A little less than two thousand years ago, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius had something drop into his lap.
He was trying to do something and life interrupted, as we all know it does. What the interruption was exactly, we’re not sure. It may have been an assassination attempt. A rival going for the throne. A wife who was unfaithful. A disagreeable senate. A brother who continually let him down. It could have just been the weather.
The specifics are lost to us. But the note he scribbled to himself survives:
–But there are external obstacles…
Not to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense.
–Well, but perhaps to some more concrete action.
–But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself–another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.
This thing in front of you. The one that caught you by surprise.
It could be any type of thing: a problem at the bank, a flight delay when you can’t afford one, that vicious verbal lashing from a boss, the blogger with damaging gossip and speculation, having your college acceptance rescinded, a freak accident, a betrayal.
In my case, I’m writing this article right now in a 4×4’ storm shelter, waiting for a tornado to pass. I’m nervously biting my nails as the flood waters creep up towards the house. Actually, that’s an understatement: I’m freaking out. My wife and I are arguing about it. What should we do? Where can we move the goats? Shouldn’t we have done something about this earlier? I told you this would happen.
Life just drops stuff in our laps, doesn’t it?
It drops the exact fucking thing we don’t need right now. Often all at once.
What great philosophy reminds us of is that this is both a reminder of our cosmic impotence in this world as well as a reminder of the great power within each one of us.
We don’t control what happens to us, but we do control our response.
After the immediacy of the moment, after there has been time to take a breath, we retain the ability to stop ask: Ok, this happened. What do I want it to say about me? How is this going to impact the course of my life?
The thing in front of you right now, the thing that you’re convinced is an obstacle:
The dwindling bank account
The exhausting schedule
The employee who has blown every second chance
The resounding yawn from the universe
Any one of these can make you worse—as obstacles so often do. Or it can be a chance to be better. It can be a chance to do something we might not want to do, but would be proud of if we did.
What will that be? Only you can say.
It’s the infinitely elastic formula of Stoic philosophy: Everything is a chance to practice virtue—especially the situations we’d have rather not have faced at all.
Anything can have meaning, Viktor Frankl once said, if it changes you for the better.
There’s no question that we’re going to be stopped from what we’d like to do, or even desperately need to do from time to time. Money will be lost. Plans will be frustrated. Long held dreams will be broken. People (including us) will be hurt.
And yet, as bad as these situations are and will be, I think you’ll have to admit, they don’t prevent everything. You can still practice honesty, forgiveness, friendship, patience, humility, good spirit, resilience, creativity, and on and on.
That’s what Marcus was saying. The specifics of the situation dictate the possibilities. But there are always possibilities. Quite a lot of them in fact.
Maybe it’s letting something go. Maybe it’s being the rock for someone else. Maybe it’s doing that thing you shouldn’t have to do. Maybe it’s just cheerfully pushing through.
Nothing prevents that. Not while you’re alive anyway.
So that thing in your lap, in the road, whatever. It becomes the new way.
But only if we choose.
Day by day. Action by action.