Be more concerned about what you control than what you don’t control.
That we live in a more peaceful world today compared to centuries past may sound dubious, but it’s true. And despite well publicized mass shootings, crime is lower today than it was 25 years ago.
In Seneca’s fourteenth letter he discusses three fears relating to our bodies: fear of want, fear of sickness, and fear of violence. The first two most often result from circumstances. But violence is intentional, and that makes it seem worse.
Violence can’t always be avoided, however. The victims of random shootings or domestic violence didn’t provoke the violence but nonetheless were caught up in an unstable person’s psychodrama.
Some perspective is needed, though. Our fears are often disproportionate to the actual risk. And, Seneca warns, “an important part of one’s safety lies in not seeking safety openly.” To seek safety reveals our vulnerability, and that attracts the attention of people looking for someone to take advantage of.
And there are other things we can do to minimize the chances of experiencing violence. Seneca recommends that we:
avoid giving offense,
avoid provoking someone’s anger,
avoid the cravings and rivalries of the mob,
possess nothing that someone might want to steal,
practice philosophy with calmness and moderation,
and most of all avoid jealousy, hatred, and scorn.
But he cautions that avoidance has its limits: “What one avoids, one condemns.” And social rejection could provoke someone. So he warns us to be careful not to condemn people.
Seneca was born around the same time as Christ, who expressed a similar sentiment. “Judge not lest ye be judged” has become a cliche, and a misunderstood one at that. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t judge. Instead it’s a warning that we’ll be judged by the same standard.
Put differently, before you criticize someone you better make sure you have your shit together or you’re gonna get what’s coming to you. And don’t be so quick to think you’ve got your shit together. You’re probably just fooling yourself.
However, Seneca’s advice to possess nothing someone might want to steal strikes me as unrealistic. People have killed for a pair of used sneakers. It makes more sense to possess nothing you value more than your life.
Finally, it’s noteworthy that his list of things to avoid are not external but rather internal things. It is our own anger, hate, scorn, and jealousy that will get us in trouble. But the bad attitudes and actions of others are not under our control.
Stoicism is not about repressing emotions— it’s about not allowing emotion to override reason. But emotions such as anger and fear most easily override reason.
From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Put it in perspective
Why feel anger at the world? It’s not like the world would notice (7.38).
When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated, remember that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid out side by side. Remember how much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them (11.18).
And expecting bad people not to injure others is to ask the impossible. Further, to let them treat other people like that but expect them to exempt you is arrogant — the act of a tyrant (11.18).
It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22, see also 8.47).
The world does not revolve around you
To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. For the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence and respect for the divine, no less than to act justly (11.20).
To feel grief, anger or fear is to try to escape from something decreed by the ruler of all things — now, in the past, or in the future. And that ruler is law, which governs what happens to each of us. To feel grief or anger or fear is to become a fugitive from justice (10.25).
To be angry means you’ve forgotten that everything that happens is natural; that the responsibility is theirs, not yours; and that whatever happens has always happened, always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. What links one person to all people isn’t blood or birth but mind. An individual’s mind is God and of God. Further, nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself — all of them come from the same source. It’s all in how you choose to see things. The present is all we have to live in — or to lose (12.26).
Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) There is nothing bad in undergoing change — or good in emerging from it (4.42).
My only fear is doing something contrary to human nature — the wrong thing, the wrong way, or at the wrong time (7.20).
Get a grip
When jarred unavoidably by circumstances, come back to yourself at once. Don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it (6.11).
It’s the pursuit of things, and your attempts to avoid them, that leave you in such turmoil. And yet they aren’t seeking you out — you’re the one seeking them (11.11).
The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all, and before long you’ll be no one, nowhere. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being. Remind yourself what nature demands of us, and then do it without hesitation. Speak the truth as you see it, but with kindness, with humility, and without hypocrisy (8.5).
Forget the future. When and if it comes, you’ll have the same resource to draw on — reason (7.8). Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present — and even that can be minimized. Isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it tries to claim it can’t hold out (8.36).
The mind is a fortress
The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever (8.48).
Realize that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet. What’s in my thoughts at this moment? Fear? Jealousy? Desire? Feelings like that? (12.19)
None of the people you’re angry with have done anything that could damage your mind. It is only your mind that can harm itself. Where’s the harm or surprise in ignorant people behaving ignorantly? Think about it. Shouldn’t you admonish yourself for failing to anticipate that they’d act this way? (9.42)
Dealing with other people
It’s cruel to forbid people from striving for what they think is good for them. And yet that’s just what you do when you get angry at their misbehavior. Are they drawn toward what they think is good for them even though it’s not good for them? Then show them that. Prove it to them instead of losing your temper (6.27).
Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake — not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).
When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27).
When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)
Think about people who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend — or not even a legend. How trivial are the things we want so passionately. It’s much more philosophical to take what we’re given and show uprightness, self-control, and obedience to God, without making a production of it. There’s nothing more insufferable than people who boast about their own humility (12.27).
Honey tastes bitter to a man with jaundice. People with rabies are terrified of water. And a child’s idea of beauty is a ball. Why be angry over that? Do you think falsehood is less powerful than bile or a rabid dog? (6.57)
You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it (8.4).
Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor. But don’t they have a brain? Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem? So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your reason to awaken theirs. Show them. Make them realize it. If they’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem without anger (5.28).
Take care of your soul
When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (10.30).
The best revenge is not to be like your enemy (6.6).
The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world, when it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do (2.16).
No time for reading. For controlling your arrogance, yes. For overcoming pain and pleasure, yes. For outgrowing ambition, yes. For not feeling anger at stupid and unpleasant people — or even caring about them — for that, yes (8.8).
Your relationship to society
Like a branch cut away from a tree, people cut themselves off from the whole community through hatred and rejection. But they don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the community. Yet we have a gift given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours, to reattach ourselves and rejoin the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated it makes the severed part hard to reconnect (11.8).
When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I. And if it is, anger is not the answer. Show the offender where he went wrong (5.22).
What’s worse than anger?
In comparing sins (the way people do), Theophrastus says the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger. Which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked to anger by pain. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire (2.10).