Truth and Change

Holding on to a belief so tightly that you will not allow yourself to see the world from different view points can be a dangerous thing.  Marcus Aurelius recognized how damaging it can be to stand firm in our convictions without allowing our decisions and beliefs to be based on reason over our desires to be right.  In his book Meditations the Roman emperor wrote, “if any many is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured.  But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” What Aurelius is showing is that he is open to viewpoints and ideas that are different from his own, and that he is willing to change his beliefs if there is sufficient evidence to do so.

 

The challenge we face today is how our identity is fundamentally tied to the views and beliefs that we hold. I imagine this is not a new phenomenon in human experience, but in our culture today we often tie our political, spiritual, and social views to our identity, making our opinions more salient and rigid.  When we develop a belief today, we build our lives around it and use that belief to express who we are.  The tribes we belong to and who we see as viable partners (in everything from marriage, to business, to sports) becomes in one way determined by who is like us, and who has beliefs and viewpoints that most closely match our own.  We understand that it is a negative for society if we organize our tribes based on our racial identity and in many ways we strive for diversity to eliminate the importance of our racial identity, but for things that are less visible, we often times cheer for those who are unchanging, and we denigrate those whose identity seems to change.

 

I believe the increasing salience of identity based on behavior and belief is dangerous for our society. When we lock ourselves in, and define ourselves based on our interests, views, beliefs, and inclinations, we limit our possibilities and we limit not just our own progress, but often times the progress of the societies to which we belong.

 

It is hard to recognize at first, but our society does not want us to live in the gray and seek truth. What our society wants, now that we are not able to define who we are and who is part of our group based on race, is that we wear our unwavering identity on our sleeves so that others know how to think about us, and so that we know how to think about ourselves relative to others.  Two of the most clear examples from our culture of identity becoming arbitrarily tied to beliefs and preferences in a way that serves to define us and prevent our beliefs from changing are in the worlds of politics and sports.  In both cases switching teams can be catastrophic and lead to criticism from not just the group to which you originally belonged, but also from the group to which you joined.  In politics we expect our politicians to have firm beliefs that do not change over time, and if we see a candidate switch sides or switch beliefs we call them a flip-flopper and suggest that they will do anything to get the vote.  In sports, fans who change the teams they root for are often called band-wagon fans, and rather than following the teams who perform the best and rooting for the teams who win the most, we are encouraged to pick one team to root for with loyal support regardless of whether or not they are competitive, well managed, or even entertaining.

 

In both of these areas we are better off as individuals and as a society if we allow ourselves to change and to not be defined by specific ideas.  Like Aurelius, seeking truth in politics, and understanding that we may be unconsciously seeking only information that aligns with our previously held belief, can help us overcome ignorance and logical fallacies.  In sports, we can be free to express ourselves in a more dynamic way, and we may have a lower blood pressure while watching games.  There is no reason that any field needs to be tied so strongly to our identity that we are unwilling to change or interact with others who do not see the world as we do.  Becoming dynamic in our identity is a challenge that means we must abandon our belief in dichotomies, since the majority of the world cannot be approached from a black and white perspective. If we do not allow our identities to shift and change with reason, then we will never live in the gray, which is where life truly takes place. We will never allow ourselves or our society to expand and progress in a way that accepts and welcomes everyone uniformly.
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How Strangely Men Act

Reflections on our mortality are common in Marcus Aurelius’ collection of thoughts, Meditations. He takes a very stark approach to the reality that we are not going to live forever, and the fact that our time on this planet is very short compared to the life cycle and existence of nature and the Earth.  Beyond simply acknowledging our mortality Aurelius looks at what our temporary existence truly means, and how we should act during our lifetime given that we will one day be gone.

 

He writes, “How strangely men act. They will not praise those who are living at the same time, and living with themselves; but to be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen or ever will see, this they set much value on. But this is very much the same as if though shouldst be grieved because those who have lived before thee did not praise thee.” In this quote he focuses on the desire that humans have to make a lasting impact on this planet and to live on in the memory and reverence of those who will follow after them.  He criticizes this idea and says that it is foolish to be so focused on the future rather than the present. Living to impress those who will never know you, and being so focused on creating a reputation to impress future generations is a poor focus for our lives. Aurelius did not believe such a focus was worth our time, especially if it limited our ability to make true connections with those living with us now.

