Dealing With Jerks: Bibliotherapy

Mar 13, 2013 by

Marcus Aurelius, the reluctant Roman Emperor. A.D. 121-180

Marcus Aurelius, the reluctant Roman Emperor. A.D. 121-180

I am standing alone  in a room at the Getty with Marcus Aurelius, or rather a larger than life statue of Marcus Aurelius. He is lightly armored. The braid at his shoulder betrays a slight move of his body but his face is utterly serene. I slowly walk around the sculpture, taking in the face first and then the innumerable details of his armor, the Gorgon’s head and Imperial eagles that decorate the pteruges or leather strips around his waist. I view him in the round and so lifelike is he, so commanding on his pedestal, I have the eeriest sensation of no longer being alone in the room.

The voice of the Meditations comes to me: snippets of the burdened commander reproaching himself for this or that; the Emperor in his piety remembering to be grateful for some advice given to him by his grandfather. The anatomical perfection of his feet and the great detail of his sandals are enough to suppose he could blithely walk off – In short I am having a moment.

And then I am not alone. I hear the hurried bustle of feet beside me as two fifteen year old girls glide into the room, the pop of gum between their lips. Their eyes dart quickly around the room, but the Emperor is the obvious attraction. They cursorily look him up and down. The shorter girl leans forward to examine the curator’s card on the pedestal. “Mar-cus Aur-eelius,” she reads aloud, still bent over she looks awkwardly up at the face. “I know him,” she exclaims with a sudden epiphany. “He was in Gladiator!”

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial." - Marcus Aurelius

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.” – Marcus Aurelius

Air traffic controllers and teachers I once read in an occupational handbook are both in the top ten stressful jobs. I taught for several years and on the face of it, to equate the stress level of the two positions seemed absurd. But the two positions require more human interactions and more decisions (granted on different scales) per minute than any other jobs. As a high school teacher I would work with approximately 120 different students per day, all of whom had different needs, wanted different levels of attention and most of whom had a different excuse to go to the bathroom. And whereas most people/ students/ parents/ colleagues, one encounters are lovely there are always those who are so patently unreasonable that it requires every ounce of professional poise not to look at them cock eyed and reply “say what?” to their latest absurdist assertion/demand/complaint.

But I would swallow what ever undignified response would come to mind and afterwards sit there in high dudgeon. It was Marcus, the Divine Marcus who would see me through such moments. Rifling through the shelf near my desk I would pull out the meditations – like a soothing antacid:

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that I participate in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsmen, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

My vexation dissipated upon reading this. My equilibrium returned.  Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in Rome and consequently the master of the known world. He could have any man fed to the lions or drearily crucified that he chose. But even Marcus had to deal with the ungrateful, the arrogant, the busy body, in short the jerks of the world – and instead of having them disemboweled, as he might, he restrained himself. This is at the heart of his Stoicism. The circumstances of the world can not be changed. We can only control and diffuse our emotional response to those circumstances.  He looked at his own imperfections and considered how the divine plan of the world does indeed seem to take all types!

Marcus works as a tonic.

Marcus works as a tonic.

Often students would come to me with their own vexations: The gossips intruding in their lives; outraged feelings over an over zealous dean measuring the length of their skirts etc. After they would pour out their woes I would hand them the Meditations and they would read the passage and their poise would once again be restored. In many ways the world can not be fixed. Most of the silliness and stupidity that goes on around us can not be controlled. But Stoicism urges us to find happiness in self sufficiency, in controlling those things that are within our power: Our own emotions and our own reactions to those around us. Marcus works as a tonic – even against gum smacking, reverie wrecking museum goers.

Disclaimer: The legal department of wishes the author to disclose that he is not in anyway a certified mental health practitioner. He is simply highly opinionated.

Works Cited

Marcus, Aurelius Antoninus. Meditations: Marcus Aurelius. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1964. Print.


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