What a solace to banish and efface every tumultuous, unauthorized impression, and straightway to be lapped in calm! Meditations, Book V
Again and again Marcus Aurelius in his private moments, repeats to himself that it isn’t what happens to you that matters, but your impression of the events. It is in your power to restrain your imagination from heaping fuel to the fire of events. So much of the drama of our lives is simply lived between our two ears. We could easily choose to see it another way, to be magnanimous and find reasons for others’ unwanted behavior. In the extreme, Marcus advises us to accept that the world is populated by all sorts of characters, shameless ones too, and the sooner we see this as the natural order of things, the less we will torment ourselves. See reality as it is, not as you wish it to be, he insists. “Only a madman looks for figs in the winter,” Marcus reminds himself.
The point is not to stew in anger over things we can’t control- namely other people’s behavior and other random circumstances. In other words ask that others behave according to their own natures, rather than according to our expectations of them. And above all, do not become a slave to indignant anger, no matter what happens:
Live life out unrebelliously in perfect peace, though the whole world bawl its wishes at you, yes though wild beasts tear limb by limb this material integument of flesh. Amid it all nothing can prevent your understanding from possessing itself in calm, in true judgement upon each besetting claim… Meditations, Book VII
What was especially surprising for the leader of an army, was Marcus’s views on anger, which he considered to be unmanly, unrefined, brute, and in the final analysis a state of weakness. The self-composed person, a Stoic, was not easily ruffled by others’ acts of foolishness or natural circumstances. Such a person was not a puppet at the end of a string of random emotions, to use Marcus’s metaphor.
Centuries earlier, Buddha had also discovered that anger is a form of self-harm that robs us of our tranquility. In the parable of the second arrow, the Buddha, tells the story of a man who experiences pain when struck by an arrow, but then experiences the pain of a second arrow, through his own reaction to the first arrow. His lesson: We can’t always control the arrival of the first arrow (life), but we can certainly control the piercing of the second arrow (our reaction to the first arrow). We gift ourselves double the pain when over-reacting to circumstances and taking events personally. In the final analysis, anger is a rival to our tranquility.