Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.
The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.
By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.
In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains the ways in which we can take our thoughts and ideas and build new paths from the challenges we face. By using the obstacles we face to grow and learn we build our own paths to become the best people we can be. Holiday uses Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the second century, as an example of growing and becoming a more well rounded individual by facing the obstacles in our lives. Speaking of Aurelius he discussed the many challenges he faced as emperor from a major plague, betrayal from his allies, and working alongside his step-brother-co-emperor who was greedy and incompetent. Amidst all these challenges Aurelius sought reason, clarity, and self-improvement, and Holiday writes, “From what we know, he truly saw each and every one of these obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.”
Faced with challenges Aurelius did not blame others or complain about his luck. He never wondered why he faced such obstacles when others did not, and through self-reflection and practices of awareness, he was able to see the commonality of struggle in the lives of all people.
Aurelius was an ardent stoic, believing that he held the ultimate power over the faculties of his mind, allowing his thoughts to be strong, his intentions to be unwavering, and his reason to be sound in all situations. The recognition that no one controls our thoughts, and that we can control our opinions and reactions to the world gives us the strength that we need to face our challenges. When we lament over the difficulties we face and decide that the obstacles are too great, we limit our future and prevent ourselves from growing. Looking at that which blocks our path and learning to shoulder our burdens opens new possibilities for us. Facing our challenges and learning to adapt to them makes us more capable of succeeding in the world.
In his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday looks at how we can reach our goals and find success in the face of hardship. Holiday focuses on the challenges we face, how we can overcome those challenges, and how the act of surpassing obstacles shapes us into better people. He follows in the tradition of stoic philosophers focusing on building mental fortitude through awareness and reflection, placing the control of our ability to overcome impediments in our own hands, or more accurately, in our own minds. Holiday begins his book by quoting Marcus Aurelius,
“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.”
Holiday continues, interpreting the short paragraph, “In Marcus’s words is the secret to an art known as turning obstacles upside down. To act with a “reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.”
His writing focuses on how we can grow and find new opportunities when we change the way we look at obstacles. Aurelius recognized that obstacles and impediments created opportunities for those who were brave enough and creative enough to approach them rather than run from them. Holiday explains that perseverance and a unique approach to the world can turn new opportunities into defining moments. When we see a challenge we should not back away from it, but we should study that obstacle and work to fully understand what we are presented with and what it would look like to overcome it.
By facing challenges and striving to reach the other end of the path we grow and develop a greater understanding of the world. We may not always be successful in our actions, but we can still learn and grow. Our path forward will be defined by the lessons we learn and the skills we develop by scaling the mountains that block our path.
“For the pride which is proud of its want of pride is the most intolerable of all.” Marcus Aurelius wrote near the end of his common place book published as Meditations. He wrote this after encouraging a simple lifestyle, free from desires for material possessions or fame, and instead ruled by reason and virtue. What Aurelius throughout his book encourages us to do is live a life where we are not striving to reach the goals of others or to seek success for the purpose of impressing others. He encourages us to abandon that pride, think deeply about others, and to live a humble life, recognizing that our time on Earth is finite. For Aurelius the most important thing we can develop is our relationships, and things like pride get in the way of becoming a truly connected and compassionate person in the lives of those around us.
Before the quote above Aurelius writes, “Think of the eager pursuit of anything conjoined with pride; and how worthless everything is after which men violently strain.” By encouraging us to avoid pride and to seek relationships, he is encouraging us to live well with those around us and to recognize the needs of our society. Striving to be great is not a negative thing on its own, but when it is combined with a desire to obtain great wealth and material possessions, or to impress to others, the goal of greatness becomes a trap that we cannot escape.
Aurelius would not have argued that we should never feel pride, but that we should redirect that pride away from selfish desires. By focusing on others and helping others we can develop a sense of pride that results from becoming a more connected and well rounded human being, and we can enjoy the self-confidence that flows with that pride. Ultimately however, we must make sure that we are not feeding that pride for our own self-interests and we must ensure that our pride is generated from actions that are benevolent toward all.
Marcus Aurelius guided his life with rational thought and reason developed from self-awareness and deep reflection of the world around him. As the Roman Emperor he recorded his thoughts in a journal that would be published as the book Meditations, giving us a chance to see the world through the eyes of a stoic focused on better understanding himself and his place in the world. The advice he left himself is advice we can still use today. His recommendations surrounding the actions and decisions we make is simple, but can have powerful impacts in our lives.
“First, do nothing inconsiderately, nor without a purpose. Second, Make thy acts refer to nothing else than to a social end.” Aurelius explains in this brief section that our actions should be well thought out, intentional, and meant to in one way provide a societal benefit. Actions that we make in a rash manner or actions that only benefit ourselves are not going to help us grow and improve, and they will not better those around us.
