Any student of the philosophy of life will eventually come across a small book of quotes called, Meditations, by the second century CE Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was a strict military general who was schooled in Stoic Philosophy and reluctantly took on the mantle of imperial power. I grew up with the idea that Stoic Philosophy was of the ‘stiff upper lip’ variety: take what you get and make the best of it. Sounds like a rather dull way of life and it is no wonder that the boisterous cult of Dionysius had a much greater following. However, the Stoics, much of which we know from the writings of Aurelius, had a very down-to-earth, self-sufficient approach to life. I am enjoying Meditations as well as works of others in this vein of philosophy.
Recently I was presented with the following quote:
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Each an every day we are faced with challenges. Sometimes they are somewhat trivial, such as what to wear or where to dine. Other times we must face far more critical moments, such as the decision I recently took to help my 17 year old dog cross over the rainbow bridge. The actual moment of decision is momentary. I pick this shirt, that restaurant and that veterinary. It’s the after effects of carrying through a decision that has the power to cause me pain or distress. I might question my judgement, or wonder about what might have happened had I taken another tack. All of my pain and distress at that moment is completely internal, ricocheting around in my mind. None of my mental vacillations will change an outcome or a decision. And yet I still allow myself to be haunted by them.
Aurelius’ quote reminds me that I don’t have to let these things bother me. I have the power to let the pain and distress go and move forward. I can make the decision to stop questioning myself. I can ‘revoke’ it because it is all in my head and nowhere else. I have the power to replace my thinking with another topic. I am reminded of the saying, ‘Someday we’ll laugh about this,’ when something in life goes terribly wrong. If there is a funny side to what happened, then I don’t have to cry about it: it is within my power to laugh about it now. It takes a change in perspective. I have that much control over my life.
Sometimes things happen that we have no control over. For example, someone cuts me off in traffic. I might lean on the horn, flip a certain finger to the driver and proceed to get extremely angry about the whole incident. I can rant on about ignorant slobs on their phones, young drivers, old drivers or other charged slurs to whomever might or might not be listening. Again, all of the distress I feel is internal. I can change my perspective. In this instance, I can remember not to take this personally. The other driver probably didn’t see me for whatever reason. This was not an attack on me. It was not done to purposely startle me. I can remember that I too have been the person who cut off another driver in traffic. Only someone who has never been behind the steering wheel has a perfect driving record. I may not be able to stop the initial response. It’s a part of the ‘flight or fright’ autonomic nervous system. However, I do have the power within me to let it go, to ‘revoke’ the power of the distress I feel.
Perhaps there was a childhood trama or other injustice that occurred to you and that you had no control over. You may choose to mourn the loss of innocence and relive the incident in all of its shocking detail over and over in your mind. But the venom in your soul won’t affect the transgressor with the slightest indigestion. Or, you may begin the process of healing by no longer resisting what happened. Accept that it happened and realize that you can diminish the present pain by realizing that it is stopping you from moving forward and growing in life. Forgiveness of others is not pardoning them; it is accepting that mistakes, sometimes extremely grave ones, were made but that you will no longer allow those mistakes to affect and distress your life. You do not have to give the power over what you feel and think to an aggressor. Take it back. Move forward.
In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote very candidly about his interment in a Nazi concentration camp. He credited his survival to an attitude that his torturers might be able to take everything away from him, denigrate and abuse him in every way possible, but they could not take away his free will. He chose to keep a positive attitude and find meaning and understanding in his desperate situation. We do not have to suffer the indignities that Frankl did in order to make the decision to take control over our own destiny.
This is your life. You own it. You have the power to create whatever you want with it. This is the ultimate gift of free will that we receive upon our birth. We all have the power to change our view, our perspective. Playing the role of victim and powerless pawn of others is a choice; so is being the captain of your own ship and charting your own course. If you have never done this before, deciding to revoke your distress will be strange, and challenging. Start small. It’s not recommended that you change everything at once. You have time. Trust the process of your life and where you wish to sail.