 

What Aurelius wrote about 2,000 years ago is still a struggle for many people today. Rather than worrying about how we can be great people now and make a real impact in the lives of those who are around us, we focus on what we can do to build a reputation to impress those we will never know in future generations.  We would all find it absurd to think that people who lived before us should have honored us, but we seem to desire that we are honored after our death by those who we will never meet. We will not be around to feel the warmth of their support or praise, and living solely to be impressive in posterity leaves out the present and diminishes your ability to truly enjoy living and change the world.

Becoming Greater

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius explains his philosophy of the world that would later come to be understood as an approach to stoicism.  He shows us the benefits of deep thought and reflection, and guides us through a process of self-awareness to help us control our actions and thoughts in the face of adversity, success, or and everyday occurrences.  One of his suggestions which resonated with me was a short sentence about justice and fairness, “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrong doer.”  In this simple sentence Aurelius shows us the importance of acting on our own with integrity, and of acting with a clear focus to avoid worsening ourselves through our reactions to being harmed.

 

The quote also reminds me of California Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s dissent against the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001 in which she quoted a member of the clergy who spoke at a 9/11 memorial service the morning of her vote. Representative Lee encouraged her fellow members of congress to be less volatile and more tempered in their response to the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001 and she ended her speech by saying, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Her quote ties in with Aurelius by focusing on standing tall in the face of adversity and not allowing ourselves to be continually harmed by a single instance of evil.  As I have written in the past, Aurelius built his stoic mindset through self-reflection and control, striving to “be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames he fury of the water around it.” By choosing how we will react to the negative we have the power to improve ourselves and our fortunes, or we have the ability to abandon our will and allow ourselves to devolve to the same evil which we seek to overcome.

 

If we wish to become better people then we must understand that revenge is not something that we best achieve through violence or the destruction of the other, but rather through deeper understanding, communication, and mutual respect for the other. We can surpass our base reaction and become better than that which tries to harm us by remembering what President Lincoln said, “Have I not destroyed an enemy when I make him a friend?”

How Obstacles Help Us

Marcus Aurelius did not see obstacles in life as barriers that limited opportunity or prevented us from progressing forward to reach out goals. What Aurelius saw in the challenges and roadblocks that we face along our journey were aids and tools to help us reach higher places and to lift or propel us in the direction that best aligned with who we are.  In Meditations the Roman Emperor writes,

 

“In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them, but so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on the this road.”

 

In this quote the obstacle that Aurelius primarily focuses on is other people, which is often the obstacle that we face in life.  We are able to overcome physical obstacles and challenges resulting from time or money because the obstacle is in our head, but an obstacle created by another person seems so far out of our control that it becomes an even greater barrier to progress.  What Aurelius states in his writing is that other people cannot change our attitude, and that it is our own decisions in how we relate and react to others that changes our disposition.  If we decide that we will not allow our attitude to change and if we decide that we will not allow the actions of another to be limiting factors for us, then we will find a way to proceed in our wishes.

 

What Aurelius also shows is that we can take the challenges presented to us and use them to grow in ways that we don’t always predict.  We often don’t have straight paths to our goals, and facing struggles and suffering to some extent can help us reach better places than if our journey had no obstacles. Learning more about ourselves, seeing the world from new perspectives, and connecting the dots between everything in our lives will help us surmount our impediments, and building those skills will propel us even further toward success. In this way when we face roadblocks we do not stop or turn around, but rather we face our challenge and surge even further forward.

What is in Our Control

In his commonplace book, where he recorded his thoughts, ideas, and lessons about the world, Marcus Aurelius wrote that we can approach the world and choose to interpret the world in ways that will either open new doors for us and improve our perspectives, or we can interpret the world in ways that limit our power to influence and shape our lives.  For Aurelius, being able to control your actions and thoughts about the world was paramount as it determined what your experience during your life would be.  He adopted the philosophy of stoicism and his writings show us how he was able to think about the world in more productive manners.  When it comes to thinking about what we control and have direct choices and influence over in our lives he writes,

 

“Show those qualities then which are altogether in thy power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with thy portion and with few things, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling magnanimity. Dost though not see how many qualities though art immediately able to exhibit, in which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness, and yet though still remainest voluntarily below the mark?”

