I recently finished reading through Marcus Aurelius's writings, Meditations. I have spent years trying to get through this short but powerful book. Each time I would get about two-thirds of the way through and put it and the lessons it carries down. Finally, nearing the end of my nearly year-long sabbatical, I finished it. While reading a hundred-page book may not seem like an accomplishment to some, to me, it represents progress that I have made as a person and toward developing my own philosophy on life. That I have now climbed this mountain and have a broader view of the world at its peak.
From Marcus and from the philosophy of Stoicism, I have gained several lessons and virtues that I wish to practice in my life. I try to keep them as simple as possible so that I can remember them and use them daily. One of the most important for me is this.
I have had a lifelong struggle with both discipline and self-control. There are many aspects of my life that are within my control, yet I have not done enough to change them, and have felt saddened by my own failures. Upon my own self-reflection, it is up to me to do something about them and not to feel sorry for myself. It is a daily struggle, to be a better person. To fight the immediate reactions to worry, to stress, to judge, to anger, to self-doubt, to retreat. These are all natural feelings, but these are all in our control. We can control how we think, even with thousands and thousands of thoughts pouring out every moment, we are in control of how we process them. We can choose how we react to a situation. And that is more important than the situation because that is all we can control. Leading me to another modern interpretation of Stoicism.
Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you choose to react to it.
In life, there are many factors outside of our control. We cannot control the actions of others. We cannot control life and death. We cannot predict the future, we cannot change the past. We can control how we choose to think about such events. We can control how we choose to act, in every moment in the present. That is the ultimate control. We can choose whether someone else's actions have actually harmed us. We can choose whether someone's words or thoughts actually harm us. We all spend too much of our lives worrying how others will view us. Our own self-reflection is all that truly matters. It is for us to review our lives and see if we are living according to the virtues that we believe in.
Even the evil actions of others, the harm caused is because they are out of line with nature, and it is for us to respond not with feelings of being harmed, but with forgiveness and to teach those who do harm the error of their ways. Conversely, if we are shown to be in error in thought or action, then we must be open to being shown our own error by others, and self-correcting.
Marcus meditated on the shortness of our lives, particularly in the great expanse of time. That the events and people and fame that we focus so much of our lives on will be forgotten. He speaks plainly. One day, you will die. Everyone you know and who will ever know of you will die. Every drama will eventually be forgotten and every act of harm will be forgotten, forgiven, amended, and repeated with new actors, for this is the nature of the universe. But this is all a part of the cycle of nature.
Everything that happens in the universe happens according to nature and that nature is just.
If everything, even death, is a part of the natural cycle be it thought of as a transition to the next phase, or a return to the Earth from each of us was born, or a breakdown into elements and atoms that will continue to be parts of Earth, of nature and the cosmos, then what reason is there to fear or hate death?
We dread dying, but it is a natural and necessary part of living. Marcus's response is to live as if you are going to die because one day you will.
Call it Carpe Diem, call it YOLO, the essence of this is such that we have such a limited time on this Earth, and control of so little. What we do have control over is our thoughts, our actions, our reactions, and how we choose to view the world, who we choose to spend it with, how we choose to spend our time.
Of the tenets of Stoic philosophy, there are many similarities struck with seeking tranquility found in Buddhist and Taoist teachings, and on living a life based on virtues found in Christian writings from Saints and theologians throughout history. Ideas such as self-regulation, remaining in a calm disposition that is not jostled by extremes of any feeling--anger, sadness, fear, happiness, passion. The belief that all events are part of a rational and just nature and thus should be dealt with of a calm, rational, and just disposition. And a belief in controlling our thoughts and actions to better deal with the world around us, as messy, chaotic, and dangerous it may seem, because that is all we can control to affect it and to guide ourselves and each other toward the rational and just nature of the universe. I leave with a quote from one of the most famous stoics.
For more, I recommend reading the works of Stoics for yourself and starting with this Ted talk.