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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 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.

Do the right thing. The second clause in his admonition, to “do the right thing”, is much more difficult to achieve. Even if you stifle your initial reaction and don’t get upset, you can still bear ill will towards the offending party. Later, when it is within our power to choose the response 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 more 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, dear readers, 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 Missouri wisdom 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 creates a hasty and unjustified over-reaction from me. (Of course, I have learned that the best way to drive her crazy is for me to cheerfully ignore her provocations.)

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.

As always, blog readers are invited to send your thoughts for everyone to see by filling in the comments fields below. English only, please, because of international readers.lL

One Reply to “Wise Words from a Roman Emperor”

  1. Hi, Randy, thanks for your words. One suggestion: how about presenting a story for the main part when you are telling: don’t be upset, do the right thing. The story can be from you or others, which I figure would give more support to the saying, just as we were writing an argumentation.
    (From Randy)
    An excellent suggestion, Paul, thank you. Perhaps I will start to embroider my essays with short stories to illustrate the concepts. Every accomplished speaker knows that the best way to communicate and engage is with a story. Maybe this will move me in the direction of writing fiction in addition to my reinvention-themed non-fiction articles. Instead of seeking a Pulitzer, I will begin to aspire to the Nobel Prize for literature.

    At least, I can begin including more short stories to make it easier for readers to grasp my points. It would be a good beginning on the road to Stockholm to accept the Nobel.

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