When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgement of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.47
The book’s example after this quote is about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He spent his whole life dreaming and preparing for his career in politics, but at 39 he got polio. Did he let this horrible disease, an “external thing,” end his hopes and dreams of winning the presidency? We all know the answer given that FDR is widely regarded as one of the greatest political figures in American history.
This one also hits home for me. As we’ve touched on in the past, it is easy to feel like life was unfair in the hand it dealt you and then use that as fuel to generate a myriad of reasons why you don’t have what you want. My dad became disabled when I was in fourth grade. My mother got breast cancer a couple years later, and she died when I was in eleventh grade. My maternal grandfather died that same year. The knock on effects of these events were huge. Almost everything in life changed in some way. My entire childhood was defined by these events, and they were all outside of my control.
It took me a long time to make my peace. Ultimately the feelings of worry, anger, stress, disdain, and sadness were generated from within, and they were holding me back. Changing how I thought about these things very likely saved my life, and only now am I able to look back and see how fortunate I still was in so many ways.
The book ends with the line, “Let’s not confuse acceptance with passivity.” This is an important note. The idea is not to invalidate your feelings, to ignore things, or not to care. It is not about lack of agency, or abdicating your desires and ability (and responsibility) to act. From my view, you should experience the emotions as they come to you. It is good to be sad when sad things happen. But don’t get stuck and dwell on it for too long.
Time moves on, and so should you. Accept the things you cannot change.
Think by way of example on the times of Vespasian, and you’ll see all these things: marrying, raising children, falling ill, dying, wars, holiday feasts, commerce, farming, flattering, pretending, suspecting, scheming, praying that others die, grumbling over one’s lot, falling in love, amassing fortunes, lusting after office and power. Now that life of theirs is dead and gone… the times of Trajan, again the same…Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.32
It is easy to think we now live at the apex of human society, with our impressive technology and handful of accomplishments truly defining of our species. The Industrial Revolution. The invention of flight. The moon landing. The Internet.
But, truthfully, evolution takes a long time to occur. It takes a duration so long it is not easily comprehended by humans. Humans today are not appreciably different from humans 50, 100, or 1000 years ago. Sure, we have more technology and knowledge at our finger tips, but that largely does not change who and what we are. As Marcus Aurelius points out, we largely do what our ancestors did. Our ancestors will do largely what we do. Per the book, “With a few exceptions, things are the same as they’ve always been and always will be.”
We are all, for a brief time, passengers on the starship of Earth. It was here long before we were born, and it will be here long after we are gone. Radical change is not in the cards. Humans are humans, and they do what humans do. Make your peace with that and you improve your chances of a pleasant journey through the cosmos.
The universe is change. Life is opinion.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.4b
When our hair grows long we cut it. If our nails grow long we cut them. When our cells die they are replaced by new ones. The skin on your body is entirely different than the skin you had 27 days ago.
Are you still the same person? Or are you a new one? Strictly speaking the matter that makes up who you are is entirely new. And yet I think most would all agree we are still the same person; these molecular changes do not change who we are.
But what about your thoughts and memories? Those are constantly changing. What about your job? That is likely to change several times throughout your life. Where you live? Where you live now is probably different than where you grew up or went to college. How much do these things define who you, your family, and your friends are? How much do these things inform how you think and act?
The book notes that, “Our understanding of what something is is just a snapshot — an ephemeral opinion.” This is exactly right. How you view something today is based on so many different variables it is impossible to list them all. How you think about something tomorrow could be drastically different than how you thought about it today if something changes.
And it will. It always will. Change is the only constant.
It follows then that the more fluid and malleable you are in your thoughts, actions, and opinions, the smoother your journey through life will be. Being rigid should never be a point of pride as it shows a refusal to acknowledge the weight of the universe, and that is a losing battle.
