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.

The Stoic Present: So Slender an Object

Don't panic before the picture of your entire life. Don't dwell on all the troubles you've faced or have yet to face, but instead ask yourself as each trouble comes, "What is so unbearable or unmanageable in this?"  Your reply will embarrass you. Then remind yourself that it's not the future or the past that bears down on you, but only the present. Always the present, which becomes an even smaller thing when isolated in this way and when the mind that cannot bear up under so slender an object is chastened.
Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor's Handbook 8:36

The stoic mindset is rooted in the present. The present is, after all, the only place where we can exercise mastery over what is in our control. The past is fixed and untouchable. The future is unknown. As one of my go-to Seneca quotes puts it, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet." How much of our present stress is actually found in the present? Our worries come from an imagined future. Our shame comes from a past we can not change. If we put those intrusive thoughts aside and examine the present moment, what are we left with? I'd wager that 99% of the time, whatever distress remains is manageable. 

I used to live under the burden of the future. For years I doubt an hour went by in which I didn't create some calamity in my head. That toxic habit contributed to an anxiety/depression spiral that nearly killed me. It took additional years of practice to learn to stop damaging myself that way. Even now, I'm a very skilled doom predictor. Thankfully, I'm able to recognize and dismiss these fantasies as what the are, a piss poor use of the human mind.

Marcus Aurelius had similar issues. In Book 7, the emperor admonishes himself in quick succession with three statements:

  • Wipe out the imagination.
  • Stop pulling the strings.
  • Confine yourself to the present.

It seems Aurelius was more than capable of imagining his own bad endings. He probably had a lot of help from historical examples, being the Roman emperor and all. Aurelius kept reminding himself that panicking before the tyranny of the future was foolish, because nothing he foresaw was real. He needed to stop what-if-ing and pay attention to the present, where he could actually affect change.

Thoughts of the future are a subtle trap. It doesn't do us any good to pretend tomorrow isn't coming, after all*. But we don't just think, "I need to do x and y before tomorrow, and not forget to bring z." Instead, we create stories and invest emotionally in them. We live out fights at work that never come to pass. Our pulse races at imagined rejections. And worse yet, by pouring energy into these fantasies, our mind often writes that effort off as work actually done. We check the box on a confrontation with our spouse that never happened, only to rage all the more when the thing we never addressed happens again!

Live in the slender present. Drop the heavy stress of your imagination and do the lighter work that's here for you in the real world.  It's freeing because, in the present, we find that we're capable people. And by doing the work of the present, we prepare ourselves for the actual future that will arrive. That's the best we get; the chance to fully participate in our own lives.


*Yes, we Stoics often take time to recognize that we could die at any instant, but it's still our duty to fulfill our tasks until the real end comes.

Review: The Inner Citadel

Few modern stoic texts have influenced my understanding of the philosophy more than Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel. I've heard the book referred to as a study of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. It is that, in part. However, Hadot's deep knowledge of ancient thought makes it much more than an explanatory text. He expounds on Aurelius' words. He shows the influence of earlier teachers, and illuminates what seems to be uniquely Aurelius. More important to the stoic practitioner, Hadot takes a bare philosophical framework and fleshes it out. The Inner Citadel presents a livable philosophy. Hadot brings out ideas that can be locked within the original stoic texts for years if a student is left to personal reflection.

This is not to say that Hadot is a sage, or that all his thoughts are unimpeachable. Not at all. However, his work serves to elevate the discourse surrounding Stoicism. I find myself continuously returning to his chapters on the Three Disciplines, which alone make the book indispensable.

So yes, I like The Inner Citadel. I do not suggest handing it out as a gift for people new to the philosophy. It's not that sort of book, unless your pal is really into wisdom literature in which case, go for it. The Inner Citadel is for those of us who already practice stoicism in our daily lives. For us, it can expand our knowledge of the philosophy and assist in shaping our inner discourse.