There was an aspect of Marcus Aurelius’ life that would seem incredibly foreign and difficult to most Americans today, the ability to live with uncertainty and accept ambiguity. For many people living in the United States today, unanswered questions are painful and challenging, and there is a clear preference for seeing the world as black or white. Aurelius on the other hand, seemed to be a master of living life in the intersection of ideas, constantly thinking through the good and the bad of any one thing or event, and constantly trying to reconsider everything in his life from multiple perspectives. He never saw a bad event as being truly terrible or awful, and believed it was within person’s ability to choose how to interpret any given event. Aurelius wrote,
“Now, in the case of all things which have a certain constitution, whatever harm may happen to any of them, that which is so affected becomes consequently worse; but in the like case, a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents.”
The emperor is taking a negative situation in this quote and expanding it beyond the current moment to imagine it within the context of a human life. By shifting his focus he is able to view a negative as a necessary part of life, as an opportunity to grow and face new experiences. This is not something that is easy to do, especially when in pain immediately after facing a negative event or challenge, but it can help an individual begin to see that their actions, thoughts, and decisions will shape how their life is impacted by the bad things which happen to them.
What he is also able to do in this situation is see the world in a complex manner. He is looking at the universe and removing his impulse to describe events that happen. He does not narrow the possibilities of the universe down to a single point. To accept that it is our opinion which shapes the reality around us is to live with open possibilities and to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.