Remember that you are an actor in a play, playing a character according to the will of the playwright — if a short play, then it’s short; if long, long. If he wishes you to play the beggar, play even that role well, just as you would if it were a cripple, a honcho, or an everyday person. For this is your duty, to perform well the character assigned you. That selection belongs to another.”Epictetus, Enchiridion, 17
Play the hand you are dealt, and play it well. It is the only hand you get. This is the lesson the Epictetus is trying to impart. The book goes on to mention that accepting and fulfilling our part is not at odds with ambition which is not obvious at first glance. After all, if we are assigned a part then why try rising above our station? If we must play the beggar then how are we not locked into such a poor life?
There are many stories where the mighty fall, and there are many stories where the less fortunate rise. You may be assigned a part when you enter the story, but the story itself is not yet written. The question really is this: what do you want your story to be? If someone tells your tale, what will they say?
In order to change your story you must first accept and understand the role you have been tasked to play. You cannot change where the story starts or where it has already been, but once you are in control then your story will go wherever you wish.
Don’t trust in your reputation, money, or position, but in the strength that is yours — namely, your judgements about the things that you control and don’t control. For this alone is what makes us free and unfettered, that picks us up by the neck from the depths and lifts us eye to eye with the rich and powerful.Epictetus, Discourses, 3.26.34-35
The book talks about a story in which a philosopher stands eye to eye with Alexander the Great, unwilling to move out of the way of him and his army. When asked what he has accomplished compared to Alexander, he replies, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.”
Reputation, money, position, fame, and so on can all be stripped away. They are things conferred unto us by other people and society. All humans desire these things to varying degrees. Unfortunately, they are not entirely within our realm of control.
This too is a hard lesson. Money truly seems very important, and when you don’t have enough life is indeed miserable. It is understandable why most people make such concessions to obtain it, even if they must do so at the expense of their individual freedoms. But I do think many (including myself) put perhaps too high a premium on it.
It doesn’t always feel like it, but you can always earn more money. It is worth making sure that you are not trading too much in return for it, both in terms of time, stress, and moral authority.
This is a timely and relevant passage. I don’t normally think of myself a kingdom builder, but I am more that than many I know. It has taken more deliberate action than I expected in passing the baton and handing over the keys to things I have spent five or more years building. Letting go is not easy for me. And yet I know that for the next cycle to begin I must learn to accept these things and cherish the chance to create an opportunities for others around me while I get out of the way.
If the breaking day sees someone proud,Seneca, Thyestes, 613
The ending day sees them brought low.
No one should put too much trust in triumph,
No one should give up hope of trials improving.
Clotho mixes one with the other and stops
Fortune from resting, spinning every fate around.
No one has had so much divine favor
That they could guarantee themselves tomorrow.
God keeps our lives hurtling on,
Spinning in a whirlwind.
According to the book, Clotho is one of the three Greek goddesses of fate who “spins” the threads of human life. The playwright Aeschylus wrote, “When the gods send evil, one cannot escape it.” The same was true for great destiny and fortune.
This is another example of acceptance. We are not in control, and what will happen will happen regardless. However, this quote digs into another facet of this concept. What is today may not be tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever. A triumph can be come a trial, and a trial a triumph in an instant.
What you are experiencing now will pass. Let this be a sobering fact because it applies to both the good and bad.
This is the very thing which makes up the virtue of the happy person and a well-flowing life — when the affairs of life are in every way tuned to the harmony between the individual divine spirit and the will of the director of the universe.Chrysippus, Quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.88
For this quote the book talks about addicts struggling in a 12 step program where step 2 is acknowledge a higher power. At first glance this feels like a religious platitude, and it is not necessarily helpful to the nonreligious. But the point really has nothing to do with religion at all. The fundamental idea is to accept that the world does not revolve around us. It is much too big for that. We are not at the center, and we are not in control. We are simply along for the ride of life. As the book says, “As soon as you can attune your spirit to that idea, the easier and happier your life will be, because you will have given up the most potent addiction of all: control.” What a great way to phrase it — “attune your spirit to that idea.” How you think about and understand the world and your relationship to it is entirely within your control, and yet this is something that most people spend very little time thinking about.
