It’s possible to take positive lessons from every person in your life, including those who you just plain don’t like. It’s also possible to learn to not be moved by negative people, as did the ancient Stoics—accepting the world for what it is and finding sanctuary in self-improvement.
A guide on how to accomplish this was left to us by the second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who detailed his reflections on life in his handbook, “Meditations.”
Marcus Aurelius said to “begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial,” and then to tell yourself that “all these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.”
Yet, even while seeing these traits, Marcus Aurelius explained, we should reflect that even a person who behaves poorly is still a person just like us—a person who “participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity.”
And despite the things in others that may bother or annoy us, there is nothing another person can do to force us to change our own inner nature. Our inner faculties will always be our own to govern. With this, Marcus Aurelius explained, “no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.”
Human life, as he viewed it, was built on our ability to cooperate with each other. He also believed that among the people Heaven has placed around us, “[to] act against one another then is contrary to nature and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”
Taking Positive Lessons
Take a moment to reflect on each person in your life: your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, teachers, friends, and others. Think of each one. Do you have positive feelings toward him or her, or negative feelings? If you have positive feelings, what were the specific lessons that each taught you to help you? And if you have less than charitable thoughts, what can you learn from these people’s negative characteristics?
In the writings of Marcus Aurelius, we can’t tell who was a positive or negative model, because he only stated the positive lessons he learned.
Marcus Aurelius said that from his grandfather Verus he learned “good morals and the government of my temper.”
From his mother, he learned “piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.”
Others taught him modesty, helped him understand the values of being nonpartisan, to “not to busy myself with trifling things,” and “to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice.”
It’s easy in life to become transfixed on how we’ve been wronged by others. Yet what good does it bring us to hold onto negative feelings from our interactions? Does it resolve anything? Or does it only make us more miserable?
Marcus Aurelius even went a step further: “I will observe these negative traits, and remove these traits from my own character.”
This simple idea of self-improvement, of the value of calm reflection and of being unmoved by the chaos of the world, is at the heart of what Marcus Aurelius left to us. We can’t change the world around us, and it’s difficult to change others, but we can change ourselves and learn to be unaffected by the hardships and negative elements in life. With this, regardless of what we encounter in the world, we can find happiness through our own practice of virtue.
The Nature of Life
Marcus Aurelius ended his introduction by thanking Heaven for the good people in his life, for the virtues he was able to keep, and for the blessings he received—even if those blessings didn’t last.
He explained that people often become bitter over their losses because they don’t accept the fact that nothing in life can last.
This was a key element, not just in the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, but also of the Stoics overall. They believed that life is temporary, that joys and desires pass, and that by accepting temperance in all things we can live according to the course of Heaven and take things more lightly.
Marcus Aurelius understood that change is part of life, and that the nature of the world goes hand in hand with change. In life, we will never succeed if we attempt to strive against the course of what’s natural. We will always be unhappy if we look for eternal joy in things that don’t last, or if we try to alter the world to conform to our likings.
If, on the other hand, we can look instead to change what is within our own power—within ourselves—then we can find lasting happiness.
Such a life is one without the external controls of whims, desires, longings, annoyances, or resentments.
Marcus Aurelius encouraged us to understand the nature of the world—and what it means to live in the world, in society, among people, and to face the daily encounters and trials that life naturally brings. Understand that today won’t last, and that the significance of our trials in the grander scheme of things is like a grain of sand in the infinite expanse of time.
All things are fleeting, and our short time on earth can be filled with annoyances—if we allow ourselves to be annoyed. Instead, Marcus Aurelius encouraged us to expect these annoyances because they are part of what life naturally brings when we, as beings with free will, interact with other beings who share the same free will. Just like us, they make the occasional error, or sometimes aren’t considerate of others.
He wrote, “Shall any man hate me? That will be his affair. But I will be mild and benevolent toward every man …”
Marcus Aurelius said that with everything that happens, observe how others have encountered the same trials, and how they were bothered or reacted poorly. Yet, where are those people now? Did their internal feelings have any effect in the end?
He added that by making use of our daily trials for self-improvement, “then you will use them well, and they will be a material for you to work on. Only attend to yourself, and resolve to be a good man in every act that you do: And remember … Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if you will ever dig.”