In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius states that challenges will always arise in life. We are to expect them. And yet, we are often unpleasantly surprised and caught off-guard when we face obstacles. We suffer since we expect our “normal” state to be free of problems, viewing them as unfortunate events that should not have befallen us. Worse yet, we see ourselves as stricken and unlucky if something undesirable happens. “Why me?” we lament, willingly taking on the role of victim of fate.
“See things for what they are,” Marcus advised. And see people for who they are. And its all how you look at it (All is as thinking makes it so..), and you control your own thinking. It is your judgment of your circumstances that most troubles you, so change your thinking and your judgement of the event, and your conditions will improve. How empowering is that! You are in control of how you interpret events! You are the author of your own life’s narrative.
Marcus cultivated a core of inner calm in the midst of the storms life would inevitably present. He advised us to take refuge in the citadel within ourselves, to go within and replenish ourselves. Going a step further it was almost as if he welcomed the challenges, priding himself on his equanimity, and his ability to welcome desirable and undesirable events alike. It was as if he had made a wager with life itself, testing his own mettle. Like a good wrestler, Marcus was not going to be thrown off balance by an unexpected challenge, comment, cold look… “Welcome all that comes, untoward though it may seem,” he calmly says. What power lay in being unperturbed by life’s events.
Marcus derived his confidence from an unwavering sense of right and wrong and from cultivating what he called “the divinity within,” – good character, clean heart, and a rational mind. “On any given thing, I have the power to take the right view,” he insisted. His rules for himself were rather simple but allowed no room for wavering: “Do not do it if its not right, do not say it if it is not true.” And he was remarkably forgiving for an emperor, believing that gentleness is the antidote to cruelty and that ultimately those who do others wrong mostly wrong themselves, by corrupting their own nature. In other words, Marcus did not take much personally.
Marcus’s lesson on facing difficulties is to expect them, interpret them as impersonal and almost fated forces and to use the occasion to benefit self-development. Much like a martial artist uses his opponent to hone his fighting skills, challenges can be used to test our vulnerabilities and strengthen our spirit and character. To quote another favorite sage, Lucius Seneca:
A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.