 

It is easy to become caught up in the world or the routines of our daily lives and forget how many choices and decision we have the ability to make in a day. What Aurelius is explaining in the quote above is that we will always be sovereign over our own minds, and we can always choose how we wish to behave and react in certain situations. When we fail to think about how we are interpreting the world, how we are reacting to what others say, and the ways in which we think about our position in the world, then we are forfeiting control of a major part of our selves. We give up the power to shape the direction of our lives.  What Aurelius advocates for is greater acceptance of the power of our minds, and the useful practice of empowering ourselves over the influences that are easy to allow to control our minds.

The Work of a Human Being

The fifth section of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’ collection of thoughts and essays published after his death, starts out with the following:

“In the morning when though risest unwillingly, let this thought be present—I am rising to do the work of a human being.  Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed clothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.—Dost thou exists then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?”

This section speaks about the importance of joining together in community to do work as human beings, even if that work requires effort and a willingness to put oneself in a position that can be uncomfortable.  For Aurelius, living as a hedonist, or one who serves only their own pleasure, is a mistake. We are all dependent on each other, and his quote above shows that our efforts to keep track of our own individual goals and ideas is connected with the efforts of others. We pursue our own goals, but in the pursuit of our own destinies we are supporting the goals and futures of others.

Aurelius’ quote seems to fall more to the right of our current political system and align with the ways in which many conservative thinkers in our country see the world. We are responsible for ourselves and dependent for our own actions because we individually help support the whole. When we decide to remove ourselves from the equation, then our part of the universe which is put together through our efforts is lost, and it cannot be built upon. To propel society, in the views of Aurelius and modern day conservative ideology, we must all rise and do our work rather than allow inefficiencies in our interdependence to limit the progress of us and others.  We can not move forward and do our work if those around us do not support us by adding the exertion necessary on their end for a functioning society.

In general I see this quote as more outside the realm of politics and our work within a system.  I see the quote as a reminder that we are connected, that we share our humanity, and that we can build purpose into our lives through our actions. The work of a human, as Aurelius mentions above, is the most fulfilling when it is in service to others as opposed to when it is aligned with hedonistic views of success. Looking for ways to impact others in a meaningful way and being able to shift ones perspective to view the work that one does in a more connected context, for example looking for how many people you can positively reach through your effort as opposed to trying to find ways to maximize your returns, can make the work of a human become greater than individual effort.  When rising from bed and feeling as though you are doing the work of a human, it is important to look beyond the standard perspective of your work to find ways in which you can do more to benefit others, or to find an understanding of who you support through your efforts.

Good Fortune

In stoic philosophy being able to control your emotions is a central focus since it allows you to make better decisions, interact in a more sociable manner with all people, and to see the world from better perspectives through a process of reflection and controlled decision making.  Thinking about our thinking and thought process is how we begin to develop control over our emotions, and it allows us to shift our reactions and feelings to better handle situations.  Throughout the collection of his writing in the book, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius provides us with examples of situations where greater awareness, reflection, and emotional temperance can help us become better people. When facing adversity Aurelius writes, “Remember too, an every occasion which leads thee to vexation to apply this principle; not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.” In writing this he shows how a shift in thinking and focus can help us move from feeling anxious or dejected to hopeful and proud. Learning to control our emotions and shift the way we feel can help us move forward and advance in situations where we would rather shrink and shy away.

Aurelius’ quote is very inspirational to me because it shows that we can choose how a negative situation will affect us.  We can take a bad situation and always change our perspective to see ways in which we can move forward and take away something positive.  I don’t think that Aurelius would encourage us to jump straight to this mindset in any tragedy, we are human and will still feel those emotions, but over time we can move from negative spaces following any tragedy and build better emotional feelings and thoughts.

I find that Marcus Aurelius’ quote above is the most impactful and useful when applied to the small negatives and social situations that we face every day. It is easy to allow small frustrations to build and become major stressors in your life. We all face challenges and annoyances every day which make us bristle despite their petty nature or their small impact on our lives.  What we can learn from stoicism is that we have a choice in how we react to these daily annoyances, and we can childishly complain, or we can pause and decide to nobly bear the situation knowing that it does not truly impact our life.  Shifting our focus in this way can allow us to be more magnanimous toward people around us, it can improve our health as we drop our blood pressure and avoid fits of rage, and it can also give us the opportunity to present the world with the best version of who we are.