Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Seven: When People Are Obstacles

[Opening Music]

Meditations, Book 12, Chapter 4:

"It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own."

People can be a pain. It's not just me, right? People are rude, they back stab, they put their own projects above yours even when you're meant to be on the same team. I'm not a misanthrope (no Stoic should be) but I definitely laughed at a recent tweet from Existential Comics; "I feel like humanity really went wrong when we first decided to speak to each other. Nothing good has come from it."

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

What do I do when people are the obstacles?

How can I remain my best self when everyone else is being their worst self?

When does a Stoic call it quits?

Alright, let's get started.

[Crow Caws]

What do I do when people are the obstacles?

Sometimes the biggest challenges in life have first names. You might be a pleasant, happy go lucky, turn the other cheek sort of person, but that's no guarantee that someone won't decide you're in their way. How are we supposed to handle these situations. Tit for tat and an eye for an eye? Allow them to roll right over us? Some middle ground between those extremes? Well, we're here to talk about Stoicism, so you can bet that before we wrestle with our adversary we must first get our own perspective in order.

Here's another thought from Emperor Aurelius from Book 7, Chapter 26;

"When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you'll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they're misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?"

Actually, yes Aurelius, it can be really hard. However, it's a noble goal to strive for. But before we do, a caveat. Never allow Stoicism to be a 'blame the victim' philosophy. Callousness, cruelty, and the like are wrong. Truly. Stoicism does not diminish that, nor does it absolve others of whatever injustices they perpetrate. What we're recognizing is that, unfortunately, we can't change what has happened, we can only choose how to respond. The mental realignment that Marcus Aurelius recommends, this attempt to develop sympathy and compassion for others, is meant to fuel our own virtuous actions. Instead of responding in kind, we respond Stoically, with the welfare of all involved in mind.

In the next section, I'll talk more in depth about developing sympathy and compassion. But for now, let's stick with simply accepting the situation we're in. Here's another Aurelius based technique (everything this episode is coming out of the Meditations, the Emperor's life at court obviously meant working with a lot of devious, scheming individuals and he had a lot to say about it);

"In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don't denounce them for it or get upset with them or regard them from then on as violent types. We just keep an eye on them after that. Not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance.

We need to do that in other areas. We need to excuse what our sparring partners do, and just keep our distance - without suspicion or hatred." (6.20)

If you've listened to Episode Two you may remember Aurelius' morning meditation, his reminder to himself that when going about his day, it's inevitable that some people will be obstacles. This wrestling analogy is similar. There are rules in wrestling, you're not supposed to get gouged, headbutted, and the like. But sports are messy. Sometimes things go wrong. Taking part in a sport means accepting that danger. We should approach life the same way. Sometimes we're scratched up by others because we're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our co-worker might be a jerk just because she needs to get her blood sugar up! Who knows? At times it's best to not take it personal. Still, we keep an eye on them and a friendly distance. The benefit of the doubt doesn't mean we have to keep ourselves in a precarious situation.

Now, I've been assuming that we're in the right in all these situations. One more line from the Meditations before we move on. Book 10, Chapter 37; "Learn to ask of all actions, 'Why are the doing that?' Starting with your own."

[Crow Caws]

How can I remain my best self when everyone else is being their worst self?

Now it's time to work on our ability to feel sympathy and compassion for our adversaries. We begin by asking of every action a person does, "Why are they doing that?" The key is to not answer the question with, "because they're a jerk," or "because they are evil!" In Stoic thought all people are always looking to do good (as they understand it), because they want the best for themselves. So we can also ask, "what good did they think would come from this?" If I'm in customer service and a customer I've never met decides to berate me about store policy, why? What does she think the outcome is going to be? Does she believe yelling is the simplest way to get to speak to a manager? Does she think it gives her greater power in the situation? Is her anger just covering the frustration and disappointment of a horrible day? Any of those reasons may be unreasonable to you, but her actions are reasonable considering her personal subjective beliefs about the world. Understanding this can give you at least three benefits. One, as Aurelius said, "When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you'll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger." However, even if you can't raise up any sympathy in yourself, understanding their reasoning can lead to benefit two, a better chance of diffusing the situation. Because if you understand what they really want, if you can step out of yourself and into their mind for a moment, you can possibly provide what they need. Three, you can demystify their social status.

Alright, that's a weird way to say what I'm thinking. In Meditations Book 9, Chapter 27, the first lines say,

"When you face someone's insults, hatred or whatever...look at his soul. Get inside him. Look at what sort of person he is. You'll find you don't need to strain to impress him..."

