Marcus Aurelius, a privileged white man, and an emperor nonetheless, is clearly a curious inspiration, especially as I am a woman of Middle Eastern heritage. Yet, the human condition is universal; no one is spared the pain of emotional suffering, aging, illness, and death. Not even emperors are protected from the challenges of existence. From Marcus Aurelius and other moral philosophers, I have learned that even during the most undeserved and trying of circumstances, one still has the choice to build character. Like weightlifting for the soul, difficulties give us the opportunity to grow stronger and to become more resilient. There is always a positive embedded in the negative, if only one could see it at the time. Often opportunities present themselves as challenges.
Challenges are the price we pay for obtaining our self- confidence, courage and compassion. The important question is how does one comport oneself when faced with unfavorable circumstances? How can we maintain grace, dignity, kindness, and hope, even in the midst of life’s storms? How can we treat even our adversaries with fairness and respect? How can we maintain joy even in the midst of chaos?
The dark night is always followed by the dawn. Meditations invites us to consciously grow stronger and kinder amidst and especially because of the obstacles that life will inevitably throw our way. Centuries ago, Epictetus, the Roman slave turned philosopher had hinted that “everything has two handles”, one by which problems may be carried and the other by which they cannot. It is up to us to see our challenges in a new light, one that allows for creative solutions. So much power rests in our thoughts and our self-narrative. In its own way, Meditations is a written spiritual exercise in reframing the narrative.
The ancient sages knew many truths that still elude us. How can we apply the wisdom of the ancients to our modern challenges? We ask ourselves, “What do I want to do when I grow up?”, rather than “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” Never before have we been in greater need of guidance on the question of “How must one live?” and “How can one train one’s character?” And no time is a better time to ask these questions than during a time of crisis, both personal and societal.