9 Ways to Stop Being Upset by Others!

Commit these nine observations to memory; accept them as gifts from the Muses; and while you still have life, begin to live...

The Emperor's Handbook 11:18

I keep track of my thoughts about Stoicism in a notebook that I try to keep near me. Most of its pages are incoherent; containing scattered musings from recent readings or reminders to revisit some chapter or other when I get the chance. From time to time, however, a Stoic author lays out an idea in such a succinct manner that the notes I create from it are practical. Book 11, Chapter 18 of Aurelius' Meditations is just such a usable bit of writing.

A page from Matt Van Natta's notebook. Points derived from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, 11.18.

A page from Matt Van Natta's notebook. Points derived from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, 11.18.

These four questions and five reminders are a certain means of regaining a Stoic mindset if we are set off balance by the day's social interactions. Of course, in order for them to be effective, we need a clear understanding of the worldview that informs the exercise.

  •  What is my relationship to others?

Marcus Aurelius' short answer is, "we are made for each other." The Stoic view is that our highest purpose is fulfilled by serving others. We should seek to do right by everyone we meet, even if they are not returning the favor.

  • What sort of person is upsetting me?

Evaluate the person you're dealing with. Aurelius breaks this down into sub-questions: What actions do their opinions compel them to perform and to what extent are their actions motivated by pride? Stoics never expect people with bad information to make good decisions.

  • Are they right?!

Check yourself. You could be the one that's in the wrong. Never forget that you are fallible.

  • Do I understand the context?

Aurelius reminds us that, "Many things are done for reasons that are not apparent. A man must know a great deal before condemning another person's behavior." Looking back to the question "are they right," the Stoic default position is, "I don't know." It's difficult enough to keep ourselves on a consistent path of virtue, why waste time guessing where someone else is at?

  • I also make mistakes.

If we expect any grace from others when we stumble, shouldn't we be willing to give the same to them?

  • Life is too short.

"Think...how soon you and your vexations will be laid in the grave." Aurelius didn't want to spend his time angry and impatient when he could, instead, pursue happiness. It's sound advice.

  • I am actually disturbing myself.

Stoics hold ourselves responsible for our emotions. As Epictetus put it, "it is not circumstances themselves that trouble people, but their judgement about those circumstances." It's important to realize that we can't control how others act, but we can choose how we will respond. Aurelius reminds himself that, "it isn't what others do that troubles you. That is on their own consciences. You are bothered by your opinions of what they do. Rid yourself of those opinions and stop assuming the worst - then your troubles will go away. How do you get rid of your opinions? By reminding yourself that you aren't disgraced by what others do."

  • I am choosing to prolong my suffering.

"Our rage and lamentations do us more harm than whatever caused our anger and grief in the first place." Again Aurelius lays bare the ridiculousness of fuming about another person's actions.

  • A good disposition is invincible.

"What can the most insolent man do if you remain relentlessly kind and, given the opportunity, counsel him calmly and gently even while he's trying to harm you?" I sort of love the term "relentlessly kind." If we succeed at keeping a Stoic mindset during every social interaction, then we will genuinely value each and every person we meet. This would have to be unnerving! I'm picturing a salesperson who is speaking nicely but seems to have spite behind their eyes. However, Aurelius isn't counseling a faux friendliness. In fact, he continues, "Let their be nothing ironic or scolding in your tone, but speak with true affection and with no residue of resentment in your heart. Don't lecture him. Don't embarrass him in front of others. But address him privately even if others are present."

We're not going to run out of situations that make these points useful. Emperor Aurelius advised himself to memorize them. You may want to as well. Or, like me, you might choose to carry a reminder with you. I know that when I turn to the nine points of Meditations 11:18, I find it impossible to continue stoking the anger that's in me. I'm reminded of the practical outcomes that are expected from a lived Stoic philosophy. I realize that if I truly believe that all people have value and that we are meant to work together, I can not act against that truth and consider myself reasonable. I suspect that taking a page from Aurelius will work as well for you.

All Aurelius quotes from The Emperor's Handbook, a new translation of the Meditations.

How to Meet the Morning

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself, "I have to go to work - as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I'm going to do what I was born for - the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?
-Marcus Aurelius

I am a fan of warm blankets. Place a cup of coffee nearby and a good book in my hand and I will stay cozy as long as possible. Of course, I can't do that 24/7 without my life unraveling. So, like Marcus, I have to get up and face the day. I shouldn't complain about this, that wouldn't be very stoic after all. But how am I to prepare my mind for the day ahead? Well, thankfully we Stoics have a means of warming up our mental engines. It's a form of early morning reflection called premeditation.

The longer form name is the premeditation of evil but I had just mentioned cozy blankets and didn't want to shock your system. I think premeditation of ills is actually more fitting, but now I'm on a tangent. Premeditation is the act of mentally rehearsing the potential difficulties of the future so that you are better prepared when they actually arrive. We Stoics can take premeditation pretty far. We will mediate on the loss of loved ones, for instance. But let's start our day a bit less intensly with a general reflection that Aurelius used himself.

Begin each day by telling yourself : Today I will be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness--all of them due to the offenders' ignorance of what is good and what is evil.

This premeditation is a way to orient your mind towards the realities of the day. When you step out into the world, you can simply recognize that no one has the exact same agenda as you. I find it helpful to mentally recite the quote a few times, in the stillness after waking. Premeditation is an exercise, effort is required to adjust your thinking. It's way too easy to assume you're going to approach the morning stoically and then get instantly upset at morning traffic (which is never a stoic response).

Now, I don't want anyone to think that the premeditation is asking you to intentionally start your day off on the wrong foot. I can see how Marcus' quote could be viewed as, "there's a bunch of jerks out there, be ready for them," and, yes...it kind of does say that. But first, let me point out that all the things mentioned, ingratitude, disloyalty, selfishness, etc...are considered non-stoic. So you certainly can't justify treating an ungrateful person ungratefully yourself. Second, Stoics are always quick to point out that bad actions come from bad thinking or, as Marcus puts it, "ignorance of what is good and evil." We're expected to soften our stance towards people who act poorly because we'd do the same with the same information and point of view. What I'm saying is, we do not prepare for the day in order to steel ourselves against the world. If your stoicism is walling you off, you're doing it wrong! Instead, we're preparing ourselves to embrace the world as it truly is, so that we can act meaningfully within it.

The general premeditation is a simple but potent morning routine. If you want to switch up the subject matter, you can always use Seneca's version (I'll end with it) or develop your own. Just remember that the point is to prepare yourself to live the day well. Recognize that unfortunate events will occur, then decide that you can accept them and respond artfully. By having a good morning, you can have a good afternoon, until it's time to say good night. Night time is a whole different article though, so I'll leave you with Seneca's premeditation on change. No matter when this finds you, have a great morning!

The wise will start each day with the thought, "Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own." Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destines of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires. How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins? We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals you have given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.