Emperor Aurelius has notes throughout his journal that remind him of the same thing, that if look at who your adversaries really are you won't bend over backwards to impress them. And he was the Emperor! Who was he trying to impress? Well, I opened with this quote, "It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own." People at all levels of status fall into this need to impress others, to endear ourselves to others. Sometimes we have to shed that burden before we can act well. Yes, the person who's yelling at me right now is a Senator, but I'm not here to endear myself to the powerful, I'm here to do right the best I know how. Of course, while we're not "straining to impress people" we are still treating them with humanity. Chapter 27 continues, "But you do have to wish him well. He is your closest relative. The gods assist him, just as they do you..." So we're not taking them down a peg so that we can fell superior. We're just reminding ourselves that our job is to do our best, not necessarily to make others happy.

I'm going to end this section with an avalanche of quotes:

"The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is it fair? Is it the right thing to do?)" ~4:18


"So other people hurt me? That's their problem. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own." ~5:25


"If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it's appropriate for you. Don't be put off by other people's comments and criticism. If it's right to say or do it, then it's the right thing to do or say.

The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don't be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature--along the road they share." ~5:3


"Someone despises me.

That's their problem.

Mine: Not to say or do anything despicable.

Someone hates me. Their problem.

Mine: To be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way...That's what we should be like inside, and never let the gods catch us feeling anger or resentment.

As long as you do what's proper to your nature, and accept what the world's nature has in store--as long as you work for other's good, by any and all means--what is there that can harm you?" ~11:13

[Crow Caws]

When does a Stoic call it quits?

Here's Meditations Book 6, Chapter 50:

"Do your best to convince them. But act on your own, if justice requires it. If met with force, fall back on acceptance and peacability. Use the setback to practice other virtues. Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances, you weren't aiming to do the impossible.

-Aiming to do what then?

To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished."

There's a lot to unpack here. But to understand Aurelius' position. we need to talk about the Stoic Reserve clause.

I will get this podcast out on time, God willing. You've heard people say god willing before, right? Maybe you say it? To some people it has meaning, to others it may just be a cultural habit, like saying bless you after a person sneezes. For the ancient Stoics, god willing, or more specifically, Zeus willing, was an important philosophical exercise. Oh, and for anyone who who may not want to invoke God/Zeus or the like, here are two other possibilities to express a similar sentiment. "Fate permitting, I will get this podcast out on time. or simply, "I will get this podcast out on time, if nothing prevents me."

OK. We've talked before about what is in our control. The Reserve Clause is a means of applying the control/not in our control dichotomy to our plans in life. Donald Robertson, in his book "The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy" says that,

"The Stoic...makes a point of qualifying the expression of every intention, by introducing a distinction between his will and external factors beyond his control. The Sage thereby holds two complementary propositions in mind simultaneously, viz.,

1. I will do my very best to succeed.

2. While simultaneously accepting that the ultimate outcome is beyond my direct control."

Think of archery; the original Stoics often did. An archer can choose equipment, draw back properly, aim well, and release, but the moment that arrow is off the bow string, the archer has no control. A gust of wind could mean missing the target. A strong wind could mean the target falls over! The archer does their best to maximize the chance that the arrow hits the target, but they can't control the outcome. And similarly, Aurelius asks himself to, "remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances, you weren't aiming to do the impossible. -Aiming to do what then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished." Stoics take the best action we can with the information we have. Sometimes we don't hit the mark, our best case scenario doesn't materialize. No matter, we'll keep doing good in the situation that is at hand. We, "use the setback to practice other virtues."

So when does a Stoic call it quits. In one sense, never. We live our lives aiming to take virtuous actions, and we never run out of opportunities to do this. If we think and act well, we are always succeeding. But when do we end a project in life, decide a particular outcome isn't going to happen, and move on? Well, if the only way to make something happen would require us to be unjust, foolish, cowardly, or greedy, we should abandon that project. Otherwise, feel free to keep going until wisdom tells you it's time to do something new. We're all fortunate to have an infinite quiver of arrows with which we can attempt to hit the mark.

[Crow Caws]

Thank you for listening to Episode 7 of Good Fortune. I hope the topics of each episode have been interesting, useful, and clearly presented. Thank you all for the feedback I've received on Twitter, Facebook, G+, and Reddit. Speaking of topics, if you have ideas of things I could cover, Stoic concepts, life events, whatever, please let me know. Leave a comment, send a tweet, or an owl from Hogwart's. I've thought through episode 10 but after that it's up to the Muses whether or not more ideas come my way without your assistance.

As always, visit for this podcast and my writings. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you do listen through iTunes I always appreciate reviews. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, Always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Crow Caws]