How do we behave when we find ourselves in a situation we didn't seek?
Marcus Aurelius was born in an aristocratic family and learned religious piety and simplicity in diet from his mother, philosophy and literary style from two tutors who became very influential in his thinking.
But he was destined to hold a position in society for which he was not well suited given his sensitive and studious nature — he was to become the ruler of an ancient and corrupt civilization that dominated most of the known world#.
The Meditations were likely his way of coping with the cards his destiny had dealt him:
“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”
Turning desired behaviors into habits helps us respond to situations rather than reacting. We can control our character, even as we cannot control the circumstances. Further, what happens outside our control calls for a commitment to work things out:
“Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you.”
As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say in Metaphors we Live By, “our account of truth is based on understanding.” Our experiences and resulting understanding can be direct and indirect. For example:
There are dimensions of experience in terms of which we function most of the time in our direct interactions with other and with out immediate physical and cultural environment. We categorize the entities we directly encounter and the direct experiences we have in terms of these categories.
But […] many aspects of our experience cannot be clearly delineated in terms of the naturally emergent dimensions of our experience. This is typically the case for human emotions, abstract concepts, mental activity, time, work, human institutions, social practices, etc. and even for physical objects that have no inherent boundaries or orientations.
Though most of these can be experienced directly, none of them can be fully comprehended on their own terms. Instead, we must understand them in terms of other entities and experiences, typically other kinds of entities and experiences.
This is where we look to parts, stages, purposes, and so on. Marcus Aurelius uses the power of metaphor in his description of living:
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in as much as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.”
It's thus useful to:
“If possible, make it a habit to discover the essential character of every impression, its effects on the self, and its response to a logical analysis.”
Marcus Aurelius makes for a worthy conversation companion on the trials and occurrences of everyday life. His Meditations is contains wisdom distilled through experience.