I am not a religious man, and I have not been for a very long time. But I also figured out long ago that not being religious does not mean you cannot be spiritual. In the Neil DeGrasse Tyson interview with TIME magazine he is asked about the The Most Astounding Fact, and this helped me more concretely frame and explain my spiritual views ever since. You do not need to believe in a god to see the beauty and feel kinship with the Universe at large. In so many ways we are just a brief jumble of particles that have coalesced in a way for the Universe to view and experience itself. Our atoms will return on their journey before too long, and we should treasure the time given to us to experience this cosmic adventure.
When considering the big picture, we are not in control. We are along for the ride.
There is no evil in things changing, just as there is no good in persisting in a new state.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.42
Events are neither good or bad. They just are. In fact, they are objectively pure. The universe does not actually have an agenda since it is primarily a physics simulation.
The book notes that the Stoics would remind everyone of this fact. The status quo is not inherently good and change is not inherently bad, and the reverse is also true. The goal, then, is to make the most out of every situation.
Accept what is and adjust your attitude accordingly.
Just as we commonly hear people say the doctor prescribed someone particular riding exercises, or ice baths, or walking without shoes, we should in the same way say that nature prescribed someone to be diseased, or disabled, or to suffer any kind of impairment. In the case of the doctor, prescribed means something ordered to help aid someone’s healing. But in the case of nature, it means that what happens to each of us is ordered to help aid our destiny.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.8
Doctor’s orders. Somehow this simple phrase does carry enough weight to get people to accept unpleasant things. There is the promise that in following through with the unpleasant course of action we will find ourselves in a better place. And yet we often don’t apply this same thinking to fate or destiny.
Again, as in part 5, this one is harder for me to swallow. It implies that there is a destiny for each and every soul, and while I agree that each creature in this universe will follow a path to an eventual conclusion, that conclusion may not be one we readily desire and accept.
Many people are dealt an unfair and uncaring hand by the universe. Should you accept and welcome a destiny where you are permanently disabled and nearly die in a car crash in your 40s? That is what happened to my father. Although he survived, he lived another 20 years of declining health and ability, and he gradually watched as the world he was leaving to his kids seemingly became worse at every turn.
Perhaps the stoics would say that his destiny was in fact to have a family and be lucky enough to watch his kids grow up — a gift this universe did not grant my mother — and that this is enough. Framed in this light I can accept what Marcus says. I generally think being a good parent is by far the most important thing most humans will do with their lives.
It took me what feels like a long time, but I have come to appreciate my life experiences even though my younger years were extremely challenging and frequently consisted of loss and hardship. These experiences have indeed helped me become who I am today, and I know I would not be where I am without them. They have made me more grateful for what I have, and they have motivated me to stay on my purpose in a way that seems very uncommon amongst my peers.
I am still amazed at how insights into life from 1800 years ago are still incredibly poignant today.
But I haven’t at any time been hindered in my will, nor forced against it. And how is this possible? I have bound up my choice to act with the will of God. God wills that I be sick, such is my will. He wills that I should choose something, so do I. He wills that I reach for something, or that something be given to me — I wish for the same. What God doesn’t will, I do not wish for.Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.89
In the description the book describes a letter Eisenhower sent to his wife on the eve of the invasion of Normandy. In it he writes, “Everything we could think of has been done, the troops are fit, everybody is doing his best. The answer is in the lap of the gods.”
This is a powerful statement. No matter how much time you have spent thinking and preparing, you eventually have to pull the trigger to see what happens and bear the consequences. The code you write doesn’t matter if it never makes it into the hands of users. The rocket ship you built does no good rusting away on the launchpad.
The better you get at doing your best and then decisively acting the more you will accomplish even if there are some stumbles and falls along the way. It is better to be moving forward and course correct than stand completely still agonizing over the choice in front of you.
You must prepare, but you must also act. The outcomes will be what they are, whether we like it or not.