When Aurelius uses the word inconsiderately, he refers to the idea of thoughtfully thinking through our actions. He is not just advising us to avoid actions that are not nice for other people, but rather he is encouraging us not to act without first thinking deeply. Building this into our lives today could mean something along the lines of thinking about why we want to eat a bag of chips before we grab one, whether we will just walk past an empty water bottle in the street, or if we will spend our time watching television or doing something more productive. His encouragement to be considerate equates to us being more thoughtful and less impulsive in our actions, and to us spending more time finding ways to help others.
Continuing with this quote and the Emperor’s idea that all of our actions should be done with a purpose and toward a social end, we begin to reshape our purpose on this planet. Our actions should be performed with the greatest focus and intent, and the end result should benefit not just ourselves, but our entire society. When we look for ways to help out everyone and not just ourselves it becomes easier to put a full effort into our work. If our work is incomplete or poorly executed, it is not just us but society that suffers. Aurelius’ advice is to think about the actions and decisions we are making at any moment, reflect to see how our actions could be more beneficial for society, and to execute on our actions.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a very interesting way of looking at other people and thinking about those around us. He held others in high regard, and looked at their actions in a very open way. Compared to the way we often think of others today, Aurelius was very generous and forgiving, and he worked hard to see the good in others rather than the negative. When it came to finding fault in others he wrote, “With respect to that which happens conformably to nature, we ought to blame neither gods, for they do nothing wrong either voluntarily or involuntarily, nor men, for they do nothing wrong except involuntarily. Consequently we should blame nobody.”
I really enjoy this quote because it softens the way we look at others and their actions or decisions. In our society today we are overrun with cynicism and oftentimes the first thing we look for in another person is their faults. When we enter into business agreements, receive some sort of advice, or are given an opportunity, it is hard to keep from thinking about possible ulterior motives of the other individual. When we see negative situations arise from the mistakes of another person we are very quick to blame their moral character and to assume they acted with intent to do bad. Aurelius would encourage us to slow down in our judgments about others, and to step back to consider the situation, how we would act if we were the other person, and what could have been influencing the individual who is in the wrong.
In my post from July 21st, 2016
, I wrote about Aurelius’ thoughts on where our mental focus should be in regards to others. He encourages us to see the positive and negative in the actions and lives of those around us, but so that we may then turn inward to reflect on whether or not we have the same shortcomings in our own life. By pausing to reflect in this way we do not blame others, but we learn from them to improve our own lives. The section above shows that the faults of others is not a result of their direct failure, but on everything that has occurred to shape them into the person they are now. In one way or another, their current actions seem defensible to them. Understanding where their thought process went wrong and how they came to discount the negative will help us improve our lives and better understand those around us who seem to be headed down the wrong path. With this new perspective, we may be able to better assist others and work toward positive change as opposed to simply living cynically and criticizing the people and institutions around us.
Marcus Aurelius constantly sought to become more self-aware by reflecting on himself, his actions, and his thoughts. He recorded his reflections and the lessons he learned from constantly being present and observing himself and others in his book Meditations, and we can use his wisdom to help improve our lives, nearly 2,000 years later. One of the starting points for Aurelius is how we think about ourselves, and how we think about the thoughts of others. Throughout the book Aurelius reminds us to become humble through self-reflection, and to become empathetic with others who are doing their very best to live their life in a manner that is suitable for them. He encourages us to build our own strong mental fortification while not basing our understanding of the world on the views and beliefs of others. It is in this spirit that he writes, “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.”
Human beings are social creatures and our tribal evolution has stuck with us, pushing us to find groups to associate with for belonging and meaning. This has allowed us to come together in societies and to achieve more than we ever could on our own, but Aurelius writes about a dangerous side of our social dependence. When we fail to become self-reflective and when we do not live our lives according to our beliefs and rational understanding of ourselves we risk becoming an amalgam of what we perceive others to think of us. Our lives become vehicles to impress others, and the most important decisions we make are intended to satisfy other people instead of ourselves. Living in this manner places our lives in control of others, and leaves us as hollow shells of individuals.
Aurelius would encourage us to think about ourselves in a more profound way to understand what our needs and desires are, and to understand where our motivation for achieving our goals comes from. If we are focused on what other people want us to become, he would argue that we are not living up to our true potential. If we are confident in ourselves and value the faculties of our minds, then we must take time to become self-aware to find a true alignment in our lives. We do not need to discount the opinions of others to a point where they are meaningless to us, but we need to be able to recognize whether our motivation lies in the words of another or whether our motivation is born from our own rational thought and understanding of self.