Wise Words from a Roman Emperor

Reinventing Your Life

(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text. Thanks to advances in AI translation services, we can bring you my drivel in Mandarin Chinese, courtesy of DeepL.com. Yes, I realize that the translation is imperfect but please be patient; this is a new technology and will improve rapidly.)

(For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam.)

(June 2020 from the 18th-floor homestead.)

As we continue the upward spiral towards a New Normal, I am more grateful and appreciative than before. (Before = pre-pandemic.) Division of labor, smoothly functioning infrastructure, a rapid-response supply chain, family and work colleagues able to make their respective contributions, and a reasonable expectation of personal safety and healthcare services are all things the past few frightful months have made me aware are subject to interruption or even elimination without advance notice. With that recent glimpse into some pretty terrible possibilities, I am much more content – happy, even– with my current situation and relationships.

Don’t let your guard down too soon, however. The Covid-19 virus – and a Mr. Charles Darwin – are still waiting for the unwary, the unrealistic, and the foolish.

This article, originally published in October of 2019, is part of a series of reflections about what is truly important and valuable to us. The pandemic has made me conscious that some truths from ancient times are still relevant in today’s world.

Photo by Yoal Desurmont on Unsplash

To truly reinvent your life, the first step is to review and, as appropriate, to change your thinking. Sometimes, this means changing your previous opinions. But, sometimes, it requires going even deeper; you must change your habitual way of thinking. (Yes, we can make even our way of thinking and our worldview into habits – which, since they are now habits, require no further thought or examination.) Let’s step back in time to see what we can learn from a ruler of Ancient Rome.

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 CE. At that time, he was unquestionably the most powerful man in the Empire and, perhaps, in the whole world. We remember him today as a symbol of the golden age of the Roman Empire, a man with unchallenged political and military power, classical education, and immense personal wealth and influence. In addition to all the other roles he played, he was also a stoic philosopher. Fortunately for us, he kept a private diary of his observations and thoughts which we can read in his book, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. So, what can we learn from Marcus Aurelius today? Let’s explore one fundamental concept that Marcus wrote about in his private journal.

Don’t get upset; do the right thing.

Wouldn’t it be nice to avoid conflict and complications in our dealings with others? Wouldn’t it be great if we never looked back at our decisions with regret? Marcus Aurelius wrote a note to himself with one sentence that will allow us to gain a great deal of self-control if we can master it. His seven words of wisdom: Don’t get upset; do the right thing. Sounds pretty simple, right?

At this point, allow me to insert a bit of Missouri doggerel as a corollary to this deep statement by the Roman philosopher-king. In Missouri, we would say, “You hardly ever get in trouble for the things you DO NOT say.” I offer this statement because, although no one can dispute it, we usually ignore it while in heated exchanges with others. Indeed, take a moment to think of your current problems. How many were created or exacerbated by your impulsive, regrettable words which could not be recalled? Remembering and obeying the old adage about “Count to ten before you speak” would have spared each of us a great deal of time and trouble. Don’t ask how I know.

Don’t get upset. You should remember these words were written by a man with the power of life and death over all the people around him. If you upset the Emperor, it might literally cost you your life. There was no one and no law to stop him from ordering his guards to take you out and kill you immediately. But he was reminding himself to not get upset – to control his first impulses, to control his emotions.

Don’t get upset. This is difficult enough to do under the best of circumstances. During the course of a normal day, we experience a number of provocations that test our patience. They are mostly little things… like the erratic drivers with uncertain parentage of the cars on the street in front of us, the foolish mistakes committed by people we are depending upon, someone nonchalantly breaking a promise, or an irritating personal habit of some person we must interact with. Perhaps it is because a person is demanding something unreasonable from us. Maybe someone doesn’t show gratitude for what we have done. Maybe they fail to show us respect or courtesy. Maybe, for unknown reasons, they are acting rude, childish, and selfish.

But Marcus tells us to not get upset. Even the Roman Emperor had to deal with unwelcome people and unpleasant events. Even the most wealthy and powerful man in the world could be frustrated by someone’s thoughtless behavior. So, in his diary, he reminded himself, “Don’t get upset.”

