by Rev. Margaret Marcuson for The Christian Citizen

My book group just read Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” Marcus was the Roman emperor from 161-180. Reading Marcus has helped me keep my wits about me through these days of pandemic, political turmoil, and burning fires across the West where I live. 

Marcus was a follower of a school of thought known as Stoicism. We now use the word “stoic” to mean not affected by feeling. Yet Stoicism with a capital S doesn’t mean not having feelings. It’s a complex philosophy. Stoics like Marcus sought to implement the practice of focusing on ourselves and our own responses rather than being frustrated with external circumstances and people we have no control over. (Learn more about Stoicism here).

Marcus’ “Meditations” is a book of reflections he wrote for himself as he sought to face the challenges of ruling the Roman empire. He lived through the time of two plagues and faced down the possibility of civil war, not to mention navigating the difficulties of court politics. Marcus sought to look at himself and his behavior and what were the best decisions he could make as a leader. He did his best to focus on his own response rather than blaming others. 

Here are six ways I’m trying to use Marcus’ ideas as I navigate these times.

1. Focus on myself and what I can control in this moment. It’s much less stressful—and more effective—than spinning around in my mind about what others are doing, have done or might do. Or about what I’ve done in the past which is over and done with. Marcus says, “Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people….It will keep you from doing anything useful.” (Meditations 3. 4, tr. Gregory Hays, 2002, p. 28). A Lutheran pastor in one of my coaching groups, Rev. Bob Lewis, says, “I’m letting go of being upset about people in the community who refuse to wear masks or social distance. I just focus on my decisions and what I can do to keep myself and others safe from COVID-19.”  

2. Notice my thoughts. I want to pay attention to what I’m thinking, and recognize that just because I have the thought doesn’t mean it is true or helpful. As Marcus said, “Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: 

  • To accept this event with humility
  • To treat this person as he should be treated
  • To approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.” (Meditations 7.54, p. 93)

Meditative prayer is a wonderful way to practice this, and to place it in a Christian context. Each day I sit down for at least a few minutes and just breathe, and in God’s presence notice what I am thinking and feeling and let it go into God’s care. Then through the day I try to prayerfully notice my own responses to events, people, and even the news.

3. Let go of my expectations that others will behave a certain way. In a high-anxiety time like this I can expect that people will sometimes not live up to their own standards, let alone mine.  Marcus says: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly….None of them can hurt me.…Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together…” (Meditations 2.1, p. 17.)

While most of the people I connect with day to day are not “arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly,” these words help me accept the ups and downs of human behavior. They help me relate with more love and acceptance toward the people I’m closest to, church people, and the people I read about in the news. The less I need people to behave a certain way, the freer I will be—and the more energy I will have to do my own work.

4. Be clear about what I need to do, and do it, without spending a lot of energy spinning my wheels. “‘If you seek tranquility, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential….do less, better.” (Meditations, 4.24, p. 42.) Rather than panicking about what might be ahead of us, I want to simply look at what is in front of me and do it. Some days I do better than others, but I know it’s an ongoing practice.

5. Don’t complain. “Don’t be overheard complaining about life at court. Not even to yourself.” (Meditations, 8.9 p. 103). No matter how many challenges I may face on any given day, I have plenty to eat and a place to sleep. I have access to more people, ideas, and information than even a Roman emperor, the most powerful person in his world, could have dreamed of.

6. Take the long view. Marcus often looks back at previous emperors and notes they are now long gone. “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.” (Meditations, 6.24, p. 74) He reminds himself, “The span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in which we live it.” (3.10, p. 32). (Ironically, people are still reading his Meditations 1800 years later). Sometimes when I get anxious about something, my husband (a natural Stoic) will say, “Will this matter in 10 years?” Mostly, the answer is no. As Christian leaders, we can also trust that God has that long view even in the extreme challenges we face today. God loves and cares for us today, tomorrow, and forever.

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.