attending to my own improvement day by day.’”
– EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES
Stoic Takeaway Three:
Most People Aren’t Rational,
So Feel Good About Going Your Own Way
For much of my life, I’ve observed the world around me and what the majority of its people value and come to the conclusion that I’m different in terms of priorities and interests. Their choices and lifestyles just seem off to me.
When I was younger, I’d more or less decided that I was just strange in a way that made me something of an outcast. Not only did I not fit in, but I really didn’t want to fit in. I didn’t want to live the lifestyle of the people around me.
Marcus would have understood my situation. He wrote:
“The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”
Was Marcus an elitist? Yes, in the sense that he viewed the majority as unwilling to exercise virtue and reason.
He wrote: “Everything by which people set so much store in life is emptiness, putrefaction, pettiness; little dogs nipping at one another; little children who laugh as they fight, and then suddenly burst into tears.”
Yet he didn’t make distinction between men and women’s ability to live virtuously, and happily learned from a stoic who was a former slave (freed slaves occupied a very low position in Roman Society).
Stoicism was a philosophy that could be applied by anyone who was willing to think and act virtuously and rationally. Unlike the philosophy of Aristotle, which said that only the lucky few blessed with good looks, health, wealth, and other perks could achieve Eudaimonia (human flourishing and happiness) Stoics believed that anyone of any station of life could thrive.
As a teenager, I found myself in a strange position: not fitting in, and yet not fully going my own way for fear of being judged.
Very often, I’d curb my behavior to seem more normal because I cared what people thought of me.
Although it took years, Marcus Aurelius’s and other stoic authors words started to make me feel ok about not having the approval of others, and being pretty unusual.
He wrote, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”
I like me. I think I’m pretty awesome and go about life in an intelligent and rational manner. So why should I care how others judge my actions?
The funny thing is, I’m often told by people that one of the things they most respect about me is that I just get up change my life or do things by myself without regard of what average people think.
Maybe it’s just a part of getting older, or maybe stoicism just keeps making me a better person, but these days I rarely stop to think about how weird I must seem to others.
These days, I recognize that there are plenty of people who are weird in a way complimentary to my own weirdness, and people whose respect I’m happy to have. In fact, being unusual seems to act as a signaling mechanism to alert others like me that I’m around, thus making me friends I actually want to have.
But The freedom not not caring is truly liberating, and lets me live a more virtuous life.
16 Years Of Stoicism
At 16, many of the elements of stoicism, and its holistic appeal, were above my head. After years of intermittent stoic reading and integration, though, it’s clear how it’s shaped my character and brought me in directions I’m happy to have traveled in.
In future articles, I’ll be talking more about how this ancient philosophy has continued to influence my life for the better over the years.
But I want to finish off with another powerful message from Marcus that I’ve taken heart in when my life seemed hardest.
“Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.
The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”
What stands in your way becomes the way, if you let it, my friends.