This Thanksgiving I want to share something I learned from my reading this year, but first a little back story on why it resonates so deeply.
I grew up with some big personalities and in hindsight, as a child I didn’t know much else. My first hint should have been when my father gave me a book in grade school about getting along with difficult people.
These traits must be in our DNA, because I’ve heard rousing tales from extended family about both parents and my maternal grandfather in particular. A Vietnamese mandarin, or local magistrate, he was used to being in charge and when he as much as looked in someone’s direction, whether presiding over a local dispute or his grandchildren, that someone kowtowed or the group dispersed like leaves before the wind. He was an imposing man in his silken robes, a towering six feet tall in Asian society.
These figures in my life prepared me for the world. Even the most exasperating situations and individuals seem fairly straightforward for me to comprehend and get along with.
My parents’ marriage survived, but it’s worth noting that my father was an attache, a diplomat of some rank, though this was of little consequence to my mother.
MARCUS AURELIUS – Meditations, Book 11:18
I’ve consulted Marcus Aurelius’s Mediations this past year like a pastor reads his bible; both were written around the same time. In the emperor’s case, he felt compelled to write these philosophical reminders to himself. At mid life with three teens and the oldest on the cusp of adulthood, I find wisdom and comfort in many places and I find myself going back to the meditations over and over.
“Set aside all your contemporary self-help books and read this classic slowly, in pieces, at your leisure…. a book to keep at hand, ready for emergencies, a steady companion.” This truth may prove helpful for many of us during the holiday season.
At Thanksgiving we leave our homes to join our families, many with different backgrounds and beliefs and ideas. And as a country just after the election, we find ourselves at odds with each other, even our own friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
These nine precepts in Book 11 outline how to deal with those who “offend” you, drawn on the experience of someone whose enemies were as numerous and scheming as the multitudes of villains in modern history.
NINE PRINCIPLES to remember when dealing with those who offend you.
Remember the close bond between myself and the rest of mankind.
First, consider exactly what my relation towards them is, and that we have come into being for each other. To put it another way, I was born to be their protector, just like a ram for the flock or a bull for the herd. Going back further still, if it is not all simply atoms, then Nature orders all things. And if this is so, then the lower exist for the higher, and the higher for each other.
Think of their character, the pressure their own way of thinking exerts on them.
Second, consider what sort they are while at the dinner table, in bed, and so on; especially what kinds of compulsions they are subject to because of their opinions and with what arrogance they act as they do.
In their view, they believe they are acting rightly.
Third, that if in fact they are acting rightly, we should not be angry with them; but if they do not act rightly, they clearly do so involuntarily and in ignorance, for only unwillingly does the soul lack the ability to be properly disposed toward each person, just as the soul unwillingly lacks the truth. Notice how all people resent being called unjust, ignorant, greedy, or generally mistaken about their neighbors.
You do many things wrong yourself.
Fourth, remember that you yourself are often mistaken, and so you are just like them; also that, even if you manage to refrain from doing some wrongs, you nevertheless have it in you to do such things, were it not for the fact that fear, thirst for reputation, or some other unworthy motive keeps you from doing what they do.
Your understanding is limited.
Fifth, that you are not even sure that they do wrong, for many actions are done within a certain context, and in general, one must know many things before correctly judging the actions of another.
Life is short.
Sixth, whenever you are excessively disturbed or even suffering, remember that human life lasts only a moment and that in short time we will all be laid out for burial.
Our judgment and opinions disturb us, often more than the deeds.
Seventh, that it is not the actions of others that trouble us (for those actions are controlled by their governing parts) but rather it is our own judgments. Therefore remove these judgments and resolve to let got of your judgment that someone’s action is terrible, and your anger is already gone. How do you let go? By realizing that such actions are not shameful to you.
More pain results from anger and vexation than the acts themselves.
Eighth, the anger and the sorrow it produces are far more harmful than the things that make us angry.
Respond with kindness.
Ninth, that kindness is unconquerable, so long as it is without flattery or hypocrisy. For what can the most insolent man do to you, if you continue to be kind to him and, if you have the chance, gently advise and calmly show him what is right at the very moment he is trying to harm you, saying: “No, my son. We were born for something else. I am certainly not harmed, but you bring harm to yourself”? And point this out to him tactfully and from a universal perspective, that not even bees act that way or any creature that is communal by nature. But you must not do this with sarcasm or reproach but lovingly and without anger in your soul; not as though you were teaching and wanted bystanders to admire you; but even if others are present, address him as if you were alone together.
Remember these nine basic precepts, receiving them as gifts from the Muses; and in so doing, begin at last to live as a human being while you are still living. And be on your guard equally against flattery and anger toward others, for both are harmful and detrimental to community. Also, let this principle be present in your mind whenever you are angry: that anger is in no way manly but rather that gentleness and calm, insofar as they are the most faulty human qualities, are also most befitting of a man. It is this person who has strength, nerve, and courage, not a person who is angry and dissatisfied, for the closer one is to being unaffected, the closer he is to real power; and just as excessive sorrow is a mark of weakness, so is anger, for whoever gives in to these has not merely been wounded, but he has surrendered to his wounds.
Bad people do bad things.
And, if you so wish, receive a tenth gift from the leader of the Muses, Apollo: that it is insanity to expect that bad people not do bad things, for this is to aim at what is impossible. Also that by allowing such people to act in that way towards others, while demanding that they not wrong you, you are being unjust and tyrannical.
[Excerpts from Jacob Needleman & John Piazza’s translation, The Essential Marcus Aurelius. Highlights from Maxwell Staniforth’s translation, Marcus Aurelius Meditations]
“Stop philosophizing about what a good man is and be one.”
I’ve read Book 11:18 numerous times because it takes a while for it to sink in. And it’s something altogether different to know a thing and to practice it in real life: consider the other point of view, other beliefs, the many things we perceive through only our own lens in life, biased as each of us is by her own experience.
Precept 4 is hard to read, because I usually do the same things wrong myself. Number 8 is another truth hard earned, that our anger and frustration make an act or deed much worse than it is. And if you’re like me, and lost family and friends over the last few years, the prescience of Precept 6 is powerful: “we’ll all be laid out for burial” soon enough.
And the last, the ninth, has the greatest potential of all, kindness. Imagine a gentle teacher intent on helping a student learn, doing so without reproach or regard for admiration, but solely for the benefit of the “student” and helping her on the journey to “begin at last to live as a human being.”
Finishing with this precept, I hope you will forgive my offenses, my anger, and all those things I’ve found difficult in others, which are as true of myself.
A heartfelt thank you to friends, family, and readers this Thanksgiving for the kindness you’ve shown me in words and in deeds.
*** Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Goodreads.com Review
Written in Greek, without any intention of publication, by the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) offer a remarkable series of challenging spiritual reflections and exercises developed as the emperor struggled to understand himself and make sense of the universe.
Ranging from doubt and despair to conviction and exaltation, they cover such diverse topics as the nature of moral virtue, human rationality, divine providence, and Marcus’ own emotions.
But while the Meditations were composed to provide personal consolation and encouragement, in developing his beliefs Marcus Aurelius also created one of the greatest of all works of philosophy: a timeless collection of extended meditations and short aphorisms that has been consulted and admired by statesmen, thinkers and readers through the centuries.