It’s not easy to control yourself when someone’s behavior or statements are offensive. But, Marcus says we should not get upset – and he is right. By not responding to the provocation, we avoid inflaming the situation and possibly creating a more serious problem. The minimum damage would be disturbing our emotions, disrupting our own plans, and wasting our time on some little issue. Sometimes, the best thing we can do to avoid escalating a conflict is to simply say nothing. Our ego doesn’t like this response but, in retrospect, it is often the wisest choice. Again, don’t ask how I know.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Do the right thing. If you thought “Don’t get upset” was tough, you’re gonna love Part Two. The second clause in his admonition, to “do the right thing”, is a quantum leap more difficult to achieve. Even if we stifle our initial reaction and control our behavior so we don’t act upset, it is still possible to feel anger towards the offending party. Later, when we respond to a situation involving that same person, our first impulse is to get some form of revenge. At the minimum, you can refuse to cooperate with the person who offended you. Maybe this will take the form of not aiding them when they need help you can provide.

But Marcus says that not getting upset is only half the ideal response. In addition, he requires you to “do the right thing”. He means to be wise in your actions. He urges you to make the decision you believe is proper and fair, even if it means agreeing with the person who offended you.  

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful improvement in the quality of your life if you no longer had to deal with all the little upsets – and with our heated responses to those little upsets? Wouldn’t we live more peacefully and with better relationships? Wouldn’t we be spending more time on the truly valuable things in our life if we weren’t wasting time and energy dealing with tiny, unimportant incidents? Wouldn’t we be happier?

So, why aren’t we? I urge each of you to resolve to follow the advice of a man who was not only the most powerful man in the world in his day but whose words we are still reading two thousand years later: Don’t get upset; do the right thing. (As a first step, how about adopting the cachet of, “Count to ten before you speak”?)

Me? I still struggle daily with implementing these ideas in my life. And, ironically, it is the people closest to us – our immediate family, close friends, and coworkers – who most often upset us. My wife, in particular, knows all my “hot buttons” to push which often provokes a hasty and unjustified over-reaction from me. (Fortunately, I have learned that the best way to drive her crazy is for me to cheerfully ignore her baiting.)

Don’t get upset; do the right thing. These two simple suggestions from Marcus Aurelius are still very valid principles to follow today. Now can you see why we still read his words nearly 2,000 years after his death?

I wonder if the wife of Marcus Aurelius kept a journal.

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash


当我们继续向 “新常态 “攀升的时候,我比以前更加感恩和感激。(以前=大流行前。)分工协作、运转顺畅的基础设施、快速反应的供应链、能够各司其职的家人和同事,以及对人身安全和医疗服务的合理预期,这些都是过去几个可怕的月份让我意识到的,在没有提前通知的情况下,这些东西都会被中断甚至消除。有了最近对一些相当可怕的可能性的一瞥,我对自己目前的处境和人际关系更加满意–甚至是开心。








这时,请允许我插入一点密苏里的狗屁话,作为罗马哲学家王的这句深奥话语的必然结果。在密苏里州,我们会说:”你几乎不会因为你不说的事情而惹上麻烦。” 我之所以提出这句话,是因为,虽然没有人可以质疑这句话,但我们在与他人激烈交锋时通常会忽略这句话。的确,花点时间想想你目前的问题。有多少是由你冲动的、后悔的、不能回忆的话语造成或加剧的?如果记住并遵守 “数到十再说话 “的古训,我们每个人都会免去大量的时间和麻烦。不要问我是怎么知道的。





做正确的事情。如果你觉得 “不要生气 “很难,那你一定会喜欢第二部分。他告诫中的第二条,”做正确的事”,是一个更难实现的量子飞跃。即使我们扼制自己最初的反应,控制自己的行为,使自己不表现出不高兴的样子,仍然有可能对冒犯的一方感到愤怒。后来,当我们对涉及同一个人的情况做出反应时,我们的第一冲动就是要进行某种形式的报复。最起码,你可以拒绝与冒犯你的人合作。也许这将采取的形式是,当他们需要你能提供的帮助时,不帮助他们。

但马库斯说,不生气只是理想对策的一半。此外,他还要求你 “做正确的事”。他的意思是,在你的行动中要有智慧。他敦促你做出你认为正确和公平的决定,即使这意味着同意冒犯你的人。


那么,我们为什么不呢?我敦促你们每个人下定决心遵循一个人的建议,他不仅是当时世界上最有权势的人,而且两千年后我们还在读他的话。不要生气,做正确的事情。(作为第一步,不如采用 “数到十再说话 “的腔调)。

我呢,每天还在为在生活中落实这些理念而苦恼。而且,具有讽刺意味的是,最经常让我们心烦意乱的是我们最亲近的人–我们的直系亲属、亲密的朋友和同事。尤其是我的妻子,她知道我所有的 “热点”,经常会引起我仓促而无理的过度反应。幸运的是,我已经学会了让她发疯的最好方法就是我愉快地忽略她的诱导)。




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